Updated: Apr 3
Now that your child is in high school, when is the appropriate time to start thinking about college? With all the pressure out there to “be prepared” for the college application process, you may worry about when is the best time to start. If you keep an eye on your child’s growth and development, you may be able to help them feel ready when the time comes. Here’s a timeline specifically created for your child’s high school years. This timeline is for the student, and is designed to follow the student’s natural development and prepare them for the process in a way that reduces stress and increases their sense of independence.
Discover your passions - Join new clubs and try new activities, or continue exploring what you love. Athletics, music, art, theatre, volunteering, paid work - what is it that excites you? Now is the time to explore these activities both in and out of school. Maybe even step out of your comfort zone and try something completely new. Discover who you are and what you like to do. Look for volunteer opportunities that align with your interests and try your hand at helping out your community.
Start an extracurricular log - Start a file on your computer, or jot down your activities and volunteer work in a notebook. Keep dates and hours and add to it all throughout high school. This way, you’ll have a record when it comes time to apply to colleges.
Schedule your high school classes with an eye on ”rigor” - See where you can challenge yourself. If you're good at English, for example, consider an honors course. Or, if you are a history whiz and your school offers an AP course for 9th graders, try that. Don’t overshoot, though - if you are unsure of a subject it is not necessary to jump to the most challenging course. If it feels more comfortable to tackle the basics so you can move on to more challenging courses later in your high school career, choose that option. Each student has their own strengths and struggles. Assess yours as you register for classes.
Start noticing colleges- locations, size, student population - If you go on a family vacation, notice if there are any colleges nearby, maybe even drive through campus. Familiarize yourself with colleges in your local area. Colleges come in all shapes and sizes - there are huge state colleges with over 20k students, and smaller liberal arts colleges with just a few thousand. There’s no reason to start official tours or research yet, but increase your awareness of colleges and universities in general.
Work hard in school, but allow time for fun and relaxation - Keep up with your assignments, study for tests, and take any extra help opportunities that are there if you need them. Strive for good grades, but don’t let grades become your only focus. Learn the balance of work/play now, as it is something that will serve you well in the future.
Begin honing in on your extracurricular interests - Now that you’ve tried a bunch of activities, spend more time cultivating the ones that interest you. You can still try new things, but begin to dedicate your time to something that ignites your passion and excitement. Start to think about how you might take on a leadership role with these activities in the future. Continue to explore community service and activities that help you to grow and develop as a person.
Assess your 9th grade performance and challenge yourself - If you haven’t tried an advanced class yet, try one now. If you know you need to work harder in one particular subject, find supports that will help you. Challenge yourself but make sure you have the resources to succeed. Think more about electives that interest you - explore your school’s course catalogue and pick electives that align with your interests - art, music, computer science, business, sports, etc. Most schools offer a variety of interesting elective courses.
Begin to research colleges - Now is the time to increase your awareness of all of the different schools out there. If you have an older sibling who attends college, go visit and have them give you a tour. Walk through a local campus, or go to a sports game at a campus that is nearby. Take a virtual tour online of a college that you’ve heard about. It’s about familiarizing yourself with options for the future.
Pick summer activities and experiences that align with your interests and foster independence - Get a summer job, or sign up for a summer intensive or camp that fosters your passions and hones your talents and abilities. Perhaps do some volunteer work. It’s important to take a break, but also use your summers wisely. There’s a lot of opportunity here to develop and grow during the summer.
Continue to find that work/play balance - Spend time with friends and family and enjoy where you are in life now!
Increase your academic rigor - If you haven’t tried a challenging course yet, be sure to take a few this year. Rigor is very important to colleges and they want to see that you are challenging yourself at some point, and taking advantage of all your high school has to offer. Colleges will get a profile of your high school, and the specific courses and level of rigor it offers, so they will look to see if you are challenging yourself. This is just as important as your GPA.
Take the PSAT and a pre-ACT in Fall, consider taking the SAT/ACT in Spring - While many colleges have become test-optional since Covid, it is still important to take the tests. If you are a strong test-taker, this will only increase your chances of getting into schools, and may increase your odds of getting merit scholarships. The PSAT also determines if you are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship program. Your scores on these initial tests will help you determine if you want to focus your energy on re-taking them for your best scores (after studying), or applying test optional and strengthening your application in other ways.
Begin developing your college list - This is a huge task, as there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. But the perfect fit for you is out there! Now is the time to begin researching schools by size, region, majors offered, activities, athletics, campus life, and price. Here is where your guidance counselor or a college consultant can really come in handy. They can suggest schools for you to research and help you develop your initial list. There are also many online tools to help filter and create lists. These lists should be large at first, so don’t be overwhelmed. You will begin to whittle down your list substantially once you begin campus visits.
Begin exploring majors - What majors mirror your interests? Are you business-minded? Or do you have a love of science or the arts? There are hundreds of majors to choose from, and each one supports multiple career options. Start to think about what you’d like to study. Don’t fret if you have no idea, or if you are interested in several different subjects. There are broad majors and schools that offer many different subject areas.
Start visiting college campuses - Now is the time to schedule official tours. Winter and spring break is a great way to begin traveling to schools that interest you. Make sure to vary the types of schools you visit - look at the big state universities and smaller, private liberal arts colleges to get a feel of what you might like. Sit in on information sessions and take campus tours led by current students.
Increase your leadership opportunities in activities and community service - Colleges love to see not only dedication to your interest, but leadership ability. Become an officer of a club, or create a community service project that ignites your passions.
Identify and begin requesting teachers and others who could write recommendation letters - Teachers often get inundated with recommendation requests in the fall of Senior year. Start to feel out your teachers now, and even ask for letters of recommendation by the end of Junior year. Be sure to give your teachers plenty of time and information to write a comprehensive and detailed letter.
Plan your summer - Make sure your summer offers you opportunities to work or explore your interests in a meaningful way. Get a head start on some of the 12th grade suggestions. Plan time for rest and relaxation as well. Spend time with friends and enjoy yourself.
12th Grade (and the summer before)
Set up your College Board, School specific site (ie Naviance) and Common App accounts - This is usually done with your high school’s guidance department. However, you can get a head start on this. You will need a College Board account to register for, view, and send your SAT scores. Common App opens August 1st of each year, so you can start filling in the profile information, listing schools you are interested in and perusing their supplemental essay prompts then. The personal essay prompt choices do not change much year to year, so you can get a head start on that as well.
Write your personal statement and supplemental essays - Start brainstorming early. Use the prompts for the personal essay to kindle your imagination. Now is the time to review each school’s writing requirements as well - sometimes there are “hidden” supplemental essays within certain school-specific applications on the Common App. Make sure to go through each one so you are prepared.
Create your resume - That list you’ve been keeping since 9th grade will come in handy now! Create a detailed resume that you can use when filling out the activities and honors section of the Common App. There are10 spots for activities and 10 spots for honors on the Common App. You don’t ave to use them all, but if you have more (or more detailed explanations of your activities and awards), you can attach your resume to your individual school applications.
Continue to visit campuses - Even if you don’t visit all on your list, make sure you are hitting “types” (large/small, urban/rural, greek/non-greek etc) And note which schools identify “demonstrated interest” as an important factor. Some schools really do want to see the love.
Decide on a major, or embrace your indecision - You will have to pick something on the Common App - if it is undeclared, that’s perfectly fine. Many students change majors in their first two years. But if you are set on a specific course of study, make yourself aware of the requirements for the major and be sure to highlight them on your application.
Finalize your college list - Now it’s time. Make sure your final list is balanced, and includes schools commonly referred to as “safety” (your stats are above what they usually take and the school is financially feasible), “target” (your stats fit who they usually accept) and “reach” (your stats may be slightly lower than those accepted, or your stats may be aligned with what they are looking for but the schools may be “highly rejective”)
Take the SAT/ACT - If you haven’t taken the test yet, do so in the Fall. If you took it in the Spring and have been studying (Khan Academy is a free, online test prep resource), take it again. Most schools will “superscore”, meaning they will choose the top score for each SAT section (reading, math) to come up with your composite score. However, you may also consider going test optional - the majority of schools are still offering test-optional applications post-Covid. Look carefully at the schools you are applying to and what scores admitted students achieved. If your score is within that range or higher, submit. If not, consider holding back and focusing on other part of your application.
Fill out the FAFSA and have your parent do their part - Even if you don’t think you will need aid, fill out the FAFSA. Both you and a parent must create accounts and fill out your respective forms. In case circumstances change, schools will need a record of your finances (and your parents) to compare with any changes. And you need to fill out the FAFSA if you are planning on taking any federal student loans. In addition, see if any of your schools require a CSS form - another financial aid form that goes into more detail than the FAFSA.
Apply to schools - Now is the time to finish up your applications and hit send! Determine whether you will apply ED, EA or RD. Make sure to fill out all sections of the Common App (or school specific app, state app, coalition app, etc). Be wary of deadlines and be in touch with your HS to ensure all supplementary materials (letters of recommendation, transcript, mid-year grades, etc) are sent out in a timely fashion. Once you apply, you will be prompted to set up portals at most schools, where you can ensure everything has been received and check on status.
Look for scholarship opportunities - Most schools will award merit scholarships automatically, but some have you fill out additional forms for scholarships and/or honors programs. In addition, there are a multitude of private, outside scholarships to which you can apply. Look locally, and ask your high school for a list of scholarship opportunities and start there.
Reward yourself - You’ve worked hard - no matter what the outcome, celebrate that. Enjoy your senior year of high school There is so much to look forward to!