Your post is great Kittehpawz!! I wish you could have written it before application... great info to have.
Unfortunately, I overdosed on difficult classes my senior year, and only made 1 portfolio piece during the school-year. I think it's really important that one try to start at least a year ahead, and if there's any feeling of laziness, get in some sort of studio class if possible.
I was lucky to have a lot of backup pieces from years before... but I wish I hadn't had to use such old work, it was risky! I think I am kind of the example of what you shouldn't do when applying. I didn't write my CommonApp essay about art (I accidentally submitted the same essay to all unis)... and I didn't have any gesture drawings either
Again, kudos Kittehpawz for writing all that and for leaving your portfolio samples.. you've made amazing progress!!