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How To Prepare For College Every Year Of High School

Effective college preparation requires that students and parents complete a number of tasks during each of the four years of high school.

Use these yearly checklists to make sure that you are on track:

Freshman Year

  • Talk about college on a regular basis. Making the idea of going to college an everyday thing helps students to solidify their intent to go.

  • Learn about college finance. Kids and parents should be clear on how college will be financed long before the tuition bill arrives. Savings, loans, scholarships, and summer job wages can all be part of the equation.

  • Begin to assess student interests and learn how to match them up to potential majors and careers. Connecting the present to the future doesn’t come naturally to most teenagers. Starting early will give more meaning to the college application process.

  • Make an academic plan. Students need to be aware of what courses they are required to take, not just to graduate high school, but to be accepted to college.

  • Visit a local college or two. Nothing makes the idea of college clearer than boots on the ground. Students need to see and feel the world they’re targeting.

  • Keep an activities log. If a record has been kept, scurrying around senior year to reconstruct four years of extra-curricular activities can be avoided.

  • Commit to academic success. If a student begins to falter, he should not hesitate to seek help. Parents need to support this without judgment.

Sophomore Year

  • Identify your team. Who in your world can you rely on for advice: parents, teachers, counselors, friends already in college, siblings in college, coaches, club advisors…. Use the people around you to float ideas about college and your future.

  • Plan an enriching summer. Internships, volunteer work, jobs, college classes – use the summer to build your resume and to go deeper into areas you’re interested in.

  • Make community service a part of your life. The earlier you start, the more significant your contribution will be. Doing a quick volunteer stint early in your senior year will not show the level of commitment schools are looking for.

  • Review the progress of your academic plan. Are you challenging yourself, taking the most rigorous courses available? Do your classes support your potential college major? If needed, find a tutor or use teachers’ after school hours to get help.

  • Visit more colleges.

  • Begin to identify specific colleges of interest. Keep a list, with notes on why these schools could be right for you. Delve into college websites to learn all you can about each school.

  • Keep activity and accomplishment logs up to date.

Junior Year

  • Prepare for and take standardized tests.

  • Build a college list. Research colleges in depth, including course catalogs.

  • Review your academic plan. If anything is missing, now is the time to rectify. Consider online and summer courses to fill in any gaps.

  • Plan your summer. Consider summer enrichment programs that allow you to experience the college setting and do college level work. Work, internships, college classes, and travel can add to your attractiveness as a candidate.

  • More summer activity: Write your first draft of your personal statement.

  • Even more summer activity: Do a reality check regarding testing. If you were not happy with your scores, prep for fall testing. Consider taking SAT subject tests soon after you complete the relevant courses.

  • Attend college fairs, meet with reps who visit your school, send an email to the admissions department. Now is the time to put yourself on a college’s map.

  • Review financial status. For those who may not qualify for need-based aid, now is the time to begin searching for merit and special interest scholarships.

Senior Year

  • Course Check. Are you on track to complete the University of California and California State University A-G requirements? How about the minimum requirements for other colleges you’re interested in?

  • Essays. If you haven’t started already, get going on your essays. A good essay takes time to evolve and, depending upon the number of schools you apply to, chances are you will have several to write.

  • Testing. You’ve probably already taken the SAT and/or ACT, but if you plan to take another shot at those tests, you’ll need to register soon. In most cases, standardized tests need to be taken by the end of December in order to qualify for Fall 2015 admission.

  • Recommendations. Many colleges require letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors. You’ll want to give your recommenders as much time as possible for this task, considering the long line of people who will be hitting them up for the same thing over the next few months.

  • College List. You should be finalizing your college list. Do deep research to find your best-fit schools and create a balanced list of safety, target, and reach schools. Every school that makes your final list should be one that you would be happy to attend.

  • Applications. Once you make your list, you will need to complete and submit applications. Deadlines vary from school to school. Remember that the UC and CSU applications are due on the early end—by November 30. Among schools that accept Early Action or Early Decision admissions, you will probably need to submit your applications around November 1.

  • Grades. This is not the time to slack off. Stay on top of your classwork and keep up your grades. Colleges have been known to rescind their acceptance of students whose grades slid in 12th grade.

  • Calendar. There is no wiggle room with these deadlines. Take the time to record every due date on a calendar, then monitor them frequently to make sure you’re on track.


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