There is a common misconception that preparation for college starts somewhere around Junior year in high school. This is when most students begin studying for and taking their college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. Then they check out schools and start the application process toward the end of the Junior year and over that summer. However, in today’s competitive society, getting ready for college and beyond actually should begin day one of Freshman year, if not before.
Higher learning institutions look at a student’s entire high school record, inside and outside the classroom. It is not enough for a student to just make good grades and score well on their entrance exams. They must be well rounded with diverse activities, and demonstrate responsibility, willingness to get involved with their community, and great ability to clearly communicate who they are and what makes them unique in a written format. It’s a tall order for a teenager, but with the help and support of his parents, guidance counselor, and the other adults around him it is definitely achievable.
Keep in mind that a lot of the initial college prep work can be done online. The Internet is an invaluable research and information gathering tool for figuring out all post-secondary academic options. There are even evaluation websites that can help a student assess their personality and interests, as well as determine potential courses of study and career paths. With all this in mind, let’s break down the preparation plan by year so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.
The Middle School Years
More and more parents are starting their teen’s path towards college when they are in seventh or eighth grade. The middle school years are a good time to try classes that are more challenging, such as advanced placement classes. Additionally, it’s a good stage to begin to get involved with community projects, seek out volunteer opportunities, and enroll in programs over the summers that enhance knowledge and abilities of interest. Parents, teachers, and school counselors can play a major role in helping a young scholar develop good study habits, work on setting and achieving goals, examine interests and skills for probable career choices, and develop tentative choices for high school classes and activities.
If a student has not started preparing for college yet, this is when they need to get focused. Starting day one, regardless of past experiences, activities, or habits, the post-graduation time clock begins ticking. Freshman year in high school should be spent doing all the things listed above under The Middle School Years. It is also important to get involved with extracurricular activities, such as sports or creative arts. Secondly, this is the time to identify general career interests and find out what kind of education and training is required. From there a student can narrow down the list of academic facilities that match those interests and requirements, and find out what those schools look for when accepting students, including classes, grades, tests and scores, and extracurricular activities. Finally, Freshmen should work with their parents to start learning about fiscal responsibility as well as developing a financial plan to save and pay for college.
Sophomores should continue on the established path. This includes evaluating their classes and taking more challenging ones whenever possible, participating in extracurricular activities and enrichment programs over the summer, and researching potential careers and academic options. The school counselor is a great resource for providing advice, guidance, and reference materials for all of these things. Secondly, 10th graders should start exploring some of their narrowed down career choices by applying for internships and/or talking to people in those fields. Another thing second year high school students need to do is find out more information on the schools they are interested in attending, including applicable and average expenses, and campus activities. From there they should start checking out financial aid and scholarship options to help with the cost of post secondary education.
Finally, 10th grade is when students should start preparing for their college entrance exams by not only studying, but also by taking any available practice tests, such as the PSAT. There are great online resources to help in this area that provide students with practice tests, online registration, test dates, testing tips and explanations, as well as advice on financial aid, and college and career planning. CollegeBoard.com also provides information on the AP and the CLEP exams. These two tests enable students to test out of and/or earn college credit before even stepping foot on campus. They help students to mentally prepare for college level work and to stand out during the college application process.
High school juniors’ primary focus should be on maintaining their grades and other activities. Their secondary focus should be on narrowing down their list of schools to four to six choices. Once they have determined the schools they are interested in attending, the next step is to visit their websites and request campus materials, and admission information and forms. If they like what they see online and on paper then they should schedule time to go visit the campus. Junior year is also the time to take the appropriate entrance exams as determined by the schools the student has decided to apply to. Additionally, it is a good idea to meet regularly with the school counselor and/or a mentor to not only help with the whole admissions process, but also to keep the student on track with their plan. The other large aspect to tackle this year is paying for college. Colleges and other financial organizations usually put on one or two financial aid events that help students and their parents to determine the available options that are out there. Juniors should not only attend at least one of these events, they should also do some work on their own. This includes researching private scholarships and getting a job.
Senior year is filled with excitement and anticipation. It’s the last year of major annual high school social activities like Homecoming and prom. There is also graduation and going off to college or another chosen academic option. Aside from the social scene, by the time a teenager reaches their senior year they should be nearing the end of their post-graduation preparation plan. This is not the time to let their academic or extracurricular activities and achievements slip. They should visit any school campuses they haven’t yet, take or retake their entrance exams, and make sure all applications and forms have been filled out and submitted appropriately and within the required deadlines. As far as financial aid is concerned, many applications require the parents’ most recent financial information. Therefore, they cannot be completed until after their taxes are filed at the beginning of the calendar year.
Once a student receives their entrance acceptance letters, they should make their final decision as to which academic institution they will attend. A letter should be sent to the other schools informing them of the decision. Then it is time to submit any required deposits or forms, such as for housing or meal plans. Seniors should also consider getting a summer job so they can help pay for their school materials, such as dorm room necessities and books. Once they receive the schedule for incoming college Freshman activities and schedule, usually the week before the rest of the student body, the soon-to-be college students should make any necessary travel arrangements and start choosing their classes and activities. However, they need to be realistic about their course load, especially that first semester.
College is not like high school, and therefore incoming Freshman should consider taking the minimum number of required credits their first semester to make the transition easier. Students should keep in mind that college is not all studying and career focus. They should consider taking at least one or two classes that sound like fun. Additionally, new students should think about attending some of the social events and activities geared towards helping the incoming new students meet people and make new friends.
A degree or certificate of completion from an accredited college, university, or other post secondary academic institution is imperative in today’s competitive job market. However the path to get there is long and, at times, overwhelming. It is best for college bound teens to start planning and preparing early. They should utilize all resources at their disposal, including their parents, school counselors, tutors and mentors, and the Internet. Yes, applying to college can be quite laborious, but with the right assistance and proper planning it could be made to be less strenuous.