A High School Student Guide to Preparing for College

High school is a lot of fun, a time to build friendships and find out more about yourself, but it’s also a really important time for planning for your next big adventure, college. Failure to plan for college means you may miss an opportunity to get into a great program at a great school.  So plan to start thinking about college as soon as you get into high school.

Here’s a quick timeline of things to work on throughout high school as you plan for college, including a few useful links:

Freshman year:

  • Guidance counselor: Get to know your counselor well – they can be very helpful throughout your high school years in guiding you toward your goals for college.
  • Academic plan: Set up your 4-year plan for college prep courses.
  • Extracurricular activities: Get involved now in extracurricular activities (clubs on campus, non-profit volunteering, community work with your church) so you can build on them through high school.
  • College choice: Start this year by thinking about careers you might like to try and do some research on them online.
  • Financial planning: Discuss paying for college with your parents – is there a college savings account? Is it going to be enough or do you need to look at additional sources? Set up a savings plan if you don’t have one and start tossing around other ideas.

Sophomore year:

  • Academics: It’s important to develop good study habits by this point, take your college prep classes, keep your grades up, and develop a regular reading habit to improve your vocabulary and writing skills.
  • Extracurricular activities: Stay active in school and community groups to build a record of service and leadership for your college applications. Make connections with adults in your programs who may be able to provide references for you as you apply to colleges.
  • Academics: Take challenging courses, keep the grades up, and continue independent reading to prepare yourself for college level reading and writing.
  • College choice: Now you can start to narrow the career search and consider which colleges are best for your areas of interest. Keep an open mind at this point, you may surprise yourself with where your dreams are leading you!
  • Financial planning: Be sure you and your parents have a savings plan, and begin to research scholarship opportunities.
  • Scholarships: Conduct online research on free scholarship websites. Discuss scholarship possibilities with your guidance counselor and your service club leaders.
  • Test prep: Now’s a good time to begin a study program for standardized admissions tests.
  • Admissions Tests: Take PSAT in your Sophomore year. There are many advantages to taking the PSAT, including scholarship opportunities.

Junior year:

  • Guidance counselor: This is the year to review your course curriculum to be sure you are on the right track for the schools you are considering. Your counselor can also help you with college selection.
  • Extracurricular activities:  These become even more important as you get closer to graduation and young adulthood.  Expand your involvement to activities in your career field if possible.
  • Academics: Consider AP classes if you can handle them. They will help you with college admissions and you may earn college credit for them. Keep your grades up and keep reading!
  • College: Make your short list of colleges and find out about the qualifications needed for acceptance and the applications process, paying attention to all the deadlines. Plan to visit the campus of your college choices in the summer if you can.
  • Financial planning: This is a great year to get a part time job for additional savings opportunities. Map out the yearly costs of the schools you are looking at and make sure you and your parents have a plan. Have your final list of potential scholarships lined up. Follow the same process for scholarships as you did for colleges – understand the qualification requirements and application process and pay careful attention to deadlines.
  • Test prep: Begin a formal test prep program that includes diagnostic testing for both SAT and ACT. With the diagnostic test results in hand, and an understanding of the differences between the two exams, you may decide to focus on one exam where you are stronger or more comfortable with the format.
  • Admissions tests: Take one or both of the SAT and ACT exams in your junior year.  Taking the exams multiple times allows you to submit your highest score.
  • College applications: If you know exactly what school you want to go to, Early Decision may be right for you. You should start working on that application over the summer after your Junior year. But you must be sure of your school choice, since you can only apply to one college and, if accepted, you must attend. Otherwise, at this time, organize and begin work on the standard applications for your list of school choices.

Senior year:

  • Guidance counselor: Now your counselor really pays off – use him or her for help with college and scholarship applications, references, transcripts and general advice.
  • Academics: Despite your case of senioritis, now is not the time to let your grades slip.  Colleges have been known to revoke acceptance for poor academic performance. Maintain the good study and reading habits and give yourself a head start by being in great study shape when you start college.
  • Test prep: Stay on a solid study program and continue to tackle your weak areas. ACT or SAT Prep tutoring programs can help you thoroughly prepare and optimize your score.
  • SAT or ACT: Be sure to register for one or both exams as required by the schools you are applying to attend. Be sure you are aware of  the SAT and ACT test dates and registration deadlines.
  • Colleges: Start early on applications so you have time to do them well. Check everything over carefully before submitting. Good luck!
  • Scholarships: Complete and submit all your selected applications. Do many and do them well. It’s a lot of work, but hopefully your careful research and preparation will now pay off.
  • Financial planning: As your scholarship results come in, and you know what school you’re going to, now’s the time to pull the plan together. Consider ways to make up any shortfalls, such as part time work on campus or Federal student loans as your last resort.

College is a great adventure, but it starts earlier than you think.  As a high school student, you are getting ready to make your own choices in life, with how you approach the process of getting to college being one of your first real challenges. Make it a successful one and you’ll be on your way to the college and a future that are just right for you.