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College Countdown

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Not time yet to think about college? Why not get a leg up on getting in? After all, the early bird gets the worm — and a much less stressful college application process.

We’ve pulled together some expert advice and simple tips and tasks you can do from junior high on to high school graduation. Click on where you’re at now to start the countdown to college.

BEFORE HIGH SCHOOL Start taking foreign language classes -- it'll give you a jump on the high school level classes. Like sports? Go out for a team! It'll get you conditioned for competitive high school athletics. Start whipping study habits in line. Managing assignments from six or seven classes well now will make high school less shocking later.  Expert Advice:
BEFORE HIGH SCHOOL

Start taking foreign language classes -- it'll give you a jump on the high school level classes. Like sports? Go out for a team! It'll get you conditioned for competitive high school athletics. Start whipping study habits in line. Managing assignments from six or seven classes well now will make high school less shocking later.

Expert Advice: "Laying the math foundation is terribly important. If a student leaves junior high without knowing fractions, he can't take algebra when he gets to high school; he'll have to spend time on pre-algebra... and then there's the chance that he may not be able to finish [his high school's] math sequence" -- Tim Washburn, Director of Admissions and Records at the University of Washington
FRESHMAN YEARTry out some clubs and sports teams to see what you like. Now's the time to experiment! Take the most advanced classes for which you are eligible. You can always drop to a lower level if it's too hard, but you can't always move up if it's too easy. Don't beat yourself up for your first semester grades, but by the time the spring semester rolls around, colleges will expect you to buckle down.  Expert Advice:
FRESHMAN YEAR

Try out some clubs and sports teams to see what you like. Now's the time to experiment! Take the most advanced classes for which you are eligible. You can always drop to a lower level if it's too hard, but you can't always move up if it's too easy. Don't beat yourself up for your first semester grades, but by the time the spring semester rolls around, colleges will expect you to buckle down.

Expert Advice: "Work on your vocabulary skills. Maybe that's by crossword puzzles, maybe it's by reading. Students who succeed verbally are readers, not because they did a cramming course." -- Bruce Poch, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Pomona College
SOPHOMORE YEAR Pick one team or extracurricular from freshman year that you really loved. Stick with it! Demonstrating dedication is important to admissions officers. Plus, there's a better chance that you'll rise to a leadership position later on! Prep for the important junior year PSAT by taking it now (if your school offers it to sophomores). If not, and if your family can spare the coin, take the SAT I. Squeeze in time for college campus visits on family trips. Take AP Exams and SAT II tests in the appropriate classes. A good score could get you out of a college class later! Look for internships that will help you explore potential college majors.  Expert Advice:
SOPHOMORE YEAR

Pick one team or extracurricular from freshman year that you really loved. Stick with it! Demonstrating dedication is important to admissions officers. Plus, there's a better chance that you'll rise to a leadership position later on! Prep for the important junior year PSAT by taking it now (if your school offers it to sophomores). If not, and if your family can spare the coin, take the SAT I. Squeeze in time for college campus visits on family trips. Take AP Exams and SAT II tests in the appropriate classes. A good score could get you out of a college class later! Look for internships that will help you explore potential college majors.

Expert Advice: "Students should be mindful of changes in testing requirements. Check schools' Web sites to see which version of the SAT each will accept, and whether or not SAT II tests or the ACT are required." -- Judy Kowarsky, Associate Director of Admissions for the University of California
JUNIOR YEAR Keep at your extracurricular clubs and sports! Run for a leadership position. Senior year can be really hectic, so you might have more time for one now. Take the PSAT. Your score from junior year could put you in the running for a National Merit Scholarship! Go to college fairs. Look at all kinds of schools and their lists of majors -- make sure all your potential interests are there so you can switch majors if need be.  Expert Advice:
JUNIOR YEAR

Keep at your extracurricular clubs and sports! Run for a leadership position. Senior year can be really hectic, so you might have more time for one now. Take the PSAT. Your score from junior year could put you in the running for a National Merit Scholarship! Go to college fairs. Look at all kinds of schools and their lists of majors -- make sure all your potential interests are there so you can switch majors if need be.

Expert Advice: "Cut back on your job hours and spend that extra time on studies. The lure of pocket money is attractive, but if it compromises your grades, it may not be the best economically in the long run... scholarships can make up for a lot." -- Sue Lorenz, Assistant Director of the Honors Program at the University of Kansas
JUNIOR YEAR, SECOND SEMESTER Look at colleges! While you're visiting, get a feel for whether you'd like to live in that part of the country or not for four years. Buy a nice letter opener. College brochures will start rolling in. Send away for applications from schools in which you are interested. Give yourself some wiggle room by taking the SAT I. If you don't like your score, you can take it again senior year. Same goes for the ACT. Take AP Exams and SAT II tests in the appropriate classes. Good scores can get you out of college classes later! Develop good relationships with teachers who could write you letters of recommendation. Read up on and apply for scholarships. If you are interested in ROTC or military academies, talk with your counselor. Look for internships that will help you explore college majors.  Expert Advice:
JUNIOR YEAR, SECOND SEMESTER

Look at colleges! While you're visiting, get a feel for whether you'd like to live in that part of the country or not for four years. Buy a nice letter opener. College brochures will start rolling in. Send away for applications from schools in which you are interested. Give yourself some wiggle room by taking the SAT I. If you don't like your score, you can take it again senior year. Same goes for the ACT. Take AP Exams and SAT II tests in the appropriate classes. Good scores can get you out of college classes later! Develop good relationships with teachers who could write you letters of recommendation. Read up on and apply for scholarships. If you are interested in ROTC or military academies, talk with your counselor. Look for internships that will help you explore college majors.

Expert Advice: "Don't fixate on just one school. Students should ask themselves, 'How do I learn best? Is it by listening? Is it by participating in a discussion?' Your style of learning should dictate what kind of schools you look at -- not just a name brand." -- Tom Marlitt, Associate Dean of Admission at Reed College
SENIOR YEAR, FIRST SEMESTER Take SAT I and ACT tests now if you didn't like your previous scores. Make a list of the schools to which you will apply, including one
SENIOR YEAR, FIRST SEMESTER

Take SAT I and ACT tests now if you didn't like your previous scores. Make a list of the schools to which you will apply, including one "safety school" -- someplace that you know you can get accepted. Make a list of application deadlines so you won't miss important dates. Make a list of essay topics -- the same essay could go to multiple schools. Ask for letters of recommendation in October (especially from popular teachers). If you wait until November or December, they might not have time. Consider "early admission" to a school that you really love. It's one way to try and nab a spot in the class. However, acceptance may force you to withdraw applications from other schools. Read the fine print! Send in your completed applications. Make a copy of everything you send in case it gets lost in the mail.

Expert Advice: "Follow up your application with a phone call -- you never know if everything's arrived unless you check. Make sure your letters of recommendation and transcripts have arrived. Don't expect the admissions office to keep track of everything. That's especially true for financial aid [paperwork]." -- Tom Marlitt, Associate Dean of Admission at Reed College
SENIOR YEAR, SECOND SEMESTER Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form if you qualify. You'll need it to be eligible. It doesn't bind you to take a loan, but it will let you get one if needed. Fill out school-specific financial aid forms. Money is good. Keep looking and applying for scholarships. Visit schools on your list that you haven't seen yet. Avoid the college blind date! Attempt to not freak out while you wait for news from your schools. Celebrate the thick envelopes! Make your decision, stick with it and send in the appropriate forms. Then go buy a school sweatshirt. Congratulations!  Expert Advice:
SENIOR YEAR, SECOND SEMESTER

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form if you qualify. You'll need it to be eligible. It doesn't bind you to take a loan, but it will let you get one if needed. Fill out school-specific financial aid forms. Money is good. Keep looking and applying for scholarships. Visit schools on your list that you haven't seen yet. Avoid the college blind date! Attempt to not freak out while you wait for news from your schools. Celebrate the thick envelopes! Make your decision, stick with it and send in the appropriate forms. Then go buy a school sweatshirt. Congratulations!

Expert Advice: "We've seen a trend where seniors will take the easy way out. They don't understand how important senior year grades can be. Those grades can make or break an application. You're not allowed to have senioritis until after the prom!" -- Dale Marini, Associate Director of Admissions for Loyola Marymount University

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