If you have friends or classmates who are seniors, you know that exhaustion and hard work characterize the college application process. Do your future self a favor, and start thinking about applications now! Although you won’t have access to application and FAFSA forms until the fall, you can use this semester to do some prep work.
Think about your future.
This time next year, you’ll be preparing to graduate from high school and embark on your next adventure. For now, however, your future after high school is up in the air, and your options are limitless. Many of your peers will choose two- and four-year colleges (about 69.2% did in 2015), but there are alternatives. Perhaps you are curious about joining the military, getting a vocational education, taking a gap year, or enrolling in an online degree program. Now is the time to explore these options. Read about alternative paths after high school and talk to friends, neighbors, and former classmates who took the road less traveled. It could very well be the right path for you.
Begin or continue to assemble your college list.
If, after exploring your options, you decide to attend a two- or four-year college, start to look for the schools that would make the best academic, social, and financial matches. Are you interested in community college, or do you want to study for your bachelor’s degree? If the latter is the case, would you prefer a large research university, which offers dozens of classes and majors, or a liberal arts college, which provides students with individualized attention? In sum, identify your college preferences. Ask yourself where you’d like to move/live/study/grow in eighteen month’s time. The best schools for you are not often the same as the best schools for your friends, classmates, siblings, etc. Cast a wide net.
If you’re applying to four-year schools, it’s a good idea to apply to at least four, maybe as many as 10 or more if you’re applying to schools with low admissions rates. Your list should be made up of schools that fit your budget, and among them, you should have at least one or two reach, match, and safety schools.
Determine whether you will take the SAT or the ACT.
To be considered for admission at many four-year colleges, applicants must submit their scores on either the ACT or the SAT (schools generally don’t prefer one test over the other). That sounds intimidating, but don’t freak out just yet. Test scores are important, but there are plenty of study resources and tips to help you boost your score. An easy one is to choose the college entrance exam that plays to your strengths. The ACT tests science, math, reading, and English, which makes it a good fit for students who excel in the classroom. The SAT, on the other hand, just tests math and evidence-based reading and writing. It values reasoning and logic, which means that it benefits students with problem-solving skills. The exam that will be easiest for you depends on your learning style and your strengths. If you still aren’t sure which to take, you might take practice ACT and SAT tests to judge which one makes you feel more confident in your test-taking abilities.
Register for the SAT or the ACT and take the test.
Want another easy tip for excelling on your college entrance exams? Take your chosen test more than once. Unfortunately, that means you should probably register for a test date this semester so that you can retake your exam of choice this summer and/or fall. You will need to make a College Board account to register for the SAT or an ACT web account to register for the ACT. Plan ahead. Registration deadlines generally close a month before test day, and late registration is costly.
Plan college visits for your spring break or a weekend.
There is no better way to finalize your list of prospective colleges than to visit some of the schools you are considering. College visits give you the chance to see the campus, talk to students, and sit in on classes. If you plan well enough in advance, you will also have the chance to stay overnight with a current student in his or her dorm room, which will give you a better feel for campus life. So, if your family has the resources, consider using your spring break or a long weekend to tour two or three of the schools that interest you and ask yourself how they stack up. If a college visit is out of the question right now, don’t fear. You can still visit a nearby college fair to talk to admissions reps from schools all over the country.
Apply for scholarships.
There are hundreds of scholarships out there for students in every stage of their educational careers, which means that you, as a high school junior, are already eligible to apply for a bunch of private funding opportunities. Start with your local scholarship network, and expand your search with the help of your guidance counselor or the internet. Some scholarships are specifically available for LGBT+ students, mothers and fathers, foster children, etc. Identify what makes you unique; chances are that there’s a scholarship for it. If all else fails, you can always resort to applying for a few wacky and fun scholarship opportunities, too!
Consider taking SAT Subject Tests.
That’s right—more exams! The SAT Subject Tests are exams administered by the College Board that test your knowledge in one of more than twenty subjects. Whether or not you need to take any SAT Subject Tests depends on the schools to which you are applying. Some schools require (or highly recommend) that applicants submit scores from one to three SAT Subject Tests for admissions consideration. They may tell you which subjects to register for, or they may give you a choice. Once you have finalized your list of schools, check their admissions requirements to know if you should register. (It’s generally not a good idea to take a school off your list just because it requires SAT Subject Tests.) If you do need to take these exams, think about registering for a summer date, if available, so that you can spread out your testing obligations over the next year or so.
Register for IB and/or AP exams, and take the tests.
Even more tests! If you are in IB or AP courses, ask your teacher for information about exam registration. (For students who would like to take an AP test even if they did not take the class, talk to the AP coordinator at your school.) IB and AP exams may not seem as important as the SAT or the ACT, but the colleges to which you apply will see your scores, which means they may factor into an admissions decision. Plus, if you do well, depending on the policies at your future college, you could earn college credit, which would mean a lighter course load and a smaller tuition bill later on!
Start thinking about which teachers you’d like to ask for letters of recommendation.
Most college applications will require you to submit two or three letters of recommendation from teachers, guidance counselors, religious leaders, or coaches. Those letters are often most effective coming from people who know you very well, which means that you probably already know the people who will write your recommendation letters next fall. Think about who you’d like to ask. Once you’re sure, you might decide to approach them before summer break, but be aware that the application period for most colleges doesn’t open until fall, which means that your recommenders won’t be able to submit their letters just yet.
Make summer plans.
As tempting as it is to use your summer to recover from junior year and brace yourself for the year to come, do something meaningful. It could be a summer course at a local college, a job, a trip, a prep course for a standardized test, writing the first draft of your college application essay, doing community service, anything. Use the time off to beef up your résumé, save for college, or get a head’s start on the upcoming application season. Even a couple of hours of productivity a day leaves you with plenty of time for Netflix or sunbathing.
There you have it. If you start preparing for college this semester, your senior year will be breezier. But not too breezy. There’s still quite a bit to do come September.