Preparing for the academic rigor and high tuition rates of college can seem overwhelming. It may feel like there are more details than you can remember. However, with proper planning and preparation, the transition into college life can be smooth and full of confidence for both student and parents. This easy, 4-year guide provides a step-by-step checklist to ensure that young students stay on track to achieve their academic goals. From the first class of ninth grade to submitting final applications, this guide will help students complete high school feeling fully prepared for their college-bound futures.
Students should begin to consider their future goals. This is an important time for students to create a loose plan for post-high school graduation. Is there an interest to pursue a higher education field such as law or medicine? Does the thought of trade school strike more interest than thoughts of college?
Though it is important to maintain flexibility in these early stage plans, developing a general sense of direction can influence which high school classes are pursued, what extra curricular activities to get involved in, and basic financial expectations. Having a vague sense of direction gives students a sense of comfort and reassurance as they transition into high school.
Students may not have a job or source of income at this time, and that is alright; however, it is important that they begin to understand the importance of finances. Learning skills such as budgeting are crucial at this stage. Encouraging students to use a savings account is a step toward financial planning in high school.
Parents should encourage their children to explore new interests and develop talents. Letting students explore potential passions allow children to begin forming plans for the future. It is in this early phase that students begin to consider future fields of study. Cultivating a wide range of talents and interests help create a solid foundation for future decisions and a well-rounded student.
Perhaps the most crucial step for parents in this phase is financial planning. It is never too early to develop a plan and begin college savings. Tuition prices across the United States are rising. Tuition alone can be pricey, and there are the added expenses of board, food, and travel as well. College Board has released a chart revealing the average tuition, food, and board rates for colleges in 2015-2016 to guide parents’ financial expectations.
Parents can use tools to begin college financial planning early. Consulting a financial expert is a recommended first step. With regards to various savings accounts, establishing a 529 plan is one of the best government protected financial plans. 529 plans are savings accounts that offer tax advantages and other incentives to get a chosen beneficiary ready for college. These accounts do not have income restrictions or limits on the amount of accounts created. Parents with more than one child are able to set up an individual account for each student without penalty. Detailed information about 529 plans are available on the IRS website.
Though parents should begin to establish the importance of saving and responsible money handling at an early age, they should refrain from laying down hard financial tuition expectations at this early age. That discussion will come further down the road.
Beginning high school can be overwhelming. However, the good news is that college should not be the highest priority at this point. The primary focus of freshman year should be adjusting to the demands of high school and exploring future possibilities.
As students enter high school, they are given more opportunities to pursue their interests. Ninth graders begin the final stage of their primary education with more challenging options among core requirements as well as expanded elective choices. Courses should be considered carefully because grades become much more impactful at this point in students’ educational career. Taking a series of manageable yet challenging courses is an opportunity to prove to colleges what the student is capable of and stand out among other applicants. Students should not overwhelm themselves to the point of compromising their GPA, but should rather maintain a good balance of challenging and controllable classes.
When planning a student’s high school career, it is important to remember that the majority of colleges maintain their own set of required high school courses to be considered. These requirements may vary between colleges so it is a good idea to check what their criteria is before sophomore year if a student already has a university in mind.
The general requirements followed by most colleges are:
- Four years of English
- Three years of social studies
- Three years of math
- Three years of science
- Two years of foreign language
This being said, taking more than the minimum subject requirements helps applicants stand apart from the crowd. It sends a message to college admissions boards that this student is ready and prepared for the fast pace of college academics. Taking additional classes may also help students better prepare for standardized tests.
It is recommended that students take full, challenging course loads freshmen and sophomore year, leaving junior and senior year more open. This strategy will allow upperclassman more time to prepare for and take the SAT and/or ACT, submit college applications, and develop life skills such as cooking and laundry for their first year of independence.
Extra Curricular Activities
Freshman year is the perfect time to try new things. Try out for the sports team, audition for the play, join a foreign language club. Getting involved in extracurricular activities is a great way to develop social skills that will become vital freshman year of college. These activities will also help students further discover their interests and passions. They may begin to discover a career path they wish to pursue. Most extracurricular activities allow for student leadership positions for seasoned upperclassmen so it is important to start in activities as early as freshman year to develop seniority. When in comes time for college applications, students will be able to impress colleges with the activities they have participated in and awards they have earned.
Parents should stay interested in their student’s academics. Parents that stay vigilant are more likely to spot and correct potential academic problems early on. Staying in touch with the guidance counselor or teachers is a good way to create an open dialogue between the parents, student, and school. Continually monitor academic progress without becoming overbearing to students.
Parents should motivate and praise their children for their school accomplishments. If problems do arise, focus on working with the child directly, emphasizing improvement instead of digressing into anger and punishment. If necessary, work with a counselor or teacher as well. Keeping a record of students’ skills, activities, and achievements encourages students to work hard and will help them with college applications junior year.
Sophomore year is the first year official steps should be taken toward college. Students should begin to look into and explore college options as well as prepare to take the SAT and/or ACT. Though college applications may seem daunting, taking beginning steps sophomore year will relieve stress junior and senior year.
This is the year it is essential to talk to a guidance counselor if the student has not already. Guidance counselors can provide meaningful advice and tips to students while making sure they stay on track and fulfill all the requirements necessary to attend college.
Students should prepare to take the PSAT in the fall (usually mid-October). The PSAT is the official practice exam that mirrors the SAT. This test gives students an idea of the style of questioning and pacing required to successfully take the SAT. It may reduce stress and anxiety over taking the SAT the following year. Some 9th graders may wish to take the PSAT. This should be encouraged as another chance to prepare for the SAT.
Though the PSAT score will not affect college applications, a high score can make a student eligible for financial scholarships including the National Merit Scholarship. Taking the PSAT also allows students to submit their names to submitted to colleges they are interested in to receive brochures and information packets. Due to a lack of an official practice ACT exam, the PSAT will give students general structure and pacing expectations that will be useful in preparing for the ACT as well.
Sophomore year is the time to begin delving into college research. Students should start exploring college websites, taking career exploration exams, and attending college fairs in order to better understand the college process. Take every opportunity to speak directly to a college representative. Students should begin compiling a list of their top school choices.
If students need help starting a list, it is recommended they talk to a school guidance counselor. College Board also offers a comprehensive list of nearly 4,000 colleges that can be narrowed according to student desires such as size, location, and sports.
Utilize the Summer
Summer is a great time to get involved in the community. Sophomores should look to obtain a job, volunteer, or participate in a wide range of activities during the summer months. This will give students an edge over their applications, providing them with more activities and achievements to display on their resumes. An active summer will also create a well-rounded student with many skills and abilities.
Parents should maintain a careful eye on their student’s course selection. Sophomore courses are often prerequisites for junior and senior year AP, IB, and Honors courses. It is important not to overwhelm students. Their extracurricular activities and other obligations should be carefully considered before determining the best academic route. It is important that parents help their student to stay involved in activities while still prioritizing school work.
Make sure to remain well informed of all important upcoming dates that may have slipped by students. Parents should encourage their child to sign up early for important upcoming events such as the ACT or a college fair. College deadlines are often strict and uncompromising, so it is important that the parent and child both remain fully aware of all necessary deadlines. It may help to place them on a large family calendar. Additionally, parents are recommended to check out college nights and financial aid meetings offered through the school and community.
Students should expect the first half of the school year to be lighter than the second half. Junior year is crucial to college preparation and there are many tasks that must be completed in this timeframe. Though it may be stressful at times, the more that is accomplished junior year, the more relaxed senior year will be.
Junior year is the time to take the SAT and/or ACT. If students are still feeling nervous or have not yet taken the practice test, juniors may still take the PSAT in the fall giving them plenty of time to take the spring offering of the SAT and/or ACT.
The majority of colleges accept both the SAT and ACT now; however, it is highly recommended to double check each college to see which test they prefer. Though the SAT and ACT may feel very similar, the SAT is designed to measure a student’s critical thinking skills while the ACT measures a student’s core knowledge.
If a college accepts both tests, students may submit a score from either test or from both tests in their application. Though some students score noticeably better on one test over the other, generally the scores are comparable. Prior to taking the test, students may select their colleges of interest to automatically send the results to for no additional charge.
Create a List
Now is the time to cultivate a more finalized list of colleges based on interests, career aspirations, and programs offered. Students should consider their most important characteristics when compiling this list. Characteristics may include:
- Social life
- Majors offered
Characteristics should be weighed and evaluated carefully. Student loans, scholarships, and financial aid should also be considered when finalizing the list.
Once a student’s top choices have been discovered, make an effort to visit the colleges. College visits may give the student a better grasp of college life. Make sure to schedule the visit with the college in order to receive an organized tour and interview. Some tours may include visiting a class or talking with current college students in the chosen major. Talking with the college admissions staff while touring may provide more insight into their application process.
Many colleges and universities require a letter of recommendation from a non-related adult. If a student is planning on asking a teacher or faculty member for a letter of recommendation, it is helpful to ask early. Teachers are often bombarded with requests for letters in the fall, so asking early will give them more time to prepare.
It is important to only ask teachers that know the student well. Teachers with stronger student relationships are able to write much more personal and positive letters. However, teachers are not the only option when choosing a writer; coaches, employers, or other adults not related to education may also be a good option, especially if that adult is able to write a more personal letter than a teacher.
Now is the time to begin organizing a student’s academic portfolio. Creating a list of all activities, leadership opportunities, and club memberships completed in high school will make college applications faster and more thorough Senior year.
Summer is a good time to begin working on application essays as well. Starting in the summer offers the student ample time to write and revise their essay. This also offers students more chances to have their essays proofread and corrected by a teacher or parent. Starting early may relieve stress when applying to colleges during Senior year.
Talk with Students
Keep an open discussion between parents and children about college options and considerations. Communication allows parents to address potential problems or stress points proactively. Parents should offer advice and insights, but be wary of overemphasizing one particular college or program. Do not set unreasonable expectations. Help students as they begin to condense their college list by keeping PSAT scores, GPA, and finances in mind.
At this phase, parents should begin discussing finances with their children. Parents should set clear financial expectations for the future. This will help students understand their obligations and may also help them determine which colleges to apply to.
Parents should guide students through financial aid options. Begin by gathering all necessary information for submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Other sites such as Scholarships.com and FinAid! Offer comprehensive lists of available scholarships and student loans. It is important to be mindful of all submission dates for financial aid, including FAFSA, as missing the date may result in ineligibility or delayed funding.
Parents should begin to understand the finer points and stipulations behind student loans. The government offers a free online tool to learn the basics of federal student loans. Parents should also check with their employer since many companies offer scholarship opportunities for their employees’ children. For parents taking on the bulk of the college expenses, it is advisable to talk with a financial professional to develop a payment plan.
Senior year is a big year. It is the year to submit applications and finalize decisions. Opposite of junior year, students can expect senior year to be more busier in the fall and lighter in the spring. The most important thing for seniors is staying on task and within important deadlines.
Consider College Courses
Students entering senior year may wish to consider AP or IB courses that can count for future college credit. Depending on the college, AP credit can offer up to 5 college credits or satisfy undergraduate requirements. AP or IB courses are set to mirror actual college courses and are a good way to introduce students into their future college atmosphere.
- English literature and composition
- English language and composition
- Art history
- World history
- United States history
- Foreign language
However, AP and IB courses should not be taken lightly. These courses often involve higher amounts of homework and more difficult testing. Classes should be strategically chosen in order to not to overwhelm seniors who are simultaneously balancing college admissions. Students that take AP and IB classes will have the option of taking the final exam at the end of the year. Their score on this test will determine the amount of credit (if any) is awarded to the student.
Now is the time for students to begin assembling and submitting official applications. Generally, the earlier that students are able to submit their applications, the higher the likelihood of being accepted. Early action and early decision options should be considered carefully before moving forward.
Though each university will require a different set of application materials, typical requested items consist of:
- Official high school transcript
- One SAT/ACT score
- Basic personal information
- Personal essay
- High school activities and achievements
- Letter(s) of recommendation
- Application fee
Students should remain mindful of all due dates. Questions can be answered by high school guidance counselors or the college admissions board.
Most colleges require a mid-year report that students should submit after acceptance. This is a college’s insurance that students are continuing to work as their application reflected. Though it may be tempting to slack off after being accepted, students should maintain hard work through the end of the year.
Compare and Accept
Students should hear back from all colleges by spring. At this time, students will begin to compare accepted colleges. They should take their time comparing options until they feel comfortable with their final decision. Students may wish to visit college campuses, talk to a counselor, or reexamine financials in order to facilitate the best decision.
Once a decision has been reached, the college should be notified immediately. All schools must be notified of the student’s decision by May 1 or risk losing their position to someone on the waiting list. The chosen college may require a deposit or final high school transcript. Housing, food, and travel plans should begin to be finalized as well.
Parents should begin the final school year with a personal meeting with their child. In this meeting, parents and students should ensure there is mutual understanding of the finalized college list and finances. Parents may wish to establish a set of goals with their student. They should offer full support and open communication with the student throughout the application process, helping to meet deadlines when necessary.
Support, support, support
With the submission and waiting game finally over, remain fully supportive of the child through the acceptance and rejection letters. Help the student by being present for letter openings. Cheer, applaud, or hug for acceptance letters and remain positive and comforting for rejection letters. Once the final decision has been made, help the student by submitting deposits and ensuring all schools have been properly informed of his/her choice.
The college admissions process is a long, four-year road. However, if students and parents work in tandem, the process can run much more smoothly. Take high school one year at a time in order to avoid unnecessary, last minute stress and give students the best shot at acceptance. Congratulations!