Spring break may conjure images of beaches and pools, but for high school juniors and seniors, the week away from school could be better spent.
Admissions experts from local high schools and universities weighed in on how college-bound students can make the most of their breaks.
Typically, high school spring breaks don't align with university spring breaks, so it's the perfect time for juniors and seniors to tour campuses, says Heath Einstein, director of freshman admission at TCU.
"Summer is fine, but you're not seeing the campus when it's alive with students," he says. "The dynamic of the campus changes considerably when there are no students around."
Einstein says there is a lot to be discovered when touring a college or university.
"It's hard to know what you're looking for without stepping foot on college campuses of several different types," he says. "What you think you know about yourself and what you think you'd like from a college experience is sometimes inaccurate, and the best way to get a feel for it is to visit."
Audra Yarborough, assistant director for freshman recruitment at the University of North Texas, says there are many things to look out for when visiting a school, whether as a junior or a senior.
"A campus tour is a good indication of if the school is going to be right for you," she says. "Are students nice to you? Do you see people you could be friends with, people you can date? You're going to be here for four years. You need to make sure those things are appealing to you."
Einstein says to be sure to register through the school and attend an official campus visit, as this could help with your application.
"Increasingly, colleges are taking into account a student's demonstrated interest in the school," he says, explaining that students in the "gray area" of admissions may be looked at in a new light if they have shown a great interest in or passion for the college.
He also suggests that seniors who have already received admission letters sign up for programs specifically for admitted students.
"It's a way for them to dig a little deeper, sit in on mock lectures, see multiple residence halls they may be considering," he says. "The idea is that when you're a prospective student, you look at a college through one lens, and once you're admitted, your lens gains a little more clarity."
Apply for scholarships
Anita Perry, academic advisement director for the Fort Worth school district, says the district strongly encourages students to fill out the FAFSA over spring break, and to look for other financial aid opportunities.
"It's what's key for seniors right now," she says.
And while it's deadline season for seniors, juniors should be exploring opportunities that may be open for them, both now and in the coming year.
Monica Dabney, a counselor at Mansfield High School, says it's good for juniors to look at criteria now, so they can ensure they're eligible for lots of scholarships next year.
"If they want you to have a certain amount of service, you can get that done. If they want you to write about an event in your life to illustrate how you want to work with children, you can already have started thinking about that," she says. Look at individual college websites, as well as your district's website and Fastweb.com.
While seniors typically have completed their applications by now, spring break is a great time for juniors to start rounding out theirs. Dabney suggests looking for opportunities to give back to the community, whether it's volunteering at an animal shelter, going on a mission trip or working with children.
"When a school is trying to make decisions between students, they'll look to the student who is more well-rounded," she says. "They're looking for a student involved in leadership opportunities, someone who has spent time volunteering."
High-schoolers may not have determined their career paths or college majors, but it's good to start exploring interests. Dabney suggests that students look into career shadowing or internships over spring break.
"Do work in what you're interested in majoring in," she says. "It can help you make your decision, or it could change your mind."
Dabney says the experience can also help round out applications. She referenced a former Mansfield student who, in looking for ways to demonstrate his interest in anthropology, volunteered for a research project at a local college. The professor overseeing the project wrote the student a recommendation letter for his college applications, making him more competitive at the universities he was interested in attending.
Einstein says that from an admissions standpoint, it's great to see students looking into potential careers and exploring their interests.
"We want to see students who pursue passions with vigor," he says.
Study for standardized tests
The SAT and ACT can cause great anxiety, but students can ease fears by being prepared. Sign up for a prep class over the break, or dedicate time to studying.
For juniors, applying for college may seem like a faraway task, but it's just around the corner. Dabney says students can get a head start on applications by exploring what's required. Perusing college websites to learn what they ask of applicants, as well as admission requirements, will give students a better idea of what they need to be doing in the coming year. Perry says students can start looking at coursework for their senior year and making decisions about AP classes and other opportunities to earn college credit.
Einstein says students can look at college websites to see if next year's essay prompts are available. It's great for students to start getting ideas for topics and researching themes they may want to explore in the essays, as application season in the fall is packed with senior activities -- football games, homecoming, midterms and regular coursework.
"It's really wise for a student prior to senior year to start working on essays," he says. "It can alleviate anxiety."
Orientation and housing
For seniors who have already made their decisions, spring break can be used to fill out housing applications and sign up for orientations, Yarborough says. She suggests signing up for any freshman camps available, as well as an early orientation.
"At a lot of schools, you sign up for classes at orientation," she says. "Sign up for the earliest one you can go to so you have first pick." The same goes for housing -- often, students who enroll earlier are given priority.