College Prep Steps Every High School Student Should Know About

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Managing Editor, Peterson's & EssayEdge

Though you don’t have to focus entirely on your college aspirations during every waking moment of your high school career, it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize every semester—starting as soon as they call you “Froshy McFroshFrosh.” Just because you are still getting lost in the hallways doesn’t mean you can’t start looking down the road to college.

The best way to maintain your course toward college and not end up freaking out right before applications are due is to create a schedule and break it down over your four high school years.

Freshman year

Meet with a counselor

It is perfectly appropriate to meet with your high school counselor pretty much right away in order to talk about your courses, your GPA, and what your expectations and future goals are. Remember, the counselor went into this line of work to help students just like you. They want you to succeed, and the more you interact, the more you can benefit from their assistance. For example, if you weren’t placed in advanced courses and feel that you should have been, you can lobby to transfer (if you are doing well in the lower level classes already). Taking the toughest classes available to you improves your college prospects—admission counselors check for that sort of thing.

It’s never too early to be extracurricular

Arts, athletics, a part-time job, volunteerism: whatever you are into, this is a great time to begin to focus on a life outside of academics. Coaches and club leaders can help and are great motivators (or future recommenders)! Colleges want to see individuals who have commitment and can bring unique skills to their incoming classes. Just don’t overburden yourself with numerous clubs and activities; it’s always better to be an expert at one thing than to have a shallow experience in many places.

Sophomore year

Start your search engines

It’s not too early to begin researching colleges that seem interesting to you and have programs you admire. Go back to your counselor with some of your research and start to talk over what you found. I know it’s hard to imagine where you want to be in three years, but there are factors that can narrow your parameters and make this process easier.

What about the money?

Looking into financial aid and scholarship options is another good thing to start sophomore year of high school too. Some scholarships require a certain GPA or test scores, so you can set specific goals for yourself in those areas, and others have application processes that you may want to investigate early.

Test prep time

It’s also time to start studying for the big standardized tests (SAT and ACT), if you’re planning on taking them. And don’t count out the importance of the PSAT either. Ask your teachers about test prep resources and pick up a book or online program. Make test prep part of your homework routine—just an added bonus to your regular Thursday after-school life. This work will pay huge dividends. You can even apply to take tests early in order to get some practice. Colleges will look at your highest score, so you can take it a couple of times and see how you do.  

Junior year

Keep it up—and get specific

It’s college crunch time, so you might want to start thinking about your possible major, particularly if you are interested in pre-med or pre-law. Keep talking to your guidance counselor about realistic expectations, scholarships, and financial aid options. Try to get into a leadership position with your extracurricular activities and bump your test prep into high gear (more than just one study session a week). 

One crazy summer

The summer between junior and senior year is the best and most fruitful time to devote to a college-related summer program or internship. Your high school should have connections to local university programs or similar internships that will give you a leg up when applying to school.

Senior year

It's all happening

Visit potential colleges if you can, take tours, and talk to alumni and current college students. It’s also time to talk to teachers about recommendations. Don’t be shy; your favorite teachers want to recommend you and for you to go on to the college of your dreams. In addition, ask your high school counselor to set you up with people to talk to who have recently been through the process of applying to the university you are considering. Ask the admission counselors at the colleges you’re leaning toward too to connect you with alumni and current students, as they can answer some big questions about your upcoming experience.

Application frenzy!

Applications can be overwhelming. To help you cut through the questions, ask your recommenders or counselors for help, particularly with looking over your essay (getting a second set of eyes is crucial). Then, join up with a college fair or see if your state/school participates in College Goal Sunday, a program that not only pumps up applicants but offers on-the-spot assistance to explain federal student loans.

Don’t coast

If you’ve already been accepted to a college, it’s tempting to take your last semester of high school less seriously (a.k.a. Senioritis). Don’t. First, you could see your offer of admission rescinded—completely ripped out from under you—if you fail to meet the school’s continuing expectations. Second, you can still build up some college credit (AP and/or language classes), which can help you immensely in your first year at university so you’re not stuck taking what can be boring prerequisites.

With this path laid out, the golden door of college is right there in front of you. Start early and stay on task so it’s easier to pry that sucker open and find what you want on the other side.

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