College Bound: The High School To-Do List

Arts and Education, Featured Article, Growth and Development

To a child starting high school (or their parents), college seems a long way off. It’s hard to imagine writing essays and filling out applications you hope will attract the eye of admissions counselors at colleges and universities.

But experts say in addition to soaking up all the fun and excitement associated with four years in high school, future collegiates should be thinking about these 10 things to help ensure admission to the undergraduate program of his or her choice.

1. Start on Day 1. “Kids should absolutely start early,” says Elizabeth Venturini, college career strategist at CollegeCareerResults. “Don’t wait until 11th grade to really go at it and try to boost your GPA or build your extra-curricular resume.”

It is important to start planning for college application in 9th grade by talking to counselors and making sure he or she takes the most challenging and diverse course to exhibit a well-rounded approach to academics.

“Kids should begin practicing for admittance tests, starting a track record of extra-curriculars, and investigating how the financial aid process works,” says Venturini.

2. Get educated. Venturi suggests brushing up on the differences between state schools, community colleges and all private schools. “Research what the schools are looking for when it comes to grades, test scores, essays, recommendations and extracurriculars,” she says. “Knowing this info up front, preferably at the start of 9th grade, keeps parents and teens from having to make up for lost time.”

3. Learn how to study. There’s more to good grades than understanding the content of material being covered, says Kevin Hearn, Ed.D., Vice President, Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Niagara University in upstate New York. “Much of what a child will experience in college will appear and be discussed differently by strangers with new expectations. Becoming a student of learning will help you learn the various topics from the various instructors.”

4. Challenge yourself and take AP courses. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are sanctioned by CollegeBoard (the same company that oversees and administers the SAT exam). They are designed to be more challenging than typical high school courses and, depending on a student’s score, may transfer to a college for credit. They’re available at most high schools. However, Hearn says if AP courses aren’t an option, students should consider taking a college level class at an area community college.

Colleges aren’t just looking for great grades or the perfect student. “Colleges are looking for students who have pushed themselves academically,” says Hearn. “Show your academic growth and development by tackling some college level courses.”

5. Get involved. Hearn says extracurricular activities are more important than ever before. He suggests learning a new language, doing community service, getting involved in sports, chorus, theatre, etc.

“Speak to your interests beyond the classroom. Much like future employers, colleges are seeking well-rounded adults who have diverse interests and abilities.”

6. Look at a map. “Think about whether you can/should go beyond a comfortable distance from home,” says Hearn. Honing in on a geographic region early will help a student prepare to apply to colleges in that region. It will also help prepare for any unique environmental and regional characteristics that may impact success in college.

7. Take an SAT/ACT prep course. Many universities are making standardized testing optional. However, Hearn says many undergraduate programs still like to see a student’s entire academic portfolio, which includes the highest test scores possible.

Taking a prep course helps reduce test anxiety and familiarize students with the structure and complexity of questions they’ll face on the SAT or ACT before sitting for the actual test.

8. Make a commitment. Don’t just sign up for several different groups, clubs or activities. Commit to an extra-curricular, church or community activity, says Louise Tutelian, a UCLA-certified college counselor and founder of, a counseling company that helps individual students and groups brainstorm and craft college essays and personal statements.

“Early on in 9th grade, kids should join a club or group and go deep with their involvement in a single activity rather than “wide” over a laundry list of superficial ones,” she says. “I’ve seen superb essays come out of a student’s long-term involvement in such an activity. For instance, one student was on her swim team for all four years—she never won a ribbon, she was not a star, but she went to every practice, swam every race, bonded with her teammates, and she wrote about how that one experience changed her and prepared her for college.”

This also demonstrates a child’s resolve and dedication to a passion, which is often looked for during the application review process.

9. Review your digital identity. As high school juniors begin to prep for the college admission process, they must be as diligent about their digital identities as their GPA and SAT scores. A Kaplan 2013 survey by found that 29 percent of admissions officers surveyed have used Google to search for an applicant, and 31 percent visited an applicant’s Facebook or other social media profile.

10. Shadow someone. If you are not sure what you wish to do/study, Hearn suggests shadowing a relative or neighbor at their place of business to help narrow down a list of colleges with strong undergraduate programs in that field.“If a child thinks he wants to be an attorney, before pursuing colleges based on that career choice, he should explore what a real attorney does, not a favorite character in a John Grisham novel or on TV,” says Hearn.


How are you preparing your high schooler for a successful college experience? Share in the comments below.

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