Make Your Game Plan
The college application process can seem daunting to students and their families. One key to success is to start early. Begin during your freshman year and sophomore years, develop a plan in your junior year and be ready to jump into action in the fall of your senior year.
Take advantage of the college and aid planning guides and tools on the web. Your school's guidance website may suggest some links, and we've noted some good ones under our Quick Links. Look for calendars with tips on what to do during each year of your high school career.
Evaluate Your Goals, Strengths, Financial Considerations. No matter when you start, you should consider the following questions as you make your plan:
What are your goals for college? Think about your academic interests and career goals, as well as your personal goals. Do you want to broaden your horizons, academically, geographically or socially? Do you want to be close to home or venture farther afield?
What are your strengths? Think about how your resume will look to a college admissions officer. What are your academic and personal strengths? Consider your high school record, your extracurricular activities, and your likely standardized test scores. Become familiar with the SAT or ACT tests and take a practice test (available free from the testing services or in study books) to see where you stand. Students who understand the questions and practice, even a little, can raise their scores.
How much can you afford to pay? Talk to your family about what they will contribute to your education, and think about what you will provide from from savings or working in college. Familiarize yourself with the kind of aid available through the federal and state governments. The amount of this aid depends on your family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is calculated from information you provide on your application for federal aid or FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Use one of the many, free and easy online calculators to get an idea of your family's probable EFC. Start to explore national and local scholarships possibilities and learn about the loans are available to students and their parents.
What schools make sense given your goals and constraints? Look for colleges that meet your criteria and constraints. There are many tools online to help generate ideas, and college websites provide extensive information about their programs and costs. Make a "long" list of target schools and refine it over time.
Improve Your Odds. Work to improve your chances of getting into the college of your choice and being able to afford it.
Prepare for the SAT or ACT. Work on areas where you are weak. Find out when the tests are given and map out a testing schedule. Consider taking the PSAT in the fall of your sophomore or junior years, and take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year. Take the SAT subject tests, if required, soon after completing the relevant course while material is fresh.
Research college "fit." Learn all you can about the schools on your "long list" by talking with counselors, students, alums. Visit some, if possible, to get a feel for the campus, culture and type of school you want. Learn about admission requirements and think about how you measure up against them.
Build your resume. Make sure your high school course load meets the expectations of the schools you wish to attend (and Bright Futures awards), and work hard to do your best. Continue to pursue sports, extracurricular and volunteer activities where you can show your talents, passions, initiative and leadership skills.
Understand funding options. Refine your budget and do more research on loans and scholarships. Start working on a budget with your parents. Talk to them about how to save money and put aside what you can. Keep in mind that your parents' savings have a much smaller impact on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) than do your own savings in the formula used by the federal government. Be smart in where you save.