College Planning for High School Students

By: Jordin Landen

College Planning for High School Students

For lots of students, college looms over their high school experience. Parents and teachers start talking about it in middle school. It can feel like an overwhelming process. The truth is, preparing for college truly does start as soon as high school begins. Students who understand the process are better able to have a rewarding high school experience while also successfully planning their future college experience.

First Year of High School: Lay the Foundation for College

For some students, the groundwork for college begins in eighth grade when they select the classes they'll take in ninth grade. Those early high school classes lay the foundation for the rest of the student's high school career, and by extension, what options will be available to them when it comes to college. First-year students shouldn't worry if they aren't sure what extracurricular they want to focus on or what a possible major in college might be. Students should use this time to explore a wide variety of interests, because in most cases what extracurriculars a student has early on in high school isn't as important as the fact they consistently participated in extracurriculars. All students should get to know their guidance counselor because this person will play a key part in helping them navigate the path to college. It's also important for adolescents to keep open lines of communication with their parents about college and their potential career paths. Towards the end of freshman year, students will choose the classes for their sophomore year. It's important to remember that Freshman year grades play a big role in what classes students are eligible to take as sophomores. In some schools, sophomore year is when Advanced Placement classes become an option. AP classes allow students to earn college credit while taking high school classes. Honors classes, which usually are also available and are more challenging than standard-level classes. Now is when students need to develop a general idea about what type of college major they might be interested in. Science-minded students will want to make sure they are taking high-level science and math classes.

Focus on College-Friendly Classes

Colleges, especially colleges with competitive admission, do look for specific things on a student's transcript. These things include:

  • Four years of English classes, preferably with honors or AP classes included.

  • Three math credits, which should include Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, or Trigonometry. Students considering a math or science major should consider taking an AP class like Calculus or Statistics.

  • At least three science classes.

  • Four credits of social studies and social science classes which should include a U.S. History class, World History Class, and U.S. Government, class. An AP class in any of those subjects or Psychology or European History will help round out a student's transcript.

  • Two or more years studying one foreign language.

  • Electives that support a student's major interests.

Sophomore Year: Continue Building on First Year Foundation

Sophomore year is when many students start focusing on certain aspects of getting ready for college. For example, this is when students should start preparing for taking the ACT or SAT, and decide if taking one or both makes more sense for them. Typically, there are also more demands on a student's time during sophomore year. Extracurriculars are often more demanding. This is the time when students should drop extracurriculars they no longer find rewarding to focus on the ones they truly enjoy. Classes also are usually a little more demanding at this point in high school. Students should also spend some taking stock of their interests and talents and start focusing on how those interests and talents might lead them to a college major and eventual career. It's also the right time to spend time learning about colleges. For example, there are many different types of colleges and students should become familiar with each type so they can start deciding what type will work well for them. There are vocational schools, community colleges, public universities, and private universities. Colleges also come in a wide range of sizes, and different schools offer different programs. A student interested in computers will want to look at schools with a range of computer science offerings.

Of course, students will be expected to choose their junior-year classes at some point during the year. Students should spend time reflecting on their high school career as it stands. What classes have they done well in? Where have they struggled? Have they been able to handle the increased workload and expectations that come with honors classes? Have they taken any AP classes yet? Are they interested in pursuing them? What about taking an AP elective like Psychology or Art History to help make their transcript stand out when they apply for college?

Junior Year: Time to Focus on the College Prep Process

Junior year is a busy, challenging time for most students who are planning on attending college. It's also the last full year students have before beginning the application process. It's a time when students must make many decisions so that they are set up for a successful season of applying to college.

  • Look at extracurricular commitments. The ones colleges will be most interested in are the ones where students took on leadership responsibilities. Another thing colleges like to see is experience in community service or very intellectual pursuits like debate teams or Model UN. A commitment to athletics can net students financial aid. Colleges also look very favorably on students who hold down part-time jobs while also doing well in school.

  • Take the PSAT in the fall. Colleges will never see the scores, but it gives the student a practice run at taking college admission tests and also allows them to potentially qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.

  • Students and parents need to have an honest conversation about finances. College is expensive. Kids need to know what, if any, financial support their parents can provide so they can plan accordingly.

  • Financial aid is available. Students and parents need to learn about how to apply and how the various types of grants, scholarships, and loans work.

  • Of course, students will choose their final high school courses. They should take a two-pronged approach by choosing classes that will help them raise or maintain their GPA (grade point average) and also potentially gain college credits by taking AP classes. It's also a good idea for students who enjoy learning foreign languages to take a final year to make their transcript more impressive!

  • Make a list of possible college majors and do some research to see what sort of careers they lead to, and how much people in those careers typically make.

  • Start a preliminary list of colleges the student is interested in learning more about. Many schools now offer virtual tours which can help the student get a taste of campus life.

  • Spring break of junior year is the traditional time for students to travel to the colleges they are most interested in to take a tour or even spend the night with a student picked out by the admissions office.

  • Many students also take the SAT or ACT in the spring of their junior year.

Complete Senior Year Courses and Tasks

Senioritis is real, and students need to make sure they don't fall victim to it. Senior year is about applying for college, comparing financial aid packages, deciding what school they'll attend, and completing their high school career on a high note. It's important that students enjoy their senior year! However, there's also a lot to do. Lots of students take the SAT or ACT for the final time. They'll make their final list of potential colleges, a list which should include reach schools, dream schools, good matches, and safety schools. Students will decide if they are going to apply for Early Admission to their top choice school, which requires getting applications in earlier. However, the fall semester will be largely focused on applying to colleges in general because most four-year schools have an application deadline sometime in either November or December. Two-year schools and vocational schools often accept applications much later, though. When decisions are sent out, the colleges will include information about financial aid. Cost is a big factor for most students. Even after a student is accepted into a school, they need to stay focused on finishing their senior year on a high note. Some students have had their admission taken back after failing classes in their senior year.