Applying to College: Advice Through the High School Years

Updated on September 16, 2017
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Wendy is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice. She is married with three children (22, 19, and 13).

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College Acceptance Checklist in a Year-by-Year Glance

9th Grade

  1. What type of classes will you take?
  2. Check for state or local scholarships and criteria.
  3. Check out clubs and activities that maybe of interest.

10th Grade

  1. Continue focus on classes stressing honors and AP classes when possible.
  2. Continue involvement in extracurricular activities or volunteer work. Opportunities for leadership positions are encouraged.
  3. At the end of this year, take ACT or SAT for a baseline score, and look into study guides or classes to help with score improvement.

11th Grade

  1. Begin researching colleges and universities. Narrow down to 3-5.
  2. Take college tours either self guided or preview days.
  3. Take the ACT or SAT as many times as necessary to get desired score. Check to see if the colleges you are interested in take highest score or the superscore.
  4. Continue to focus on classes, extracurricular activities, and volunteer hours if needed.
  5. During the summer, begin to work on college applications and scholarship applications.

12th Grade

  1. Complete applications by December.
  2. Research and apply for additional scholarships. Check out scholarship books or online resources for hundreds of possibilities.
  3. Make sure all transcripts have been sent to colleges by guidance counselors, letters of recommendation have been turned in, volunteer hours completed if necessary, and all fees have been paid.
  4. Beginning in October of this year, the FAFSA (student financial aid form) can be filled out to learn whether a student qualifies for federal grants or loans. It is to the student's advantage to fill this out and see if aid is available.

My Experience Getting Into College

When I was in high school, I was the oldest in my family, and I knew I wanted to get to college. I was the first to attend in my immediate family, so the process was new and unclear. I knew I needed good grades, and I had known where I wanted to go to school since I was five and my uncle took me to the campus of Florida State University. The students amazed me and I loved the bookstore. I did well in school, mostly A's with some B's thrown in. I didn't think of college during my Freshman or Sophomore years because it still seemed like a lifetime away, but by the time my Junior year hit, I knew it was time to start thinking about the process of making that dream come true. My guidance counselor's office was helpful and had forms to fill out, but I wasn't really well versed on anything. I learned about scholarships when the guidance counselor told us she had a drawer in her office with folders in it that had some different applications (this was before internet). I was a regular to the bottom file drawer. I also learned about a form I could fill out for financial aid (now called the FAFSA) and completed that (by hand and sent by snail mail to wait for 2 months or more for results). I wish back then I had a checklist or more personal advice that would have helped me throughout the high school years and prepared me even better.

Fast forward to today. I made it through FSU and got my Bachelors and my Master's degrees. I am now the mother of three children, 20, 17, and 11. The 20 year old has followed in my footsteps and become a Seminole. He is in his Junior year. My 17 year old is in her Senior year of high school and getting ready to leave for college in a year (school yet to be determined, but she's got some options). We are now in the throes of ACTs, college applications, AP vs. honors classes, and so many other challenging college prep decisions. Even for those of us who have gone through it multiple times, it can still be a daunting task. My hope is that this article will provide some clarification, maybe an easy check list in year by year form, of things that parents and students need to think about during the high school years.

What to Accomplish in Your 9th Grade Year

Out of middle school and now a big high schooler. This is the time to start thinking about dances, dating, hanging out with friends at the mall, and not necessarily college. College is still forever away and there are still experiences to be had. BUT...if a student is trying to decide on whether he or she is going to college or not, 9th grade has a lot of choices that need to be made. First, will honors classes or regular classes be taken? Honors classes are much more difficult but they carry more weight as far as the student's GPA. For example, a student who takes a regular algebra class will be graded based on a 4.0 grading scale, but a student who takes an honors algebra class will be awarded an extra 0.5 or 1.0. So an "A" in a regular algebra class will give the student a 4.0, but an "A" in an honors algebra class will give the student 4.5 or 5.0. An honors class definitely provides an advantage to college bound students.

Another thing to check into is whether the student's state has scholarship programs, and if so, learning what the criteria may be. In Florida where we are, the state has a program funded through the Florida Lottery called Bright Futures. There are two tiers with different requirements. Both levels involve volunteer hours, GPA, and scores on the ACT or SAT. Learning about this in 9th grade will help the student start earning the volunteer hours so they are not overwhelmed at the last minute, as well as take the standardized tests often enough to get the scores high enough.

Finally, the student should start looking into clubs and activities that may be of interest. Sports, band, art programs, and other extra curricular activities are great to get involved in. Scholarship applications and college applications ask for a year by year breakdown of activities.

Areas of Focus During Your 10th Grade Year

This year it is important to continue to focus on what classes to take. College bound students should continue to focus on honors or AP classes where possible as long as the student is strong in the subject area. Volunteer work (if looking for scholarships) and extracurricular activities are excellent to also focus on. It is not necessary to overload a schedule and face burnout, but really focusing on areas of interest will be helpful. Holding leadership positions is also a good step in the right direction. Is the student able to be an officer in a club, a class officer, captain or co captain on a sports team, lead a Bible study for elementary or middle school students, or any other such positions?

At the end of this year, my recommendation is to take the ACT and/or the SAT standardized test to get a baseline score and see where the student needs to improve. These tests can be taken many times and improvement can be made. Colleges will either take the best score made or they will superscore. If a college or university superscores, that means they take the best subscore from each section of individual tests taken. So, for example, if a student takes the ACT 4 times, the college will take the highest math score, highest English score, etc. This can be very helpful if a student does very well on one subtest during an early test and can focus on studying for subtests he or she needs to improve on.

Important Considerations for Your 11th Grade Year

Only two more years to go now before entering college. This year holds many important considerations. Students should start to consider what colleges or universities they are interested in. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you want a big university setting or a smaller campus with less students and more individual attention
  • Do you know what you want to major in and does the college you are looking at have the major.
  • What is the cost of the college and do you pay in state tuition or out of state tuition.
  • Does the college offer scholarships and how much are you eligible for (go to the financial aid tab on the college website and look up their scholarships and the criteria for each)
  • What are the requirements for getting in to the college, and do you meet the requirements.
  • Can you go to any college on a specific scholarship for sports, music, or another specialty--(i.e. it may not be possible to get a Division 1 basketball scholarship, but are you willing and is it possible to play Division 2 basketball with a scholarship)
  • Is it financially beneficial to attend a community college first then transfer to a University

During the Junior year, it is beneficial to choose 3 to 5 and go on some college tours to see what the student and parent thinks of the school, atmosphere, accommodations, and possibilities presented. During these visits a student will often rule in or out a particular school. This is a good time to have questions prepared to ask.

It is important to take the SAT or ACT a number of times (unless the student scores very well the first time) in order to get the highest score possible. GPA and test scores are usually what help in securing scholarships. These two tests are different in structure and score type. The highest SAT score is 1600 and the highest ACT score is a 36. It is advantageous to attempt both to see if one is better than the other for the student. There are classes that can be taken and books that can be purchased to help students study and prepare for these tests. Test prep tools are helpful in giving advice on how to take the test as well as the types of questions on the test. The books provide sample tests that students can take to get an idea of how they will score during an actual test.

During the summer after the Junior year, students should can begin to fill out applications to colleges they are specifically interested in as well as researching various scholarships available.

The Final Year—What You Need to Do in Your 12th Grade Year

It's finally here. Senior year, 12th grade. Senior pictures, prom, cap and gown, and so much more. If college preparations have been ongoing throughout the years, the student probably has a pretty good idea of where he or she might be going, or at least has it narrowed down to 2 or 3 choices. The final decision may be down to where the most funding will come from, where the student will be accepted, or just a mind not made up yet. Most applications are due by December for the decision process, so it is important not to take too long filling out the applications and submitting them.

At this time it is also important to make sure all volunteer hours have been completed for scholarships and guidance counselors have done their part to get transcripts and other forms where they need to be. It is important to make sure that the student knows what they need for each application and who is responsible for getting it done. Are letters of recommendation needed? Who will complete them, a supervisor from volunteer work, a teacher, a coach?

Don't be limited to only school related scholarships. There are many scholarships available that people have never heard of before. There are scholarships for non smokers, scholarships for first generation college attendees, scholarships for left handed people, ones for students with parents in various industries (i.e. mail carriers), and so many more. If a student is willing to search and apply, there is potential money available.

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