By Belinda Leon, Ed.D.
By now most high school seniors know what college they are attending in the fall. However, for those students about to start high school in August, the preparation for college begins! Even if you are already attending high school, there is still time over the summer to prepare for the college application process NOW. Here are six key things to do in preparation:
- Plan out your schedule of classes over the entire 4 years of high school.
Colleges want to see that the curriculum you took in High school was rigorous enough so that you are able to handle college level courses. This means you want to take as many advanced or honors courses as possible. The ideal plan would be to take the maximum number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses accessible at your high school. However, in order to register for some honors courses or AP courses, you may need to take prerequisite courses first. This is why you need to plan out the order of the courses you want to complete.
Some colleges will give you a list of recommended coursework you should complete during high school. Even Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship lists the courses you need to take in high school in order to qualify for their college scholarships. Perhaps you want to transfer to a different program or school that allows you to graduate with your high school diploma and an associate’s degree simultaneously? Before you start high school, look at all your options and carefully plan out what courses you will register for in each year of study.
- Choose your extra-curricular activities wisely and commit to them.
Colleges want to see that students are well-rounded and balanced in regards to how they manage classes and other activities. Extra-curricular activities can include school clubs or organizations, sports, volunteer work, and even a part time job. Do not choose an activity because you think it will “look good” on your college application. Be sure to pick something that truly interests you and that you will enjoy doing possibly through your four years of high school.
Whatever extra-curricular activity you do choose, dedicate yourself for as long as you can. You can start out as a member, but try to occupy a position of leadership such as President, Team Captain, or Employee of the Month. This shows the college that the activity is not only something that captures your passion, but also provides evidence of your leadership skills. Keep track of your accomplishments because when you complete college applications, some schools ask very detailed questions about what you did in your activities.
- Explore different areas of study so you know what to pursue in college.
Some students know exactly what they want to be when they grow up or what they want to major in when they attend college. Wonderful! Others – they are not so sure. And that’s OK too. Before you can choose the college you want to attend, you need to at least have an idea of what you want to study. There are colleges that are known for having an excellent medical, legal, or engineering program. If you want to go to a school that has a strong program in your field of study, well – you need to know what you want to study!
Find opportunities to explore your areas of interest. If you want to be a nurse, volunteer at a local hospital. If you want to be a teacher, get a summer job as a summer camp counselor. If you want to study business, ask that relative of yours if you can observe how they run their small business. Research the major that interests you; ask people you know lots of questions about what interests you; find a way to see upfront how that career actually plays out; and if you really need assistance – contact a vocational counselor who can help you determine how your talents and interests can be used in a specific profession.
- Visit the colleges that you like when college students are on campus.
Once you have an idea of what you want to study, you need to identify colleges that offer a strong curriculum for your program AND a college that fits your personal needs. Consider location, size, campus activities, student demographics, and most importantly – your gut feeling when you walk on campus. Come up with a list of about eight colleges that fit your criteria. It’s rather easy to do via the school’s website. You can also find graduates who live in your city that can share their experience with you.
Try to schedule a visit to the college campus when students are in school taking classes. This allows you to see the type of students on campus, speak with them directly, and it gives you a feeling of the energy on campus. The most important determinant of what college you attend is how you feel when you step on campus. If you do your research and you know that this school has everything you want, but you just don’t feel comfortable when you visit – then keep visiting schools. You are going to spend at least four years of your life on campus and if you are not happy, it doesn’t matter how famous the school is – you will do poorly.
- Strategically schedule out all the college entrance exams you need to take.
Once you have a list of colleges that you want to apply to, you need to review their entrance requirements. You want to make sure that you can meet their entrance requirements and that you complete everything pending as you continue through high school. Most importantly, take note of what exams and what scores they require. Most schools will accept either the SAT or the ACT, but some schools state that the essay portion of the test is optional. Others will require SAT subject tests! Does the school super score? All of this is important for you to put together your testing plan.
Know exactly what you need to do in regards to testing for the college. Decide if you are better at taking the SAT or the ACT. Then, choose the test dates during your junior year of high school that you will sit for the exam. Take into consideration family obligations, exams at school, or anything else that might conflict with a test date. If you can take your tests during junior year and be done with it, then you can focus on applications during senior year. How many times do you take the test? Until you get the score you need for the college you want or until you think you just can’t score any higher.
- Create a list of scholarships that you should qualify for by senior year.
Start you scholarship search early. You won’t be able to apply for the scholarship until you start your last year of high school although a few do allow for earlier applications. Simply make a list of all the scholarships that you think you meet the qualifications for. Then, during the summer before your senior year, start pulling the requirements together.
Scholarship applications may ask for essays, recommendations, transcripts, and even interviews. Figure out what you need to submit and start gathering the materials or just be ready so that when you walk into the first day of school, you’ll know that you need to request a certain number of documents. Remember, you may have to wait until you submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but that opens up on October 1 and you’ll have everything else ready to go.
These are only six steps that you can take before or during high school to prepare you for the college application process. There is so much more you can do, but this will give you the start of a plan. It’s a lot of tedious work getting into college, so start early and work diligently and don’t rush the steps. In the end, it is well worth the effort when you choose the right college.