9th Grade > See details
- Make sure your classes are considered “college prep”
- Build relationships with teachers and friends who support your college aspirations
- Get involved in activities inside and outside of your school
- Explore possible career paths that incorporate your interests
- Participate in summer enrichment activities (camps, clubs, classes, etc.)
10th Grade > See details
- Start to think about what kind of a college environment will be the best fit for you
- Sign up for any college fairs or visits your school will be hosting
- Continue to challenge yourself through “college prep” coursework
- Explore opportunities to take on leadership roles in activities you love
- Sign up for the PSAT
- Sign up for SAT subject tests
- Continue to explore possible career paths and college majors
11th Grade > See details
- Register for the SAT or ACT (Spring semester)
- Take advantage of free test prep services
- Continue attending college fairs and visits offered at your school
- Make an effort to visit as many college campuses as possible
- Register for AP or IB classes in subject areas where you feel confident
- Keep your grades up!
- Finalize your list of colleges you plan to apply for in the fall of senior year
- Talk with your family about college costs
- Request letters of recommendation for teachers to complete over the summer
- Begin researching and applying for external scholarship programs
- Start thinking about personal statement topics
12th Grade > See details
- Register for the SAT or ACT (Fall semester)
- Begin filling out online applications
- Provide your counselor with a list of schools you’ll be applying to that year
- Make a list of your personal statement requirements and begin writing
- Ask an English teacher, family member or friend to proofread your personal statement(s)
- Make sure your parents’ tax information is in order – you will need this in January
- Continue taking challenging coursework, such as AP and IB, wherever possible
- Determine which, if any, of the colleges you plan to apply to require SAT II subject tests
- Determine which, if any, of the colleges you plan to apply to require interviews
- Make a checklist for each college with important deadlines
- File FAFSA beginning January 1
- Continue applying for external scholarships
- Compile a list of your college acceptances and begin to compare financial aid packages
- File any special circumstance appeals with each school’s financial aid office
- Make your final decision and deposit by May 1
Make sure your classes are considered “college prep”
Most four-year colleges require that students at a minimum take 4 years of English, 3 years of Science (including 2 lab sciences), 3 years of Social Studies, 3 years of Math (through Algebra II), and 2 years of a Modern Language while in high school to be eligible for admission. In addition, college admission counselors want to see that students are challenging themselves with rigorous coursework while in high school, as this is usually the best indication of how a student is likely to perform in college. While the exact names of these classes differ by school, those labeled “Honors,” “Accelerated,” “AP” or “IB” are often considered to be rigorous college-prep courses by colleges.
Build relationships with teachers and friends who support your college aspirations
Having a supportive network of teachers and peers at school is crucial in the college admissions process. Not only can teachers help you in your college search, with your college recommendation letters and proofreading your personal statements, but your peers can keep you on track and motivated during times of stress. Guidance counselors, coaches, and family members are also great sources of support throughout the admissions process.
Get involved in activities inside and outside of your school
Think about what you love to do and do it! Whether that’s playing sports, performing in the school play, running for student council or starting your own club – find something that you’re passionate about and go for it. Remember that this can also include things you’re involved in outside of school, such as community service work, a part-time job or volunteering with your church. Seeing what activities you’re involved in gives the admissions committee an insight into what talents or passions you might bring to their campus, as well as your ability to juggle multiple responsibilities simultaneously – something you’ll do a lot of in college. Remember when signing up for activities and clubs that quality is more important than quantity – admissions counselors would always prefer to see a student deeply committed to two or three things than only partially involved in ten.
Explore possible career paths that incorporate your interests
When thinking about the college search process it’s important to identify what types of majors or programs you’re interested in. Different career paths will have different requirements in terms of schooling and certification. For example, if you think you want to be a teacher you’ll want to make sure that you’re looking at colleges that offer a state certification program. If you want to be a doctor, you should be prepared to complete four years of college followed by four years of medical school and additional training after that. If you’re unsure about what career might be a good fit for you, try using some free tools which can help you explore new careers or find out what careers are ideal for someone with your interests. The College Board offers some great resources here: https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/explore-careers.
Continue to challenge yourself during the summer – ask your teachers and guidance counselors about summer enrichment programs (camps, classes, etc.) in your area.
Not only will this help you retain and deepen the knowledge you’ve gained over the past school year, but these programs can count toward your list of activities for college applications. Admission counselors love to see students pursuing their interests and staying academically engaged during the summer months.
Start to think about what kind of a college environment will be the best fit for you
There are so many factors to consider when choosing a college: size, location, classroom environment, major, the type of school (i.e. Women’s College, HBCU, private, public, etc.), campus diversity, extra-curricular activities…the list goes on. Start thinking about what factors will be most important to you in the college-going process. One way to do this is to reflect on what you love most about your current high school experience and what you would change if you could. Talking to teachers, coaches, family members – anyone you know who has attended college – about their experiences is another great way to start learning about the differences between different types of schools and determining what might be a good fit for you.
Investigate whether your school will be hosting any college fairs, information sessions from college representatives and/or college visits throughout the year and be sure to sign up
Some high schools will actually host admission counselors throughout the year to come speak with their students about a particular college. Check with your guidance counselor to see whether your school will be hosting a college fair or college visits during the school year. Be sure to sign up for as many events as you can – this will also help you to learn more about your college options and narrow down what kind of school could be a good fit for you.
Continue to challenge yourself through “college prep” coursework
It’s important to remember that college admission counselors will be reviewing your entire transcript when they consider you for admission to their college. This means that it is crucial for you to not only continuously challenge yourself with college prep courses, but also keep your grades up each year.
Explore opportunities to take on leadership roles in activities you love (i.e. team captain, student counsel, club leader, etc.)
Remember that when it comes to activities, it’s quality not quantity. Colleges want to see that you are an engaged, well-rounded student who will not only contribute to their campus environment, but be able to balance the demands of college life. Taking on leadership roles in or outside of school demonstrates that you are a responsible, passionate, and proactive student – very desirable characteristics in a college applicant.
Sign up for the PSAT
The PSAT is a practice exam for the SAT. Students will usually take the PSAT in the fall of their sophomore or junior year followed by the SAT in both the spring of junior year and the fall of senior year. PSAT scores are NOT reported to colleges. They are simply an indicator of how a student is likely to perform on the SAT and serve as a diagnostic tool to help you determine which areas of the SAT you may need to dedicate more study time towards. Contact your guidance counselor to sign up for the PSAT at your school. (Note: the PSAT is usually administered in October so you will want to contact your guidance counselor about registration no later than September).
Sign up for SAT subject tests
Some colleges require applicants to submit both an SAT exam as well as SAT II Subject Tests. These tests are in specific areas that often align with courses you are taking in high school, such as English, Physics, U.S. History, etc. The best time to take a subject test is immediately after completing the class while the material is still fresh in your head. Therefore, you should try to register for these exams in the spring of your sophomore year. For a full list of subject exam options and registration information, visit The College Board’s website: http://sat.collegeboard.org/home. You can also use The College Board site to take some free practice exams before your actual test date.
Continue thinking about how your interests/passions align with college majors and career paths
As you continue your journey through high school you may find that your interests – both academic and extra-curricular – change. This is to be expected – high school is a time of growth and discovery – embrace it! As you develop new interests be sure to revisit some of the career and college major planning tools you explored in 9th grade to see if there are new options you should consider as part of your college search.
Register for the SAT or ACT
Most colleges will require either an SAT or ACT score to be eligible for admission. A majority of schools will accept either exam, but it’s best to check with your schools before registering. The SAT or ACT should be taken at least twice – once in the spring of junior year and once in the fall of senior year. Depending on the colleges you are applying to, you may have the option to “superscore” your SAT, meaning that college will mix and match your sub-scores for the highest composite score. Students can register for the SAT through The College Board at: www.collegeboard.org. Students can register for the ACT through the ACT website at: www.act.org. (Note: the ACT cannot be super-scored.)
Take advantage of free test prep services
There are many ways to prepare for the SAT or ACT in advance of taking the test. First, check with your school guidance counselor to see whether your school will be offering free test prep after school or over the summer. If not, you can access free SAT prep services through Kahn Academy. You can get more information about registering for practice exams on The College Board’s website here: http://sat.collegeboard.org/practice/.
Continue attending college fairs and visits offered at your school
As you start to narrow down what kind of college you are looking for, be sure to continue attending college fairs and visits offered by your school. This will help you expand your college search list and explore all possible decisions before making your final list of colleges you plan to apply for.
Make an effort to visit as many college campuses as possible
Nothing beats a college visit. Walking around campus, engaging with current students, stepping inside a classroom – are all ways to get a real feel for what you can expect from a particular college and how good of a “fit” it might be. Some colleges may seem great on paper and disappoint in person, while others may escape your notice in the guidebook but capture your attention and excitement once you get there. Start local, exploring colleges in your area, and then try to expand your reach. Family vacations and school trips can be a great way to visit schools outside of your area. In addition, some schools are so hungry for out of state students that they may pay you to visit! If there is a school you are really interested in seeing, but can’t get to on your own, call the admissions office. They may be able to help.
Register for AP or IB classes in subject areas where you feel confident and know you perform well
If you are doing well in your college prep courses, junior year is a great time to step up your game and register for an especially challenging course like Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB). These classes are considered to be the same level of rigor as a college class and are a great way of showing the admissions committee that you are ready for the challenge of college. In addition, students have the option to take exams at the end of their AP and IB classes that can count for college credit. Score requirements will differ from college to college, but usually a score of 4 or 5 on the AP exam and a 6 or higher on the IB exam will count for college credit.
Keep your grades up!
Your junior year grades will be the last piece of academic information the admissions committee is able to see before making a decision on your application (senior year grades are usually not available by the time applications are due). This means colleges will be paying particular attention to these grades as they are the best indication of how motivated, hard-working and academically successful you are right now.
Finalize your list of colleges you plan to apply for in the fall of senior year
Junior year is a critical time to really narrow down your list of colleges so that you will be ready to hit the ground running senior year. Plan to draft a list of around 10 colleges to which you would like to apply in the fall – 3 “safety,” 3 “target,” 3 “reach” and one more of your choice. “Safety” schools are defined as those that you are more than academically qualified for. Typically this means that your test scores and GPA fall well above the averages listed for the college. “Target” schools are those that appear to be a solid fit for you. Your test scores and GPA should fall within the admission averages and you should clearly meet all qualifications. “Reach” schools are usually those that you may appear slightly under-qualified for on paper, but could still gain admission to through personal factors such as your personal statement, letters of recommendation and activities. If you are unsure how to classify a school that you are interested in, speak with your guidance counselor.
Talk with your parents about college costs
It’s important to make sure that you and your family are on the same page when it comes to college costs and how much you are able to pay to attend college. Be sure to have a conversation early on in the process so that you can manage your expectations, know how much money you will need in either scholarships or financial aid to make a particular college possible, and determine how much you will need to personally contribute towards your college education. You may also want to talk to your family about the possibility of taking out student loans for college. Will they support you if you decide to do this? Would they be willing to help you pay for college by taking out a Parent Plus Loan? Are they opposed to taking on debt for college? These are important questions to ask going into the college application and financial aid process.
Request letters of recommendation for teachers to complete over the summer
When do you usually do your best work? Probably when you have time to really think about an assignment, write something thoughtful and do some proofreading. The same goes for teachers! The earlier you ask your teachers for recommendations the more time you give them to write something unique, thoughtful and positive about you that will stand out to the admissions committee. Try to request your recommendation letters before the end of junior year. This will allow your teachers to write the letters over the summer and give them back to you at the beginning of senior year. As part of your request, you should let your teachers know 1) why you are interested in this particular college and 2) what makes you a stand-out applicant (i.e. leadership experience, activities, interests, etc.) The more information you provide, the more personalized their letter will be!
Begin researching and applying for external scholarship programs
It’s never too early to start searching for scholarships. Many scholarship programs allow you to apply before your senior year and some even require it. To maximize your scholarship potential, start exploring websites like www.collegegreenlight.com, www.fastweb.com, www.scholarships.com and www.zinch.com. All of these sites act as search engines for thousands of scholarships and can help you find opportunities for which you are uniquely qualified. Remember, you should never have to pay for a scholarship application – the point is for them to give you money, not the other way around!
Begin thinking about personal statement topics
While you won’t be able to know your exact personal statement topics until your college application forms become available (usually August 1), you can start to prepare by looking at previous years’ essay prompts and brainstorming topics to write about. The best topics are usually those about which you feel really passionate – an experience that changed you, taught you something about yourself or the world around you, or caused you to do some self-reflection. Remember that the point of the college essay is to let the admissions committee get to know you – your voice, your story, your point of view. This is your opportunity to grab their attention – take it!
Make a checklist for each college with important deadlines for applications, FAFSA forms, and any other documentation needed for financial aid or scholarships
This will help you to stay on track throughout the fall and spring of senior year.
Register for the SAT or ACT
Both the SAT and ACT will be offered in October of your senior year. This will be your last opportunity to take the test before submitting your college applications. (Note: While there are SAT/ACT test dates after October, these scores will not be available in time to be considered as part of your application – especially if you are applying Early Action or Early Decision). You can register for the SAT exam here: http://sat.collegeboard.org/register/. You can register for the ACT exam here: https://services.actstudent.org/.
Notify your counselor about which schools you’ll be applying to and let them know which colleges will require a counselor recommendation form
Be sure to share your final college list with your guidance counselor as soon as possible. This will let them know how many colleges you’ll be applying to and how many recommendation letters and forms they’ll be responsible for completing. Just as with teacher recommendation letters – the more time you give your counselors to write a recommendation letter, the better the letter will be.
Begin creating online application accounts and filling out applications
College applications typically become available on August 1st of your senior year in high school. Creating an online account and starting your applications early can give you a good idea of what information will be required by each individual college as well as what your personal statement prompts will be.
Make a list of your personal statement requirements and begin writing
If possible, print the page of the online application that lists the essay prompts that you will need to complete for each college you are applying to. This will allow you to continue working on your personal statement without being logged into your online application form. DO NOT write your personal statement in the online application form. Instead, do all of your writing and editing in a Word Document and then copy and paste the final version when you are ready to submit. This way if there is an error in the submission you will not lose all of your work and have to start from scratch. Working on your personal statements in Word Documents also allows you to send them to teachers and family members for editing.
Ask an English teacher, family member or friend to proofread your personal statement(s) and provide feedback before you submit the final version
The importance of editing and proofreading your work before submitting cannot be overstated. There is nothing worse to an admission counselor than reading a beautiful personal statement with the wrong college’s name at the end. Remember, there are some things Grammar and Spellcheck cannot pick up. Misused words, auto-corrected words and misspellings of proper nouns are all things that a family member or teacher will be able to catch that a computer won’t. Therefore, be sure to have a second set of human eyes read your personal statement before submitting your application.
Continue taking challenging coursework such as AP and IB wherever possible
While colleges will not be able to see your senior year grades when they receive your application (these come on the final transcript submitted by your counselor later on in the spring), they will be able to see what classes you are registered for and whether you have continued to challenge yourself in senior year. Any decrease in rigor can be a red flag to a college admissions counselor that a student is losing his or her motivation heading into the homestretch. Ideally, senior year should be your most challenging schedule of classes as it will be the last academic preparation you have before the transition to college.
Determine which, if any, of the colleges you plan to apply to require SAT II subject tests
Go through your college list and determine which colleges require SAT II exam scores. Keep in mind that while some colleges may not require these tests for general admission, certain programs within the program – such as the Honors Program – may. If you are unsure about a school or program’s requirements, feel free to call the Office of Admission and ask – admission counselors are there to help! Once you know which schools will require SAT II scores be sure to request that these score reports be sent through The College Board website.
Determine which, if any, of the colleges you plan to apply to require interviews
A small handful of colleges will require all applicants to interview as part of the application process. Be sure to check with your colleges to know whether you will need to schedule an interview as part of the application process. Oftentimes, these interviews will be offered in your area either by an alumna/alumnus of the college or a visiting admission counselor. Be sure to schedule early in order to get the location and date that works best for you and your family. If your college does not require interviews, but does offer them talk to your guidance counselor about whether it would be a good idea to schedule an interview. Good reasons to interview could include: wanting to explain something on your application that might cause the admission committee concern (i.e. a low grade in a class or a high number of absences), having a dynamic personality that you know connects well with other people, etc.
File FAFSA beginning January 1
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) becomes available to all high school seniors on January 1st of their senior year. In order to complete this form you will need both your tax information (if you’ve been working a part-time job) as well as your parents’ tax information. You will also need an electronic PIN for both you and your parents to electronically sign and submit the document. Be sure to request this PIN in advance so that when the time comes to submit, you are ready to go. You can begin filing your FAFSA and request a PIN (one for you, one for your parents) here: https://fafsa.ed.gov. Be sure to check with each school to determine: 1) their FAFSA filing deadline, 2) whether they require additional paperwork such as a CSS Profile, and 3) whether you are allowed to file using last year’s tax returns or if you must wait until you’ve completed the current tax year’s returns to submit your FAFSA application.
Continue applying for external scholarships
Continue to search for external scholarships (i.e. scholarships offered by organizations outside of your college). These scholarships can help you with the cost of tuition, books, and potentially housing (if they are not tuition-restricted).
Compile a list of your college acceptances and begin to compare financial aid packages
Depending on whether you apply Early Action/Early Decision or Regular Decision, college acceptance letters can start rolling in anywhere from December through April. Be sure to note how each college will communicate their final decision (i.e. via email, online application portal or mail) and note all notification deadlines. Once you receive your acceptance letters, start to compare financial aid packages and total costs for you and your family. Determine which schools are within your reach and where you will need more financial aid in order to make the college viable.
File any special circumstance appeals with each school’s financial aid office
It’s important to know that every school’s financial aid process is different and unique to that institution. This means that some schools will negotiate financial aid packages while others will tell you that what you received with your acceptance letter is their best and final offer. If there is a particular college that you have been accepted to, but the net cost of attendance is still too high for your family – call the Office of Financial Aid to see whether anything can be done. Be sure to have all the necessary paperwork ready – scholarship and financial aid offers from other schools, financial information that may not have made it into your FAFSA originally, new information about your financial circumstances which may affect your award amount (i.e. if there has been a job loss in your family or if you have taken on caring for an elderly relative, etc.) Any changes to your family’s financial situation since you filed FAFSA can usually be captured and considered through a “Special Circumstances Appeal” with the Office of Financial Aid. Be sure to file this appeal early in order to have a decision in time for the May 1st deposit deadline.
Attend an Admitted Student event or Open House
Many colleges will offer their accepted seniors a dedicated day to come to campus and learn more about the school before making their final decision on May 1st. These events are a wonderful opportunity to meet with the Office of Financial Aid about lingering questions or concerns, talk to faculty and current students about course offerings and life on campus, eat at the dining hall, and explore any other aspect of the college that is of particular interest to you as you make your decision. Remember, this is your opportunity to ask questions and gather all the facts you need to make a good decision – don’t be shy!
Make your final decision and deposit by May 1
Finally – the day you’ve been waiting for! Hopefully at this point you will have gathered all of the information you need to make a good choice – both personal and financial – for your post-secondary future. Once you have made your decision be sure to notify the college by sending in the decision form and enrollment deposit. If for any reason the deposit should prove cost prohibitive, call the Office of Admission to determine whether an exception or reduction can be made. Be sure to confirm that your deposit was received by the college either by calling the admissions office or logging into your online student portal 7-10 business days later. Congratulations – you are now college-bound!