preparing for college

When Should High School Students Start Preparing For College?

As the summer turns to fall, and high school students are fully immersed in classes and activities, parents often ask what their students should be doing “for college” at each grade level.

The first two years of high school are an important time for students. Students should use these early years to explore classes and activities and determine what interests them. They should develop strong study skills, get the best grades possible, and increase the rigor of their classes from freshman to sophomore year.

In sophomore year, students should also develop a standardized test plan. Although many colleges have adopted test optional policies because of the pandemic, and may keep these policies in place permanently, some colleges are likely to return to requiring testing in the future (as the University of Georgia did this year). Importantly, even those colleges that remain test optional are not test blind. Students should take standardized tests so that, if appropriate, they can apply to colleges that require them and have the option to submit scores that will enhance their application.  Sophomore year is a good time to take a diagnostic ACT and SAT and create a test prep schedule and testing timeline.

In junior year students begin to focus on the college application process in earnest. As the halfway point of high school, this is a good time for students to take stock of where they have been successful and where they may need to make any adjustments. Do they need to improve their grades in classes or get more engaged in activities? If so, now is the time to start!

Juniors may be ready to take their first ACT or SAT that fall; if not, they should be following their test prep schedule. In the spring semester, students begin the college research process and start building their college list. Spring break is the perfect time to take a college road trip. If they have not already done so, students should be taking the ACT or SAT this spring.

The summer between junior and senior year is also a busy time in the college application process. If possible, students should write their personal statement, continue to research colleges, and refine their list. Many families also visit colleges this summer.  In August, students can create their Common Application account.

In the fall of senior year, students finalize their college list, complete their Common App, write supplemental essays, take the SAT or ACT (if necessary) and decide on an application strategy, including whether and where they want to apply Early Decision or Early Action. Seniors need to keep up their grades and engagement – colleges pay attention to the fall semester of senior year and now, so close to the finish time, is not the time to slump.

So, what parents can do each year? I love the recommendations from the Department of Education: parents can ask their students about what they are learning in class and doing outside of class – demonstrating that they care; parents can keep an eye on students’ academic success and social and emotional well-being and look for any early warning signs that things are awry; and parents can provide guidance and work with their students to resolve any problems that may arise. High school can be stressful, and a supportive parent makes all the difference!

Students and parents should also remember that high school is not just about preparing for college. Students should enjoy high school, both in and out of the classroom.  Learning should be valued not only for the grade a student gets at the end of the year, but also for its own sake. Significantly, research shows that students who love learning do better in college (and ultimately in jobs). Similarly, engagement outside of classes should be valued not only for a line on a resume, but also, as a I wrote in an earlier blog, because activities help students grow and get to know themselves better.