African American father and son hugging in graduation gown.

Heading back to school used to mean fresh pencils, a fancy new outfit and a teacher meet-and-greet. But once you hit high school, back-to-school time sometimes means extra stress, especially if you’re thinking ahead to college. The good news is that planning ahead through all 4 years can help make the college search process a whole lot easier (and more successful) when senior year rolls around.

Here’s what you need to do to make each year of high school count.

Freshman Year

Academics

Believe it or not, ninth grade isn’t too early to think about how your grades might affect your college applications, says college consultant Kristen Miller of College Bound & Ready in Portland, Ore. “College may seem like a distant goal, but mathematically, your freshman year counts for one-third of your overall GPA and class rank that schools will see on your application,” she points out, since junior year is typically the last full year colleges will take into consideration.

Extracurriculars

This is also the year to set the foundation for extracurriculars and activities by trying different clubs or teams that might interest you. But don’t feel that you have to be saddled with what you did in middle school. Your new campus likely offers a host of new options, and this is the year to try new things with the goal of identifying a club or two you can continue throughout high school. Maybe you never knew you were a top-notch debater or loved working with kids who have special needs. And as a bonus, joining new clubs is a way to foster new friendships.

College Search

Freshman year is the ideal time to start a resume that will help you come college application time. “Start documenting your academic, extracurricular and community service achievements and awards and add to it as you progress through high school,” says Miller. “This will be a big time-saver when completing college applications so you ensure something important doesn’t slip your mind.”

Finances

This is also the year to start talking with your parents about how you’ll pay for college. A study from Fidelity finds that parents expect their kids to foot part of the bill for college but often haven’t broken the news yet. This is an important discussion to have so you can recalibrate your college focus and start thinking about how you can contribute to college, whether it’s by getting a part-time job or considering lower-cost schools.

Sophomore Year

Academics

If your school offers them, try to add an AP class or two to demonstrate schedule “rigor,” suggests Miller. “Your best bet is to choose subjects in which you are already interested and excel, since these are designed to be tough courses.” So for example, if you’re a history buff, look for AP U.S. History rather than AP Biology.You can also start preparing for standardized tests using online resources such as PSAT 10 and ACT preparation.

Extracurriculars

If you joined a bunch of clubs freshman year, now is the time to hone in on the ones you found most enjoyable or inspiring. Colleges today are more interested in “depth” of activities than “breadth,” so there’s no point in burning yourself out trying to do everything. Find the activities that suit you best and devote your time there.

College Search

Sophomore year is the ideal time to work some college visits into your family vacations, Miller also suggests. Or, if you’re staycationing this year, check out some schools closer to home. “I recommend visiting a large state university along with a few smaller private colleges,” she says. “Visit an urban school, plus ones in suburban or rural settings.” She also recommends you take notes on what you like or don’t like about the setting and vibe, and then use that information to find similar schools in different geographic areas.

Finances

Now is the right time to start putting yourself on a path to merit scholarships. While Miller emphasizes the biggest awards will come from schools where you’re a top candidate, outside scholarships can be a good way to help with miscellaneous expenses. Try perusing one of the large scholarship databases like Scholarships.com or Fastweb.com to become familiar with some of the criteria that may make you a good match. These criteria can include anything from taking a leadership role to getting a job with a retail company that rewards its employees.

Junior Year

Academics

Although every year counts, junior year is the year colleges will scrutinize the most, so make sure you’re giving it your all. “Take advantage of opportunities to meet with your teachers if you need extra help,” Miller suggests. Also, make sure to prioritize standardized test prep whether you’re taking the SAT or ACT. Research the deadlines and register in plenty of time.

Extracurriculars

If you have time alongside your studies, consider ramping up your participation in specific activities. Show your passion and dedication by volunteering to take a leadership position in your primary extracurricular activity.

College Search

Really dig in to find colleges that meet your criteria. There are many ways to research potential schools, but you really want to make sure they know you’re looking at them. This is called “demonstrated interest” and can help boost your application at some schools. While Miller recommends spending time on their website and social media, she also thinks you should be taking time to email college representatives with thoughtful questions, attend college fairs, participate in presentations from colleges that visit your high school and even visit colleges on days you don’t have school.

Finances

Start figuring out what your top schools will cost. This can be tricky because there’s a list price (i.e., the full cost) and then the price that most families end up paying (i.e., the net price). One good place to start looking is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) Calculator. This resource can give you a window into your potential financial aid,says Miller. Then you can head over to your selected schools’ Net Price Calculator, which uses some basic questions about your family’s finances and your credentials (such as GPA and test scores) to provide an estimate of how much that college may cost based on your individual situation.

Senior Year

Academics

It’s tempting, but don’t slack off now. Many colleges will take a look at your senior year schedule to make sure you’re not coasting. If you’re taking AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) classes, focus on preparing for those exams. Many colleges will award you credit for good scores, so research what credits you could receive as extra motivation to perform well, advises Miller. 

Extracurriculars

If you think about it, high school might be your last opportunity to participate in a drama production or join a sports team. You might be committed to a specific activity already, which is great, but why not try something new just for the heck of it?

College Search

Create an application timeline that notes all the dates for your various applications. Some schools will let you apply Early Admission or Early Decision, so research the implications of doing so and decide if that’s right for you. And of course, this is the time to be lining up your letters of recommendation and working on your application essay. (Common App essay topics can be found here.)

Finances

It’s FAFSA® time! To apply for federal aid of any kind (grants, loans and work study) you’ll need to file the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), reminds Miller. First, the government will use your FAFSA®information to determine your need and eligibility for federal grants and loans. Next, individual schools will use the information from your FAFSA®(and the Student Aid Report this generates) to determine what portion of their grants and scholarships, loans and work study programs to offer you. Some schools require that you file the FAFSA® for merit-based scholarships, so don’t neglect this. In fact, financial site NerdWallet found that $2.6 billion in free money for college went unclaimed by 2018 high school graduates because of uncompleted FAFSA® applications.

The college search process can appear overwhelming, but if you take it year-by-year and step-by-step, you’ll be in an excellent position to get into the school of your dreams.

How do you plan on preparing for college? Let us know in the comments below!

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