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Going to College: Tips for high schoolers as they begin the college application process

College, for many of us, is the first step toward the rest of our lives. In saying that, we recognize the importance of moving through the college process efficiently and effectively, from start to finish. To avoid any “oops” moments or missed deadlines, you’ll want to consider working through some, if not all of the following steps. We want to make your academic journey as seamless, affordable and rewarding as possible.

So, what are the first steps to take toward going to college?

1. 9th Grade

It’s never too early to start thinking about what career (and consequently which college) could be the best fit for you and your goals. If your plan includes the traditional college route (starting college straight out of high school), you’ll want to start taking this more seriously by the 9th Grade. First, there are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • What are my passions? Every job has its ups and downs, but working alongside one or more of your passions makes it easier to push through the harder days. Plus, it allows those better days to be incredibly rewarding. So, do some daydreaming, and make a list of those people/places/things that bring you joy. You can then follow that up with a simple online search of “careers related to X.” Create lists of 10 jobs related to each of your passions. You’ll be surprised to find just how many options are out there.
  • What’s my definition of “wealth?” While some define wealth as a triple-figure salary, others consider personal happiness as a measure of wealth. The prospect of being a millionaire might not be worth being miserable in your lifelong career. Your idea of wealth may also align with the location in which you work, how many hours you work each week, working with great people, getting to travel for work, etc.
  • What are my dream jobs? Don’t forget to add these to your lists, no matter how big the dream is. If you want something bad enough and you’re willing to work hard for it, it’s more attainable than you think.
  • How do these jobs compare? Now that you have your lists, compare the careers. You can do this by going through and ranking each job for how passionate you are about it and how it ranks in terms of your idea of wealth. Then, you can use websites like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to look up how much each job pays (use the median salary), the projected growth rate of each and what level of education is required. Glassdoor.com is another helpful site for searching salaries. Cross off the lowest paying and lowest ranking jobs from your list to help simplify your decision-making process.

There’s no need to stress over this part of your decision-making process. You have plenty of time to develop these options into a full-fledged academic career. If you’re struggling to find careers that match your passions, avoid career/job quizzes. Instead, consider something like the Myers-Briggs personality test. Learning more about how your mind ticks will unveil career options that work best for people with your personality type.

Finally, feel free to change your mind as often as you’d like. You have four years before starting college, and even then, the required core courses you’ll start with are transferable across majors. Changing your major without losing precious tuition dollars is possible.

A few other helpful tips for college prep in the 9th Grade:
Robotics is just one of many clubs available to high school students. Participation in clubs lets colleges know you are a well-rounded student.
  • Meet with your school guidance counselor. He/she will be incredibly helpful in your college search and application process; it’s good to get to know him/her early on.
  • Get involved with clubs, student council, volunteer organizations, sports or any other extracurriculars. Colleges will look at how you spend your time outside of class. This will also help you better develop your passions and beneficial skills.
  • Choose a well-balanced course load, and work hard to get good grades. Your overall high school GPA is important in the college admissions process and for earning scholarships.
  • Clean up your social media/online accounts, and keep them that way. Harvard withdrew admission from a student who had a full-ride scholarship because of something he shared on Facebook. You can never be too safe.
  • Start reading for at least 30 minutes each day. You’ll have an immense amount of reading to do for your college courses, so it’s a good idea to develop the reading habit early, even if it’s just for fun.
  • Look for a mentor. Whether it’s a boss, parent, coach, teacher, etc., having an adult who you’re comfortable with is incredibly helpful in your decision-making process. A mentor can offer guidance that you may not find elsewhere.
  • Consider taking the PSAT 8/9. This is the first exam in the College Board’s “SAT Suite of Assessments.” Available to 8th and 9th graders, this exam is an excellent starting point for college prep as you transition to high school.
  • Begin discussing financial aid with your family, and what your plan is to afford tuition, books, etc. This will help you decide whether to start off at a community college or not.

2. Onward to the 10th Grade

Maintaining good grades can make all the difference when applying for college

Your Sophomore Year of high school, concerning college prep, is essentially a more significant extension of your Freshman Year. You’ll want to continue your focus on:

  • Getting good grades and challenging yourself academically through avenues like honors classes (and getting assistance or tutoring if you need to improve your grades)
  • Building and expanding your resume with extracurricular activities (clubs, organizations, community service, etc.)
  • Exploring possible career interests and the majors that will lead to such careers
  • Enlisting help when you need it.

Additionally, it’s time to take your first real steps toward the college application process. These include beginning the search for which colleges you want to apply to and starting to prep for the SAT and ACT.

In the 10th Grade, you can sign up for an SAT prep course at your school or in your community. Plus, Khan Academy offers free, personalized study tools and helpful information about the SAT if you sign up. After you’ve done some prepping, consider taking one or more of the following practice tests:

“Official SAT Practice reinforces what students are learning in school by helping them focus on the knowledge and skills most essential for college. And it’s free, for everyone, forever.”

Khan Academy, Official SAT Practice (2020)
  • PSAT/NMSQT: The College Board administers the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It’s a standardized test that’s essentially the SAT practice test. It’s cosponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in the U.S., so anyone with qualifying scores can earn the National Merit Scholarship through this exam. About 3.5 million students take this test each year. It’s offered once a year in the fall.
  • PSAT10: Another practice SAT exam, this version of the PSAT is designed specifically for high school sophomores with slightly easier questions than the actual SAT. It does have the same questions as the PSAT/NMSQT, but it will not qualify you for the scholarship. The PSAT10 is offered once a year in the spring.

Taking any of these during your Sophomore Year will help you become more prepared for the SAT. Plus, you can retake the PSAT/NMSQT during your Junior Year, which will help you qualify for a scholarship.

Now that we’re one year closer to going to college…

You’ll want to start taking your career choices more seriously. Once you have one or more goal careers in mind, start researching which majors and schools might be the best to accomplish those goals. I’m tooting our own horn, but Great Value Colleges is a wonderful resource to help find which schools are excelling in particular academic areas. Our heavily-researched rankings lay out what colleges are the most affordable and high-quality options for what you might want to do with your life.

Setting your heart on a college means planning to afford the tuition of that college. Take a good look (on your own or with your family/a support system) at what financial aid sources and opportunities are available to you. Begin laying out a plan.

Some of the financial aid options you might consider, depending on your need, are:

“The U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) provides more than $120 billion in financial aid to help pay for college or career school each year. “

– excerpt from studentaid.gov website, US Department of Education

If you haven’t already done it, it wouldn’t hurt to open a savings account to throw funds at. Full-ride or no, having money saved for college will only help.

Feeling unsure about making these kinds of long-term career goal decisions?

Don’t fret; you can still go to college right out of high school. Plenty of students enter college as undecided. The traditional college route does not require you to make these big decisions up front. As mentioned before, you can work through the lower-level “core” courses before having to lock in a major.

Additionally, it’s completely acceptable (and often encouraged) to start off at your local community college right out of high school. Through this route, you can complete those core courses at a much lower cost. Plus, you’ll have some more time for blue-sky thinking about what career you want to enter.

Finally, if you have any questions concerning the college admissions process, college life, etc., reach out to a friend or acquaintance who just started or recently experienced college. They’ll be able to paint you an accurate picture of what it’s really like to be a college student.

3. And now you’re an 11th Grader

Things are ramping up, so let’s get serious. Again, really try to get organized and beef up your resume via:

  • challenging classes and any other form academic achievement
  • a summer job or internship
  • clubs, sports or any after-school activities (stay consistent and aim for leadership roles)
  • community service or other productive volunteer activities

Plus, it’s time to actually create that first resume. Your high school guidance counselor or an advisor can assist you with that process. 

On top of that, you’ll want to complete the first draft of your college wishlist early on in the fall semester.

As a Junior planning on going to college, you should also be:
  • considering which teachers/mentors would be good to write your recommendation letters and reaching out to them
  • attending college fairs to meet recruiters and learn more about a wide variety of schools
  • planning college visits to get a good feel for the campuses
  • by the spring semester or summer, narrowing down that list to the number of schools that you are comfortable with applying to. Look at the big picture by considering factors like size, location and cost in choosing your top colleges. Remember, applications cost money and take a decent amount of work to complete.

On the other hand, you may be more interested in an alternative route, like going to a vocational-technical school or joining the military. In this case, it’s time to do your research and make a plan by listing out the steps it takes to reach those goals. If you plan to play college sports or enter any specific programs, you’ll want to take this time to start the certification process.

But wait, there’s more. 

It’s time to find and apply to some scholarships or scholarship programs. A quick online search of “college scholarships” will provide you with nearly countless opportunities to save money on your degree. This is one of those moments where your beefed-up resume really comes in handy.

And then there’s all of those tests. 

Do yourself a favor early on, and figure out the dates for taking things like AP Exams, the SAT, ACT and SAT Subject Tests. Again, your guidance counselor and the exams’ websites are great resources. Ask your counselor about exam fee waivers if you can’t afford them. You’ll also want to look into whether your top colleges require the SAT Subject Tests.

While you can take the SAT as early as Freshman Year (Eighth Grade for the ACT), many take these two exams during the Fall, Winter and/or Spring. If you wait to take them in the Spring of Junior Year, you’ll still have time to retake it as a Senior during the Fall if you aren’t happy with your scores on the first go. We suggest taking both (or more), regardless, to set yourself up for success! Furthermore, many colleges will look at your highest scores among the tests.

At the time of registration, make sure you opt-in/request to send the four free score reports to your top schools. This option is available up to nine days after you take the SAT. Each additional score report and any report sent after those nine days will cost you $12 per (or more if you need a rush order).

Now that you know these tests are coming up, you should use your time to:
  • take the practice tests
  • go to SAT and ACT prep courses
  • utilize free online exam prep resources
  • and/or purchase the Official SAT Study Guide and Official ACT Prep Guide to work through them on your own time.

If you haven’t taken any by now, consider enrolling in at least one AP course this year. Doing well enough on the AP Exams will save you time and money in the long run.

Again, don’t hesitate to ask for help with any part of the exams process.

On the financial aid front..

It’s time to take action. Using resources from the schools you’re applying to, learn about what financial aid is available and accepted. It’s time to develop a detailed plan and get organized with all the necessary paperwork. List out your chosen aid sources, as well as each one’s requirements and deadlines. Take the time to download any required forms for these applications now because financial aid submissions are typically due before college applications.

Additionally, documents like a copy of your tax returns should get filed with this plan because you’ll need it to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA will offer you the chance to receive government aid to pay for school, like scholarships, grants and loans. You won’t apply for federal aid until the Fall of Senior Year, but you’ll need an FSA ID to do so. Therefore, the Summer before Senior Year is a good time to register for FAFSA so that you’ll be prepared to submit it in the fall.

Be proactive and do your financial aid research. Some private loan companies don’t advertise honestly, so avoid anything with high interest rates. Or, avoid student loans altogether by applying to as many scholarships as you’re eligible for.

Lastly and always, get good grades!

4. It’s all about the exam dates and fine details during the 12th Grade

In addition to planning financial aid and finishing up your campus visits, go the extra prep mile the Summer before Senior Year, and visit each of your top college’s websites to download their applications and instructions. Pay attention to the deadlines, and begin working on your college application essays. Some colleges will accept a general essay, while others want you to respond to their particular prompts. Start off with rough drafts, and have a teacher read them and work with you to revise and finalize them.

If you’re planning to apply Early Decision or Early Action to a school you have your heart set on, you’ll want to submit that application as early as possible. Some colleges want to see Early Decision applicants’ test scores and applications in the first half of November.

If you’re still unsure of where you’re going to college…

You should try to whittle down your list of top colleges to 10 or fewer before the Fall Semester begins. Obviously, hold off a little longer if you’re still working through those last campus visits.

In addition to staying on top of your grades..

You’ll need to stay on top of this year’s timeline. There are a lot of deadlines and important dates to keep track of as a Senior, so a planner or calendar will be incredibly helpful. Take the time to sit down and map out each of your exam dates and deadlines for the following:

  • Exam registration
  • Your high school’s application processing
  • Admissions opening
  • Financial aid/FAFSA submission
  • Scholarship applications

Now, the Fall of Senior Year is a big one.

So be patient as we run through the steps necessary to get through this semester and that much closer to going to college.

College admissions typically open up by the Fall (around August), and you can apply for federal and state financial aid in October.

Along with submitting the FAFSA, you’ll want to complete the CSS/Financial Aid Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile). Sponsored by The College Board, this is an online application to receive non-federal financial aid. Certain colleges and scholarship programs use Profile to determine eligibility for their school’s aid money.

You’ll also want to hit that scholarship front hard throughout this year. The more private and school-specific scholarships you apply to, the less money you have to spend on your degree.

Another major event in the Fall Semester is your final attempt at the SAT. Retaking it this semester is beneficial because, by now, you will have completed additional coursework compared to the last attempt, which could help raise those scores. Afterward, make sure you send those scores to all of the colleges you’re applying to. Most colleges want to see official SAT score reports, sent via The College Board. But don’t forget that you can get those free score reports at the time of registration and up to nine days after you take the exam.

We’re almost through the Fall, I promise.

The last few things to accomplish before the Spring Semester include the following:

  • Recommendation Letters: If you haven’t already, ask your counselor, teacher, boss and/or another non-family mentor to write you letters of recommendation. Even if the college application doesn’t require them, at least one or two letters that back how great you are can help set you above the rest in admissions. If the college wants you to submit them directly, provide each person writing a letter with a stamped and addressed envelope, as well as any related forms that the college requires.
  • Application Essays: This semester, you definitely want to have those first drafts done and in the hands of a trusted teacher or advisor to read them and help you with edits.
  • High School Transcripts: Now’s the time to have your high school counselors send in your transcripts. Each college should have forms and processing instructions for how to get those transcripts in. Make sure your counselor has those forms at least two weeks before the colleges’ deadline for transcript submission. Transcripts are sent separately from applications. Some colleges will want to see second-semester grades, so make sure your counselor has the right forms to submit those as well.
  • Get Good Grades! Or do what you can to improve what you have.
  • Submit An Application by Thanksgiving: Get that first one in and over with during your Thanksgiving break. That will help take the load off as you press on through the rest of your applications, which you should work to submit during the Winter Break. Most application deadlines are between January 1 and March 1.

For every college application you submit, take the time to save photocopies/digital copies of each of your essays and applications. It never hurts to have these on file to reference any time you need. Additionally, ask your counselor for assistance with application fee waivers if you can’t afford the sometimes-high fees.

You can also make use of the Common Application. This is one college application that students entering college as undergraduates can fill out to apply to more than 800 colleges and universities.

Take your applications seriously.

Most colleges don’t require face-to-face interviews, so these submissions need to represent your best self without your physical presence. Feel free to check out our tips for making sure you stand out on paper.

Ok, take a breath.

You’ve made it to the Spring Semester of Senior Year.

Your main goals this semester should include:

  • keeping active in (and outside of) school
  • finishing strong academically
  • and making some big, final decisions.

The “staying active in/out of school” thing is especially important if you get waitlisted by your top choice/s. Any college will look at what you accomplish between your application submission and its final decision.

This Spring is when you’ll start hearing back from the colleges you’ve applied to. Be patient, and stay focused. If you’re wondering when you’ll get an answer, most colleges have information on their admissions websites about how long it might take before you hear from them. Mid-April is a safe bet for when you’ll receive most acceptance or rejection letters, as well as financial aid offers.

If you’ve already visited the school/s you got into, let your counselor know of your final decision. If you’re wondering which housing offer, meal plan, etc. to go with, ask your counselor or call the school. You’re not the only new student with questions! There are very helpful admissions counselors at every college who can get you the answers you need.

If you haven’t visited one or more of the colleges that accepted you, try to take care of that over Spring Break.

If you’re unable to physically visit any of them, most schools have online “virtual tours” that you can click through to learn more about the campuses and what they have to offer. Again, don’t hesitate to contact any specific department/office at each college to ask questions and learn more.

Finally, make your choice!

By May 1, you should contact each college/university to let it know whether you’ve accepted or declined its admission and/or financial aid offer. Send in your deposit only to only the one you’re choosing to go to.

If you’re on the waitlist for your top choice, let the admissions director know whether you intend to enroll upon acceptance, and ask him/her how you can strengthen your application. Also, you’ll want to ask whether any financial aid funds might be available if you get admitted.

Round things off by accomplishing these last tasks:

  • Take any AP exams to earn college credit and/or advanced placement
  • Go to your counselor/advisor to resolve any admission or financial aid questions/hiccups
  • Have your high school send your final transcript over to your college
  • Review your financial aid award package options, and decide with your family which works best for your situation. In this review, you’ll want to look at what you need to do to continue receiving the aid each year, and check how your award might change in years to come
  • Graduate with those good grades you’ve been working so hard for!

Now, enjoy the rest of your Senior Year, and have a wonderful summer before going to college!

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