Getting Ready for College: A Checklist for Students

It’s never too early to prepare for college. Think about the past four years of your life. How quickly did they fly by? The four years you will spend in high school will go by even more quickly, so here’s a guide to help you start preparing for college early, so that you don’t get overwhelmed in your senior year.

Freshmen (Grade 9)

Before or at the start of your freshman year, schedule a time to meet with your school counselor or academic advisor to set a plan in motion for earning your high school credits. Figure out together what type of academic pathway you should be on and develop a solid relationship with them. Along the same lines, start building positive relationship with mentors like a teacher, your advisor, or community members. Having a strong relationship with a positive adult role model will go a long way as you strive for a successful and rewarding high school experience.

Your primary goal during your first year of high school is to focus on getting good grades. Once you let your GPA drop, it’s very hard to bring it back up, so don’t let pride get in your way. If you are struggling or confused about anything in any of your classes, ask for help right away. Along with this, take good notes. If you aren’t sure how, reach out to someone for help, or you can even find a nearly infinite number of YouTube videos with examples of note-taking strategies. You’ll also want to make sure you get really good practice at positive time management, discipline, and organization. The habits you build your freshman year will carry you through high school, so don’t fall for the false belief that freshman year doesn’t matter. Every class and every grade level in high school matters.

Although learning the ropes of high school academics should be your top priority, you’re also going to want to get involved in extracurriculars. Extracurriculars can be hosted by your school or in your community, so do some research and don’t be afraid to try new things. Freshman year is a great time to figure out what your interests are.

As you start to learn about your interests, it’s also the right time to take career or interest inventories.   My Next Move offers you some options about how to search for careers or narrow down your interests. You can search by careers or keywords, by industries, or you can narrow down your interests by answering some questions about what you enjoy and what you would rather avoid. Once you have an idea of your interests, you can make sure your possible career paths have a secure future and investigate them further by using the Occupational Outlook Handbook. This will give you an idea of the job growth, median salaries, and educational path to take for any given career path.

While you’re doing your research, talk to trusted adults about your options. They’ve usually been down similar paths as you when they were trying to figure out who they were, what they wanted to do, and the right steps to take. The trusted adults in your life might have some important insight into how you can make high school a successful, fulfilling time.

Now is also the time to start keeping track of high school accomplishments. You’ll want a running record of your activities, extracurriculars, and accomplishments ready when you start applying for scholarships and college admissions in about a year and a half, so having it already started will be a big relief during junior year when life is getting a bit more hectic.

Finally, make a plan for summer. What are you going to do to improve yourself this summer? Can you participate in leadership activities, community service, community outreach, or community education opportunities? Summer is a time to relax and restore yourself, but it’s also a great opportunity to make some connections and participate in some positive growth experiences, too.

Sophomores (Grade 10)

Sophomore year, you will want to continue focusing on grades and extracurriculars. Sometimes students start to feel like they can just let it slide a little bit, for just a little while, or just for this one class. Every class and every experience is important, so don’t fall into that trap. It’s also a great time to become involved in community service. If you can’t find a community service experience that suits you, go ahead and figure out a way to design and implement one yourself. You can raise money for a nonprofit or group that is important to you. You won’t know what you can do until you push yourself to do it!

This year extracurriculars become very important so remember that depth matters more than breadth. It’s time to start narrowing your activities and becoming more involved in the ones you’re most passionate about. Start working toward leadership roles or help organize activities for the club or activity.

You will want to again set up an appointment to meet with your counselor or academic advisor. If it’s appropriate for you, plan for future AP classes, and find ways to continue to build positive relationships with teachers and other leaders and mentors.

During sophomore year, you can take the PSAT. The PSAT will help you get an idea of where you stand in your preparation for the SAT. It will help you diagnose where your strengths are as well as your weaknesses. It might even help you realize that you need to take an SAT prep course. It’s better to prepare early than to find yourself overwhelmed and stressed later on.

During sophomore year, you can start researching and visiting colleges and talking to college students who come home during summer break. Make a list of the colleges you’re interested in, and you can even use the College Scorecard by the U.S. Department of Education to find out more about the colleges available to you.

If you are interested, you can start learning about Federal Student Aid. Reading up on what type of financial aid is available and how to prepare for the application is a good way to avoid any struggles with it junior or senior years.

If you’re really motivated, you can also start researching scholarships so you’re knowledgeable about the requirements and expectations and have something to aim for. Especially if there is a certain couple of scholarships that you would really like to get or specific scholarships from possible colleges you’d like to attend, this is a smart way to prepare for the application process later on.

Though the summer after freshman year was more about self-exploration, this summer it’s time to look for interesting summer jobs or leadership opportunities that will help strengthen your college application.

Juniors (Grade 11)

Before and during junior year, you will want to continue focusing on grades, extracurriculars, & community service, perhaps even pushing yourself to design and implement a community service project yourself. Leadership like that takes initiative and shows drive and determination, qualities colleges are looking for in their applicants.

You will certainly want to schedule a meeting with your counselor or academic advisor to make sure you’re still on track and to see if they can help you start narrowing down your college majors, point you in the direction of any career fairs, or give you advice about how to find a way to job shadow.

You can also take the PSAT to qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship Program and then use the Federal Student Aid Estimator to get an idea of what sort of financial aid package you will get for college. 

Now is the time to really get serious about narrowing down your college list. You will want to attend college fairs, research and visit colleges, and narrow down your college list to the most realistic ones while still making sure you’re heading in the direction that is right for your life.

Since you’ve been working on developing relationships with adult mentors, you can also start collecting the names and information of the people who will write you recommendations for college applications. It’s never a good idea to ask someone for a recommendation that is due today or tomorrow, so making sure you know who you can go to when the time comes is a solid way to plan.

At the end of junior year, you can start working on college applications if applicable. Not all schools allow for early applications, but you can still continue researching and start applying for scholarships.

It’s also time to take the SAT or ACT. Since you can take either test multiple times, you can take this test early junior year and then again later if you want to. If you haven’t performed like you wish, you can sign up to take an SAT prep course to make sure you’re fully prepared next time.

Finally, if you can participate in a leadership program or internship, then junior or senior years is when you apply for these opportunities. You can check out these programs that have virtual or in-person programs available:  

Project Echo – Project Echo offers live and virtual after school programs that allow you to participate in business and entrepreneurship programs.

Microsoft High School Internship Program –   Microsoft offers high school juniors or seniors in-person or virtual experience in an internship setting. You work on projects and have a chance to explore who you are as an individual and as a part of a team.

Bank of America Student Leader Program – Bank of America has locations across the U.S. They offer a leadership program to help students work with local nonprofits and participate in a national leadership summit. This program begins accepting applications in November, so keep an eye out for this opportunity.

Seniors (Grade 12)

Senior year, you will want to continue focusing on grades, extracurriculars, & community service, perhaps designing and implementing a new community service project or a continuation of the project you started as a junior. Don’t fall into the senior slide. Plenty of students have had their acceptance into colleges rejected after their semester or end-of-the-year grades were posted.

Again, you’ll set up a meeting with your counselor or academic advisor to make sure you’re on track and to check-in about your plans for after high school. 

You’ll want to be sure to take or retake the SAT or ACT, make more campus visits, continue to research scholarship opportunities, and now start to apply. This year can really pass quickly, so watch for application deadlines (scholarship, financial aid, & college acceptance). It’s also time to request and send your transcripts to potential schools and scholarship organizations.

You’ll start to reach out to people to give them plenty of time and the correct information so that they can write you letters of recommendation. Remember to give them plenty of time to produce these letters, and then you’ll be responsible for collecting them and sending them to schools or colleges. Many schools and organizations give you a link so that people can refer you directly online, so you’ll want to be organized and know what each school or scholarship opportunity requires.

While you’re applying, you’ll also need to work on college essays. Get those done early so that you can have a couple of trusted adults check over your applications and essays. You will probably be able to monitor your application status online.

Once you receive acceptance notices, you’ll make a final decision. Talking to your parents and other trusted adults is important during this time. It’s easy to want to attend a certain school because your friends are going there, but that might not be the best choice for you. Focus on your goals and the fact that you are an individual who will grow and change throughout college, possibly in opposite directions from your friends. You’re looking at your future, so take the considerations of your family and other trusted adults to heart as you make this decision.

If you’ve taken any AP classes, you will have to register to take AP exams early in the school year and then take them second semester of senior year. You will need to send those AP results to the college you’ve chosen, so be sure to keep those deadlines in mind as you’re getting ready to celebrate your graduation!

Now that you’ve done all the planning and hard work, it’s time to spend time with friends and family. Second semester is a good time to start prepping for college. Make a list of the things you’ll need and start stashing those items away. You want to enjoy the summer after senior year as you prepare to attend college orientation.

If you follow these important steps, you will be well on your way to a successful high school career and a multitude of opportunities in your future.

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