5 Ways to Start Preparing for College Now
It may feel a bit early to start thinking about preparing for college, but the earlier you begin the process, the better. We’ve asked seven admissions officials to share their advice on things you can do now to start preparing for college.
1. Beef up your schedule
“Forge your own path!” suggests Caroline Madden, director of merit awards, compliance & residency in the Coastal Carolina University (SC) Office of Admissions & Merit Awards. “Colleges seek students who are well prepared for college-level work and have demonstrated their capabilities inside and outside of the classroom. Whether your path includes college preparatory, honors, advanced placement (AP), international baccalaureate (IB), or dual-enrollment (college-level), take courses that challenge you academically yet produce a positive learning outcome (aka a good grade).”
Phyllis Micketti, director of applicant services for Rutgers University (NJ), adds, “Take advantage of study groups and learning resource centers whenever available. Use free online tools such as the Khan Academy to prepare for standardized tests.”
And don’t forget that these higher-level courses also have the potential to save you money if the credits count toward college coursework!
2. Practice testing
For the majority of scholarships available, high school grades and ACT/SAT scores will be very important as they relate to the amount of money available. Cyndi Sweet, former executive director for admissions and financial aid at Maryville University (MO), says that students should take ACT/SAT practice exams at least twice before the real thing. “By doing so, they will know their ‘baseline’ score, which will help them know if they should take advantage of ACT/SAT test prep courses to increase their score. Additionally, many institutions use a ‘super score,’ which is the highest sub-scores from all test dates combined together for a new composite score. If you’re able or want to take the test more than once, the super score can be used for admission and scholarship purposes,” Sweet adds.
Will Brantley, director of admissions for Oklahoma Baptist University, suggests trying to take the test more than twice if you can swing it, starting your sophomore year.
In addition to outside test-prep courses and tutors, students can seek help right in their school. “There are free practice tests, and students can check out ACT/SAT prep books from the library to gain more exposure to the test questions,” explains Cheya Lacroix, assistant director for the office of admissions for University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS). “Students can also ask their teachers for help on problems that they do not know how to solve.”
3. Research colleges
With thousands of colleges to choose from, it is never too early to begin researching.
“Start by deciding on certain college ‘must-haves,’ such as determining a specific location, size of campus or programs you are looking for,” suggests University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) first year admissions coordinator Monica Flores. “At this point, you can also research admissions requirements for colleges of interest, to set as goals to strive for throughout your high school years.”
Mickettie at Rutgers takes a similar approach. “It’s spreadsheet time! Students should make lists of what they want in college: Academic interests, housing and food options, size of campus, distance from home, academic quality, available sports, clubs, sororities and fraternities, religious offerings … to items as specific as, ‘Can I bring my horse with me?’”
Once you’ve narrowed down your wants and needs, it’s time to start researching.
“Stay informed by exploring different university websites, reading brochures from colleges, and attending local college fairs and information sessions,” says Megan Rolf, director of recruitment for Winthrop University (SC). “Students should also … ask questions regarding admissions and scholarship criteria so that they are aware of important deadlines.”
Lacroix at UCCS agrees that college websites can be a good start but adds that tours can really help you get a true feel for a school. “Students should also begin touring a variety of institutions (community colleges, junior colleges, private and public institutions, small, medium and large institutions) to see which type of institution is a better fit for them.”
Brantley of OKBU agrees that seeing a school in person can make or break a decision. “That is the single most important thing a student can do in their college search. Step onto the campus, take the tour, eat lunch in the café, sit in on a class and talk to as many people as possible.”
4. Make your extracurriculars count (Think quality over quantity)
When it comes to extracurricular activities, think quality over quantity. The keyword for activities is meaningful. Pursue those in which you have a genuine interest, not ones just to build your résumé.
“Extracurricular activities and work experience … have immense value and supplement your academic profile,” says Madden of Coastal. “A successful academic path combined with a robust high school résumé may lead to greater college prospects.”
Micketti of Rutgers explains that colleges look most at the depth of involvement and outcomes. “Did your participation in extracurricular activities have a positive effect on yourself or others? If yes, how? Did you tutor one person, or take on an entire class to mentor? Was your participation at a school, city, county or state level? If you did just one thing, did your focus allow you to achieve at a very high level? Do you have any independent documentation of outcomes, such as recognition awards or an objective ranking?”
5. Start thinking about majors and careers
As Lacroix of UCCS explains, students in college typically change their major several times, so it’s not necessarily expected that students narrow down their options to one major. “There are several free online resources students can take advantage of, such as career inventories and personality tests that are linked to careers that could potentially be a good fit. Students can do their research and utilize websites such as O*NET OnLine to learn more about different aspects of careers.”
Sweet of Maryville says a good place to start is simply by spending some time thinking about what topics are interesting to them, what problems they might like to solve, or what careers they may have already thought about, and then research those careers online. “When visiting college campuses, they will then be ready to ask questions about the different types of majors that will help connect them to their career interests.”
In addition to what interests them, Rolf at Winthrop suggests, “Students should consider what academic subjects they excel in at school, what career areas interest them, employment opportunities, future financial outlook and job growth, as well as quality of life, when considering majors.”
Flores of UNCW reminds students to keep an open mind. “There will be majors you have never heard of or considered that may spark your interest. Continue to dig deeper and research what courses are offered within each program to determine if you would likely excel throughout the program.”
Madden of Coastal adds, “Most colleges also offer admission to undeclared majors and then provide courses and strategies to narrow your interests and strengths to relatable fields of study.”
“Whatever it is you want to do, start looking at careers that are related to that and find ways to shadow people in different fields,” advises Brantley of OKBU. “You may find that you really like one aspect of this particular career but not another. Talk to people who do those things and find out what they recommend and what they wish they’d known at your age.”