The college prep checklist: How to get on track

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Summer vacation has come and gone. You’re back to 6 a.m. alarms and your teachers are already on an assignment spree (bummer, we know). But before you get buried in schoolwork and your social life takes over, check in with yourself about where you’re at in your preparations for college. No matter what grade you’re in—freshman, sophomore, junior, senior—there’s plenty you can be doing now to make sure you’re in the best position to apply when the time comes.

But hold on. Before you get too ahead of yourself, remember that whole part of life that involves relaxing and having fun? That’s important too. Don’t sacrifice your sanity in a frenzy to get ready for college. Rather than signing up for every club and extracurricular activity at once, choose wisely and space them out. “Aim to participate in three–four extracurriculars across a number of years rather than 20 in a short period of time,” says Victoria Otto, a PE teacher and coach at Highland Park High School in Illinois. “It’s not about how many activities you’re in, it’s about the commitment, longevity, and leadership in those activities,” says Dr. Sharon Sevier, a retired high school counselor in Wildwood, Missouri.

So take a deep breath. Then use this infographic to check things off your college prep list and navigate what to do next.

College checklist infographic for freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors

The college prep checklist: How to get on track

Freshmen

  • Make a plan. Find out which classes colleges require and sign up for the prerequisites.
  • Branch out. Join clubs, sports, or specialty activities that excite you.

57% of students ages 6–17 participated in at least one after-school extracurricular activity, according to a 2014 US Census Bureau report.

Sophomores

  • Make an appointment with your school counselor to discuss course options and colleges that interest you, as well as to do some planning.
  • Look into taking the SAT Subject Tests™. Choose those that match your strengths and the areas that interest you. These show colleges which fields you specialize in.
  • Sign up for Advanced Placement (AP®) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes in any areas you excel in.
  • Keep a record of your extracurricular accomplishments so you can easily discuss them in application essays or interviews.

All of the Student Health 101 readers we surveyed said they either plan to take the SAT® or ACT® or they’ve already taken it.

Juniors

  • Start looking into colleges. Get a feel for the school culture, the city or town, and the academic areas that the school specializes in.
  • Check out community colleges too! They’re affordable, close to home, and often have open admission.
  • Take the PSAT™ (Preliminary SAT®), a practice version of the SAT®, which is one of the two tests required to apply to most colleges (the other option is the ACT®).
  • Practice, practice, practice! Take short, online practice tests on the SAT® and ACT® websites.
  • Take the SAT®, ACT®, or both. You’ll have a chance to retake the test(s) if you aren’t happy with your score.

46% of all students who completed four-year college degrees in 2014 had also attended community college at some point.

The year a student takes the SAT® or ACT® for the first time can vary—though junior year is the norm. According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, here’s when students say they took them:

  • 22% freshman year
  • 11% sophomore year
  • 67% junior year

Seniors

  • Apply to your top-choice schools first, then work your way down the list.
  • Get recommendations early. Ask teachers, school counselors, or coaches for recommendation letters at least one month before application deadlines.
  • Create a brag sheet, a list of your academic achievements, work experience, and extracurricular activities.
  • Prepare for interviews. Reread your essays, brush up on your talking points, and learn everything you can about the school.

In 2015, nearly 70% of recent high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Article sources

Victoria Otto, 2011 IAHPERD & 2012 Midwest District Secondary PE Teacher of the Year and teacher and coach at Highland Park High School in Illinois.

Barnes, A. (2014, November). College applications: Are you ready? Student Health 101, 1(5). Retrieved from https://www.getsh101.com/1114A/04/demo.html

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016, April 28). College enrollment and work activity of 2015 high school graduates. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/hsgec.nr0.htm

College Board. (2015, September 3). Annual results reveal largest and most diverse group of students take PSAT/NMSQT®, SAT®, and AP®; need to improve readiness remains. Retrieved from
https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2015/annual-results-reveal-largest-most-diverse-group-students-take-psat-sat-ap

Ma, J., & Baum, S. (2016, April). Trends in community colleges: Enrollment, prices, student debt, and completion. College Board Research. Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/trends-in-community-colleges-research-brief.pdf

United States Census Bureau. (2014, December 9). Nearly 6 out of 10 children participate in extracurricular activities, Census Bureau reports. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/cb14-224.html

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Ally Carlton-Smith, MS is executive editor of Student Health 101. She has a master’s degree in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine.

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Diana Whelan is a senior copywriter at CLEAResult. Previously, she was the managing editor at Student Health 101, and has written and edited articles for condition-specific publications distributed in physician offices nationwide. She holds a BA in Rhetoric & Professional Writing from the University of Hartford.