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With graduation announcements starting to arrive in the mail, our thoughts turn to college. Ideally, when a student graduates from high school, they have spent the last four years preparing, and therefore can graduate with confidence in the knowledge that they have spent their time having fun and making intentional choices for their future. It can all seem very daunting, but is much more manageable when broken down into actionable tasks for each year of high school. Set up a checklist for each year to keep yourself on track.

The ideal time to start preparing for college is right off the bat during the freshman year of high school. While there are not so many official college application related tasks in the freshman year, there are many things students can do to get in the right mindset.


Freshman Year Checklist:
Number 1 freshman college checklist
  • They should introduce themselves to their guidance counselor, and find out what services are offered at their school to help with the college admissions process.
  • Find out the degree plan requirements at their school so that they make appropriate choices with their classes.
  • Find out what AP and Dual Credit courses are offered, and what the prerequisites are for those courses, so that if they intend to do advanced course work as upperclassmen, they know the requirements they need to meet as underclassmen.
  • Students should talk to their parents about finances regarding college, to determine if the family has saved enough, or if they need to start thinking about scholarships they qualify for.
  • Find out what extracurricular activities are offered at their school. It is not wise to join every organization offered just to “pad the application,” but rather choose activities that are truly interesting and fun for them.


Sophomore Year Checklist:
Number 2 Sophomore college checklist

During the sophomore year, it is a great time to start thinking about what college degree the student may wish to pursue, and what colleges offer the degrees that interest them. Students should remain focused on maintaining good grades, and enjoying interesting extracurricular activities.

  • Are there any sports or activities offered at your school in which they excel, that could lead to possible scholarships?
  • Students can take the PSAT in October during their sophomore and junior year, which determines their eligibility for National Merit Scholarships. Only the score from the junior year counts, so it is great practice to take it during the sophomore year. Many schools also offer PSAT prep courses.
  • Students can start researching what type of college they would like to attend. Private? Public? Religious? Secular? Same sex? Co-ed? 2 year or 4 year college? Thinking about and researching these choices can help students begin to narrow their choices.
  • Start preparing for upcoming SAT and/or ACT standardized tests. Find out which test the schools they are interested in accept. Are additional SAT subject tests required by a school they are interested in? Does their school offer test prep classes or services?
  • There have been changes made to the SAT test, and students should familiarize themselves with those changes and how best to prepare for them.
  • Are there opportunities for summer internships or college credit courses available? Students should research options open to them to expand their experiences. These can also provide possible material for essays they will have to write. 🙂


Junior Year Checklist:
Number 3 junior college checklist

Junior year is time to start getting serious.

  • Start the year by making a list of the dates and locations of all the standardized tests students wish to take. They will need to register for these tests in advance, and you do not want to miss a deadline.
  • Put together a study plan for any tests they intend to take.
  • Find out what the standardized test score thresholds are for scholarships at schools that interest them. Meeting or exceeding these scores can lead to automatic admission to some schools, as well as scholarships.
  • Start visiting colleges that interest them. Many schools will require you to register for a visit if you plan to attend any presentations or tours offered at college visit events. Also, find out when the schools on your list have their holiday and spring breaks. You will want to visit when the students are there, and many times your breaks are different than theirs, making it a good use of your breaks to visit schools that interest your child.
  • Don’t limit your visits to organized admissions events sponsored by the school. Go to a football game or theatrical presentation or any other extracurricular event that interests you!
  • Find out what application students will need to submit for each college you are apply to. There is the Common App, which allows them to apply for several colleges using the same application, as well as individual applications which some schools require.
  • Find out the specifics of their college choices’ use of Early Action, Single Choice, and Early Decision. Early Action requires applications by a certain date, resulting in your hearing back from them regarding acceptance at an earlier date. They can apply to more than one school that offers Early Action, and their acceptance is not binding. Under Single Choice, they can only apply to one school that offers this option, again with an application deadline, and learning of their acceptance by a certain date. They can apply to other schools with regular application and admission dates. If your child knows without a doubt where they want to go, they can consider Early Decision. There will be application and decision deadlines, and they can only apply to one Early Decision school. Their acceptance is binding. If they withdraw, you will forfeit a deposit.


Senior Year Checklist:
Number 4 senior college checklist
  • The Whirlwind Year. Start the year by listing all test, application, and decision dates on your calendar.
  • Make out your list of schools they really want to get into, their “safety” schools, and those they consider “reach” schools. Start putting together applications for each of their school choices.
  • Some schools will require letters of recommendation on the student’s behalf. You will want these to come from teachers, coaches, counselors, or administrators who can best convey the student’s strengths. Hopefully they have spent the last three years involved in great classes and activities, forming relationships with fellow students and staff at their school. Give the person they want to write their letter ample notice so that they have time to gather their thoughts about them. Additionally, popular teachers will undoubtedly have multiple requests for recommendations, so they will need advanced notice. For some reason, at my daughter’s high school, getting recommendation letters by requested deadlines was like pulling teeth. This was a problem for students all across the board. If your child is considering more than one person to ask, perhaps have them talk with fellow students to find out which teachers are most willing and cooperative to help. One teacher my daughter asked never responded at all. EVER. Others complained about the timeline. However, some teachers were wonderful and more than happy to help. So ask around.
  • Check and double check all application materials before submitting. Make sure you have met every requested requirement. Double check the essay for spelling and grammar. This is the student’s shot to make an impression on the admissions committee, so make sure they represent themselves in the best way possible. Don’t miss any deadlines.
  • Work together as a family to fill out the FAFSA. This is the federal form parents will submit, which determines eligibility for financial aid. Aid is distributed on a first come, first served basis, so submit it as early as possible.
  • Once the high school coursework ends, if the student took any AP courses, they will need to sit for the AP exam. Their score on this can help determine their placement in that subject in college. They will want to do as well as possible, as it may exempt them from some coursework in college. So study for it, and do well.
  • Compare all of your offers and financial aid as a family and make your decision. You did it! Now go have a kick-butt graduation party and enjoy your summer! It’s a busy one too, but not quite as breakneck as the school year.
  • You will want to take time during the summer to apply for any scholarships that have summer deadlines, and apply for as many as you can, as it all adds up to help pay for college.

We’ll be talking about scholarships in a later post.

Ideally, most everything on these yearly lists will be completed by the student. They need to spearhead this process for themselves. As a parent, it is our job to be informed and gently keep them on track with deadlines and requirements. Don’t take over this process yourself. It can be tempting, but you will rob them of this very important experience.

If you’d like a handy checklist all in one place, Countdown to College: 21 ‘To Do’ Lists for High School is a great book to get you started.

Did I leave anything out? Is there anything you did or are doing that will help others get through this crazy process? Please feel free to leave a comment below to share!




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