Think It’s Too Early to Start Thinking About College? Think Again!
Ah, sophomore year—when you can breathe a sigh of relief because you’ve finally got this high school thing figured out. It seems way too early to think about college, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not. The earlier you begin the process, the better.
We have suggestions on a few areas you can start thinking about now to make your junior year that much easier.
1. Designate a new email for your college search
As you take standardized tests and sign up for college information, get ready to be inundated with emails. The best way to keep your personal inbox from being flooded is to open a new account specifically for your college search.
Having all of your college email in one place will help you stay organized as you work on scholarships and college applications, says Justin Roy, dean of admissions at Georgian Court University (NJ). “With just your college mail open, it’s easier to focus and not be distracted by Facebook notifications,” he says.
It also gives you the chance to rethink your email address. You and your friends may love your QBNo1 or PartyGrrrrll24 moniker, but they don’t send the right message to colleges or scholarship decision-makers. “Just use your name,” Roy says.
2. Beef up your schedule
Colleges look for rigor, so sophomore and junior years are when you should kick it up a notch by adding International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement (AP) or honors classes—whatever your high school offers. The more competitive the college, the more important it is to have these courses, says Eva Blanco Masias, dean of undergraduate admission at Santa Clara University (CA).
“We know those classes are more challenging and therefore will make students look more competitive,” says Jordan Bryant, director of undergraduate admissions at Trinity International University (IL). But make sure the college-level work is in core areas, he adds. “AP art isn’t as impressive as AP English.”
It’s also important to do well, so talk to your guidance counselor to determine which areas you’ll be most successful in if you choose harder courses, recommends Lauren Scott, associate director of admissions at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
And don’t forget that these higher-level courses also have the potential to save you money if the credits count toward college course work.
Finally, consider your electives, and look for ones that are academically focused, such as computer science, sociology and psychology, suggests Amanda Craddock, assistant provost for admissions and merit awards at Coastal Carolina University (SC).
3. Begin to research colleges
Colleges are looking at you, so you’re smart to start looking at them. Although it’s a little early to focus on any particular school, sophomore year can be a great time to get a feel for college campuses.
Visit a local school, or find a campus tour near your spring break or summer vacation destination, even if it’s not a top choice, Craddock says. It’s also smart to visit a small campus and a large campus to experience the difference.
Then, begin an ongoing list of wants and needs. “Maybe your dream school has to have a biology lab and a study abroad program, and you’d like it to have a great football team and be in a new city you can explore,” Bryant says. Creating a list lets you filter schools so you can identify those that have all your needs and fulfill a lot of wants, too.
Although it’s best to visit schools in person, Craddock says that videos on schools’ websites can be really helpful, as is visiting college fairs to speak with representatives.
“A well-thought-out attitude to the college search will allow students to make a more informed and confident college choice when senior year comes,” Scott says.
4. Make your extracurriculars count
Many students think they have to join every club in order to be considered “well-rounded.” Not so.
The key word for activities is meaningful, says Masias, who recommends you pursue those in which you have a genuine interest, not ones just to build your résumé.
But make sure you add in an extracurricular or two, whether inside or outside of school, Bryant says. “Colleges aren’t looking for kids who have spent all of high school doing homework,” he says. “They want to see that you can engage in the community.”
The best bet is to find something you are genuinely passionate about and stick with it. “I like to see longevity,” Roy says. He says it’s also impressive to have a leadership position, which is tougher to do if you activity hop.
5. Start thinking about majors & careers
Sure, you might change your mind a dozen times, but it’s never too early to think about what you enjoy and what you’re good at so that you can explore those interests as early as possible through camps, extracurriculars, electives or job-shadow days.
Roy recommends taking a career assessment with your counselor and thinking through what you like to do. “When a kid tells me they like to make videos and use the Adobe [Creative] Suite, I’ll say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought of marketing?’”
Sophomore year is also a great time to shadow someone in a career you’ve been considering. You might confirm that you love it, or you might discover it’s not your thing before you waste a lot of time and money.
And if you do have a particular passion for something, you will want to make sure the colleges you explore offer the major.
6. Test out your testing skills
Many students wait until their junior year to take the PSAT, but it’s a smart choice for sophomores, too, says Kristen Miller, a college consultant in Portland, Oregon. And new for fall 2016 will be the PreACT, a 10th-grade companion to the ACT.
Miller says that students need three basic elements to do well on standardized tests: content knowledge, pacing and endurance. “Content knowledge can be obtained through course work and/or test prep, but the only way to master the pacing and endurance piece is practice,” she says. “Taking proctored PreACTs or PSATs as sophomores will help students be better prepared and, hopefully, less anxious when they take the exam as juniors and seniors.”
7. Consider the financial aspects
It’s never too early to consider scholarships, and the first step, of course, is to do the best you can in your classes to increase your chances of earning merit aid.
However, very few schools will fund your entire education through merit grants, so it’s wise to look early for external scholarships, Craddock says. Using one of the many scholarship search sites available, create a list with links and criteria of all your possibilities, from community groups to companies.
“You might be shocked at how many companies are offering scholarships,” Bryant says. “Many dollars go unclaimed.”
Roy suggests thinking strategically so you can position yourself for potential scholarships. For example, why not double dip and use your part-time job not only to make money and learn new skills, but also to qualify for specialized scholarships?
Using the same strategy, if you have to accumulate volunteer hours, see if there’s a way you can volunteer for an organization that also offers scholarships. “If you start now, you have two years to think ahead while everyone else will be scrambling,” Roy says.
Finally, Scott encourages students to review the cost of attendance at any schools they might be considering. “Remember, compare apples to apples,” she says. “Not all schools include the same line items in their cost of attendance, so it is important to review and compare the exact costs across institutions.”
The No. 1 piece of advice for sophomores? “Don’t get caught up in a frenzy,” Masias says. “Thinking about college doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Enjoy high school, your family and friends, and weave in college planning in a way that makes sense.”
Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer in Wilsonville, Oregon.