How to Prepare for College Applications During Four Years of High School

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When you think about college applications or college preparation, you’re probably thinking about your senior year of high school, or maybe the end of junior year.

But the best way to ensure that you are prepared for college—and on track for acceptance to a quality college or university—is to use all four years of high school wisely.  

Below, we’ll outline a college preparation plan that explains what you should do each year of high school in order to stay on track for college acceptance and college success.

Freshman Year

Take rigorous classes.

From the beginning of high school, students should take the most challenging courses that are available to them (and that they feel they are capable of managing).

Not only do college admissions officers love applicants with a challenging course load, but taking these classes will also prepare you to perform well in college.

In 9th grade, you should begin taking honors classes and talking to your guidance counselor about Advanced Placement (AP) course options.

Pick 3-4 extracurricular activities/areas of interest to focus on.

You should also begin building your resume for scholarship and college applications as early as possible. If you are heavily involved in 3-4 activities or areas of interest for all of high school, this is much more impressive than rushing to get involved in a variety of activities during junior or senior year.

Select a few activities or areas of interest to commit to during high school. These may include a sport, a particular club, certain volunteer activities or organizations, or involvement in the arts (chorus, drama, band, Art Club).

It’s best if at least one of these activities is related to leadership or provides opportunities for you to play a leadership role in the future. At least one of your activities should also be community-based.

Of course, your interests may change later, and that’s fine. But you should begin getting actively involved in your school and community during freshman year, hopefully in ways that can continue for much of high school (and possibly into college and adult life).

Keep a record of all accomplishments and awards.

When you sit down to fill out college and scholarship applications, you may find that it’s hard to remember exactly what awards you’ve won and how you have been involved over all four years of high school.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to start keeping a record of key accomplishments, awards, and even involvement during your 9th grade year. You may want this to be a computer document (saved somewhere like Google Drive) or a physical document that is kept in a safe place.

Use this document to record what activities you’re involved in, the nature of your involvement, and any award, accomplishment, or special recognition you receive there. Be sure to include dates, as this will come in handy later.

Sophomore Year

Begin exploring colleges and careers.

Sophomore year is a good time to begin looking into colleges and careers that may be of interest to you. This can include doing online research, attending college and career fairs, or even visiting college campuses.

Exploring colleges and careers will help you to stay motivated and will give you additional purpose to work hard in school.

Once you know what career(s) you might be interested in, you can also start volunteering, interning, job shadowing, and/or devoting time to learning more about this job field.

Start researching funding for college, such as grants and scholarships.

You can also start exploring how to earn reward money for college, including grants and scholarships. You can start thinking about what scholarships or grants may be a good fit for you, and what you need to do in order to build up your resume for these opportunities.

Continue devoting time to key activities and areas of interest.

You should also continue to build your resume by spending time pursuing the same or similar activities and interests as those you selected during freshman year. Of course, if your interests change, you can always devote time to new activities as well.

Remember to seek leadership and volunteer opportunities whenever possible, and continue recording major accomplishments, awards, and involvement.

Consider taking a practice PSAT.

In 11th grade, you take the PSAT to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program. Many schools also offer the PSAT in 10th grade, so you should consider taking the practice PSAT in order to gain experience for the official PSAT next year.

This practice will also be helpful as you prepare to take the SAT and/or ACT.

Junior Year

Seek internships, job shadows, or summer jobs in a career field of interest.

Now that you are old enough to drive and work, it’s a good idea to try finding an internship, job shadowing opportunity, or summer job in the career field you want to pursue.

This will be excellent experience and preparation for the future, but, in addition, colleges like to see that you have specific interests and have dedicated time to pursuing them.

Take the PSAT.

To qualify for National Merit scholarships and programs, you must take the PSAT in the 11th grade. National Merit is an extremely prestigious honor that would certainly set you apart from other college hopefuls.

Additionally, the PSAT is solid preparation for the SAT.

Register for entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.

Speaking of the SAT, you should also begin registering for entrance exams like the SAT and ACT during junior year. Take practice tests to prepare for these important exams.

It’s okay if you don’t actually sit the exams until the fall of senior year. However, it can be beneficial to take the SAT and/or ACT early, see where you currently stand, and then continue to prepare and retest as necessary.

Begin finding information and application deadlines for colleges.

During junior year, you can start doing serious college research. What are you looking for in a college? Big or small? Close to home or far away? What do you want to major in, and which schools are strong in this area?

You can start compiling a list of colleges you’re interested in, and you can also begin to get a general idea of when applications are due for these colleges and for any scholarships you may want to consider.

Continue resume building.

Many experts say college admissions officers focus most heavily on junior year, so make sure you continue pursuing volunteer and leadership opportunities and dedicating time to extracurricular activities.

You should still be taking the most rigorous classes you can handle, and it’s important to work hard and make solid grades during junior year.

Senior Year: When Preparation Finally Pays Off

Take or retake the SAT and/or ACT.

If you haven’t taken the SAT or ACT, this should be one of the first priorities during senior year. You will want to leave plenty of time to retake the test if needed.

If you have already taken the test but need a higher score, this should also be accomplished early in the fall semester. Later in the fall semester, you will already be applying to colleges, so you will need these scores as soon as possible.

Submit college and scholarship applications.

During the fall of senior year, you will also be working to submit college and scholarship applications. At this point, the resume-building that you’ve done over the past few years, as well as that record of your accomplishments and rewards, will certainly be useful.

Create a calendar detailing all scholarship and college application deadlines. Make sure that you have all materials prepared and ready to submit prior to each deadline. This will include asking for transcripts and college recommendation letters well in advance. (Most teachers prefer that students request a recommendation letter at least one week ahead of time.)

Fill out the FAFSA.

You will need to complete and submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) during your senior year. This will help you qualify for various loans and, in some cases, scholarships offered by your school of choice. You will probably need information from your parents, so talk to them in advance and make sure that you all know what’s required to finish the application.

Even if you don’t think that you will need financial aid, or you feel that you won’t qualify for it, it’s important to fill out a FAFSA.

Take college visits.

At the beginning of senior year, you should begin narrowing down your list of colleges. This may involve visiting some colleges to see where you feel that you will fit in and be productive and happy.

College visits can also be taken later during senior year, once your acceptance letters start rolling in. At this point, you can visit schools that have accepted you and weigh the pros and cons of each.

It’s also a good idea to carefully consider financial aid packages offered by each school. Call financial aid offices if you have questions.

Meet with your guidance counselor to ensure all graduation requirements have been met.

During senior year, you should also meet with your high school guidance counselor to ensure that you’re on track for graduation and acceptance to colleges. Many high school guidance counselors also have great advice on colleges, scholarships, and the admissions process.

Don’t drop the ball.

Once seniors begin receiving acceptance letters, many decide it’s time to take a break, relax, and stop working so hard.

The acceptance letter is not the end of the road. Stay focused and motivated. If your grades drop too low, your chances of graduating may be threatened. Additionally, colleges can and do rescind offers of admission for students whose grades show a serious decline.

Keep working all the way to the finish line in order to ensure your continued success.

Recap: College Application Preparation

Preparation to apply for college shouldn’t start during junior or senior year. It should be a process that begins in 9th grade.

Throughout high school, you should devote time to extracurricular activities, leadership opportunities, and volunteer experiences. Make sure that you record all of your involvement and accomplishments.

Begin exploring colleges and careers early on, take practice SAT and ACT exams, research financial aid, and visit schools.

Take challenging classes and earn good grades in these courses. Additionally, pay attention to deadlines well in advance and meet them.

If you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you’ll be prepared to not only be accepted to a great college, but also to succeed once you get there.

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