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 you start your freshman year! Just because you're 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. Here's what you should do each year of high school to keep you on track.
Freshman year of high school
Meet with a counselor
It's 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, your 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're 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're 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 (and future letter of recommendation writers!). Colleges want to see individuals who show 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 of high school
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. 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. 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 or 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 of high school
Keep it up—and get specific
It’s college search crunch time, so you might want to start thinking about your possible major, particularly if you're interested in pre-med or pre-law. Keep talking with your high school 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.
Related: Video: Junior Year Advice
Senior year of high school
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 counselor to set you up with people to talk to who have recently been through the process of applying to the college(s) you're considering. Ask the admission counselors at the schools you’re leaning toward to connect you with alumni and current students too, as they can answer some big questions about your upcoming experience.
College 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.
If you’ve already been accepted to a college, it’s tempting to take your last semester of high school less seriously (aka suffering from 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.
Related: 10 Tips for Shaking Off Senioritis
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.