College prep 101: The high school years

College planning 101 feature photo

To make sure you are ready to apply to your top choice colleges, start planning early. Taking steps each year in high school will help you be a strong applicant.

Ninth Grade

Start talking with your family about going to college and explore different college websites, making note of the big picture options: big or small college? public or private? urban or suburban? close by or in another state? Picture what life at college will be like and consider the environment where you think you’ll succeed.

Become familiar with the kinds of courses and grades colleges will be looking for when you apply as a senior. Talk with your guidance counselor each year about your academic plan and make sure to take challenging classes.

Think about what subjects interest you the most and participate in school activities that go deeper into those topics. It’s also great to sign up for service projects and find ways to give back to your community.

Tenth Grade

To give yourself the most college options, plan to take courses every year in English, math, science and social studies; a second language is important too. Test yourself with more difficult courses such as pre-AP or AP, IB Standard Level, honors or accelerated courses. Strive for grades of B or better in all your classes.

To prepare for taking the SAT/ACT next year, start by taking practice tests in 10th grade. Free online resources include Khan Academy and ACT test preparation. Another good way to prepare is to take the PSAT or Aspire tests if they are offered by your school in 10th grade.

Colleges and universities offer hundreds of academic programs, many of which you may not learn about in high school. Research different careers which sound interesting and find out what people in those jobs studied in college. Your high school counseling/career center is a great resource. There are also tools like MyMajors — a free, 15-minute assessment that will connect your academic strengths and interests with college academic programs.

Eleventh Grade

You may be feeling a lot of stress about college as a junior. It’s okay if you don’t have everything decided. In fact, this is the year when you’ll want to consider all your options. Create a list of the colleges that interest you the most based on the research you’ve already done.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to request information from those colleges. Attend college fairs, and talk with the college representative when they visit your high school. Visit the universities in person. You’ll be surprised how much your thoughts about a college change when you actually experience campus. If you’re already thinking you might want to leave your home state, we have tips for that conversation.

Keep up your grades and check in with your guidance counselor to make sure you’re staying on track. College bound students continue to take challenging and advanced courses in three to five core subject areas through junior year. Combined with the activities and work you may be committed to, this can demand a lot of your time. But it will give you great experiences to address in your admissions essay. Take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall and the ACT and/or SAT in the spring.

Begin to explore scholarship and financial aid opportunities. How to pay for college is a complex topic and the answer varies by family. Check the cost of attendance at each college on your list and discuss financial fit as a family, keeping in mind that tuition and scholarships are just part of the equation.

Twelfth Grade

It’s here. Your senior year. You need to narrow down your list of colleges and decide which are your top three or four where you will apply. Be sure to pay attention to the deadlines for each college.

Take the ACT or SAT if you haven’t yet or retake it if you want to improve your scores. Send your scores to the schools where you have applied. Don’t let your course rigor or performance slip; senior year academics can be important in admission and scholarship decisions.

Request transcripts, recommendations and other supporting documents to complete your applications.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and apply for scholarships. Colleges have different FAFSA priority deadlines – be sure to look for those dates.

Colleges will usually schedule preview days for high school seniors in the fall and special events for admitted students in the spring. Talk with your family about attending those visit programs. Even if you’ve visited your top choice colleges in 10th or 11th grades, you’ll have very different questions now. Do not hesitate to ask admissions counselors, faculty, and current students questions that will help you make your college decision.

Once you’ve decided, officially accept or decline the offers of admission. Follow the admitted student steps to prepare for enrollment. And congratulations! You’ve made it through the college search.