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It seems like it was just the other day that my living room floor was filled with wooden train tracks and little boys having adventures. But now instead of talking about the misadventures of cheeky little train engines, I’m discussing how to prepare for college, campus visits, cap and gown rentals, and SAT scores with those same boys. While we still have one daughter in middle school, our sons are in high school. In fact, this is junior year for one of them and senior year for the other.
We are deep in the midst of working on things that need to be done in high school to get ready for college. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There are definitely things that you should be doing throughout high school to get ready for college.
How to Prepare for College: Things You Absolutely Must Do in High School to Get Ready
Make a Plan to Take All of the Classes You Need for Both Graduation and the Colleges of Your Choice
It can be easy while you’re in high school to just pay attention to your graduation requirements when deciding on what classes to take. While these are paramount, of course, as early as possible in high school you need to look into the admissions requirements and suggestions of the colleges that you are considering. These admissions requirements may include classes that aren’t required for graduation from your high school, but if you really want to go to that college, they are a must to include in your high school plan.
One of my nephews sat through his first “day on campus” event a week into his senior year of high school. That was the first time he was aware that many colleges require two years of a foreign language for admission. Thankfully, he had already taken a first year of a foreign language and was able to drop another class so he could be placed in to a second year of that language. If he had never taken the first year, however, it would have been too late.
When to Do This: This is something best looked into as early in high school as possible.
Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities and Volunteering Opportunities
Grades and test scores are important for college admissions, but they aren’t the only thing most colleges are looking for. Colleges are looking for students that they feel are well-rounded individuals and have something to add to the student body. One of those proofs that they are looking for is involvement in extracurricular activities and having volunteering experience.
Don’t worry if sports aren’t your thing. Your high school (or even organizations outside of your high school) have extracurricular activities that don’t necessitate that you can hit a ball or run a mile. One of my sons has a decent sized list going of extracurricular activities and he is definitely not athletic. His involvement includes a lot of different theater and choir activities both in the school and through our local civic theater.
If you know what you want to major or minor in and there are extracurricular activities or volunteering opportunities that are applicable to those, try to get involved! If you’re interested in agriculture, be sure to join the Future Farmers of America (FFA). If you’re interested in teaching, volunteering at the local elementary school may be perfect. Colleges want to know that when you are a student there, you will add something to their campus. They prefer students with a track record of getting involved, rather than those that they suspect will just hang out in their dorm rooms all the time.
When to Do This: Throughout High School
Note: Another good idea for extra activities is to start looking into internships, job shadowing opportunities, and part-time jobs that might be applicable to your desired college major.
Seek Out Leadership Roles
Just like colleges want you to be involved in activities and doing volunteering, they want to see that in some of those activities you took on a leadership role. This shows that you don’t just show up to club meetings because you know you want to put it on a college application one day.
You don’t need to try to be the president or team captain of everything you do. However, it’s good to try to have at least one, even if you don’t like leadership roles. Remember – this could even be something like that secretary position that nobody wants to take in the Drama Club that you love going to. It doesn’t mean that you have to be front and center at events.
When to Do This: Throughout High School
Keep Records of Your Participation, Awards, Special Accomplishments, and Recognitions You Have Received
Four years is a longtime. It can be easy to forget when you’re filling out your college applications that you won second place in a local art contest during your freshman year. Keep records of noteworthy awards as well as your participation in activities. It will make college applications much easier.
When to Do This: Throughout High School
Work on Your Study Skills, Note Taking, Writing, and Reading
These are all skills that will be vital for you in college. High school is the time to work on honing those skills. Even if you are a strong high school student, the college work load may be a surprise. Having good study skills will help make it so much better.
Believe me – I can speak from personal experience. I was one of those students who did well in high school and didn’t have to put in a lot of effort to do so. I thought college would be the same, and when I got a 4.0 GPA my first semester, that seemed to prove to me that I could continue to coast and do well. Let me tell you – when I got a 3.0 GPA my second semester, my overall GPA never really recovered how I wished it would and I realized that I was going to need to work harder in college than I thought.
When to Do This: Throughout High School (or even earlier!)
Prepare for the PSAT, SAT, and/or ACT
Whether you are intending to take the SAT or the ACT, the PSAT is a good early indicator of how you might do and you should plan to not only take it, but to also study for it before taking it. Students typically take the PSAT their junior year. At the high school my sons attend, they take the PSAT during the school day and every sophomore and junior takes it.
During your junior and senior year, you should be studying for and taking your SAT or ACT or both. Also, make sure to give yourself enough time to retake them to try to improve your scores. Before taking your tests, you’ll want to verify which of those tests your desired colleges accept. There will be no need to take one of those if none of the colleges you are interested in acceptance scores.
Both the ACT and SAT have excellent preparation materials. They both also have a ton of information on their sites with tips, as well as vital information for getting ready, like what to bring and what not to bring, etc. Be well prepared before you take these tests.
Be Careful on Social Media
I’m not going to say a lot about this, but be sensible online and with social media. Don’t ever post, share, or even like things that you wouldn’t want the college admissions director from your dream college to see. Even if your social media accounts are private, treat them like anyone could see them. You’ll thank yourself later.
When to Do This: Always
Attend College Fairs
If you have a college fair in your local area or even within a reasonable driving distance, you should consider attending it. These kinds of events have representatives from many colleges all in one place. This is a great way to pick up materials, ask quick questions of representatives, and learn about colleges that you might not be familiar with.
When to Do This: Anytime During High School
Visit College Campuses for Those that You Are Interested In
Websites are great ways to learn information, but nothing can compare to actually visiting a campus and meeting with people. Most colleges can make arrangements with you for visits throughout the year, but they probably also have specific dates set aside for “day on campus” types of events. These are typically a great chance to pack a lot into one day on campus and will be better information than just roaming around campus on your own. These are usually events that you must register for, so check out a college’s website for information.
We have a day on campus event that we will be attending soon with both of my sons. While it is a college that they are familiar with, the day on campus will include an information meeting with the admissions department, a guided campus tour, lunch in a dining hall, a tour of a residence hall, and an afternoon where there are designated times to go to informational meetings with various schools and majors within the university.
When to Do This: Typically starting the summer before your junior year
Fill out the FAFSA (and Do it On Time!)
Just about as important as filling out your college applications is to fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is something that you will fill out not only before college, but that you should be filling out every year that you are in college. The FAFSA is not only the way that you will be considered for federal student loans, but it’s also one of many ways that colleges use to award scholarships and grants.
So, even if you think you have no plans to take out student loans (though keep in mind that things change and you may have to), you’ll want to fill it out so that you can be considered for grants and scholarships. Filling out the FAFSA does not guarantee that you will receive loans, scholarships, or grants. Likewise, even if you qualify for all of those things, you don’t have to accept any of them. Typically, if you are going to receive scholarships or grants, you would have to decline them if you didn’t want them for some reason (though I’m not sure why that would be). If you qualify for federal student loans, you will still have to fill out additional paperwork. Filling out the FAFSA doesn’t automatically give you federal student loans
Here are some more great Do’s and Don’t’s on the FAFSA.
When to Do This:
During Your Senior Year – the FAFSA is open for submission on 10/1 and it is best to file as soon as possible as some school’s award aid on a first come, first served basis.
Apply to the Colleges of Your Choice
Hopefully you’ve been keeping records of all of the above throughout high school to make this a little bit easier, but even so, just know that the actual application process can be very involved. This may include writing a college essay, gathering letters of recommendation, getting materials from your high school such as your transcript, and more. This is not something to put off until the last minute!
Spend time ahead of time to gather up all of the important dates from the colleges of your choice. Put them all on a calendar and start preparing your application. You’ll also want to know ahead of time how to apply to the colleges of your choice as well. Many now accept the Common Application, though they may have their own requirements on top of that. The more you know ahead of time, the less you will have to stress later.
The application process can be tedious and expensive. Apply to all of the schools that you are considering attending (and may be even one dream school and one backup school, if you’re concerned about your chances). However, don’t apply to a school that you have absolutely no intention of going to if you are accepted. Don’t waste everyone’s time and money– including your own.
Many colleges have certain dates where they guarantee to give you an admissions decision by a set date. Be aware of those dates and try to see if you can get things in before that. Most colleges will expect you to be applying very early in your senior year, so prepare for it!
When to Do This: Start Preparing in the Summer to be Able to Apply to Colleges Early in Your Senior Year
Learn and Work on Basic Life Skills
I know that this seems like a far departure from college applications and preparing for the SAT, but for most teens, going to college means leaving home for the first time. If you aren’t already familiar with things like fixing some easy recipes that you might be able to whip up in your dorm room, doing your own laundry, cleaning your room (not just straightening up, but actually cleaning), sewing on a button, and other simple tasks like those, you need to start learning those.
It’s best to start learning those kinds of skills when you are very young, but it’s not ever too late. Start helping your parents around the house more. If you don’t know how to do a task that you know will be your responsibility (like laundry, for example), ask your parents to show you how to do it or find videos on YouTube. Be prepared to take on new responsibilities when you’re in college.
When to Do This: The earlier the better
Working on how to prepare for college isn’t a quick thing to do in your senior year. The sooner you can start going through this list and preparing, the better. However, no matter where you are in high school right now, you can jump in on this list and start working on it. Get involved, have fun, study hard, and make high school count!
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