Tips for high school students navigating the college search

Finding the right college is a process, and something students should start thinking about as early as freshman year of high school.

“It takes time, commitment and a lot of soul searching,” says Laura Burrell Baxter, director of college advising at The Key School in Annapolis. She adds, however, that it doesn't have to be stressful.

Baxter recommends students give themselves time in high school to discover their strengths and needs. “Planning ahead, keeping track of deadlines and application requirements, and asking for help from a trusted adult can help alleviate or minimize the stress,” she says.
Below is Baxter's year-by-year guide for high schoolers on how to best prepare for college.

9th Grade

  • Plan your courses. Determine what courses you will take throughout high school. Are STEM courses of most interest? Then plan to be in AP Biology or Chemistry and AP Calculus by your senior year. Think ahead.
  • Work hard. Establish strong study habits and develop time management skills. Now is the time to set the tone for your success.
  • Think about how you want to leave your mark in your school and community. Are you an athlete or a singer? Do you want to coach little league baseball or make the ensemble in your school’s musical? These types of activities will tell your story to a college.

10th Grade

  • Take the PSATs. This test helps prepare for the SAT and ACT. Practice online at khanacademy.org/test-prep/sat.
  • Get to know yourself better. How do you learn best? What are your strengths as a student and person? Familiarize yourself with your school's college selection software to help you find the right college. Some software has tools to help you identify your strengths and potential career interests.
  • Search online but don’t get carried away. Take a virtual tour of a campus. Read about possible majors and what's offered at state and private schools. Check out the College Board's Big Future website, bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search.
  • Steer clear of rankings and think beyond “big names.” There are plenty of hidden gems out there. Visit the Colleges That Change Lives website, ctcl.org, to find a sampling of colleges.

11th Grade

  • Get to know your guidance counselor/college advisor if you haven’t already. This person is your guide and resource and will write your recommendations for college next year.
  • Take the SAT and ACT once between winter of your junior year and summer before your senior year.
  • Attend a college fair. Ask questions; don’t just pick up brochures. Broadneck High School has a fair in the fall and Anne Arundel Community College has one in the spring. There are also national fairs in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore each year.
  • Determine your college criteria. Small or big? Close to home or across the country? Liberal arts college or research university? Do you need financial aid or scholarships? Do you need support services?
  • Develop a list of colleges to visit. Ideally start with 15-20 schools to read about, explore and maybe visit.
  • Spend spring break or some weekends visiting colleges. Seeing a campus firsthand gives you the best perspective.
  • Draft your resume. Keep it to one page and a summary of all of your accomplishments.

12th Grade

  • Make a list of schools that you plan to apply to. Ideally, seven to nine colleges allows for “reach” schools, “realistic” schools and “safety” schools.
  • Attend college visits at your high school. These provide an opportunity to talk to admissions counselors about your specific interests.
  • Ask two teachers and your guidance counselor/college advisor to write your letters of recommendation.
  • Visit any campuses you haven’t seen that are on your list. Need to talk to a coach? Want to interview? Need to see a lab or campus farm? This is your last chance before decisions come back.
  • Write your college essays. Answer the question. Share your story. Don’t try to “wow” the reader. Just be you.
  • Complete your college applications. Determine if you are applying early decision, early action, regular or rolling.
  • Take the SAT, SAT II and/or ACT again if needed. Do not over test. Taking each test once or twice is usually enough.
  • Make your decision. You must make your decision by May 1 — national deposit day.

By Betsy Stein

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