Helping your child navigate all the homework, tests, after-school activities and everything else that goes with high school can feel overwhelming. Layer in planning for college and it can feel downright daunting. But weave in a preparing for college checklist, and that tall order can feel a lot more manageable.
And that’s the good news here. Planning for college can be divvied up into smaller steps to make it more manageable – for you and your wannabe college student.
Here, in our preparing for college checklist, we offer a year-by-year look at what you and your child can do to prepare her for college.
1. Freshman year
No need to break into those SAT and ACT study books just yet. That said, if your child’s school offers practice tests, encourage him to take them. The more familiar he is with the test — and getting out any butterflies — the better he’s likely to do when the scores start to count.
Exploring college choices
Start looking around as part of family travels and vacations at colleges that might be of interest to your child. Remember that two-year colleges, technical schools and certification programs may also appeal to your student and fit her interests.
Encourage your child to select classes that will challenge her but that are still manageable and where she can perform well. After all, she’s just getting the hang of high school.
This is the time to explore — pottery club, volleyball squad, marching band, football team, theater productions, speech and debate, Spanish club, show choir — your child can start figuring out what activities he enjoys and would like to keep doing in later years.
Keep track of all the awards and activities that your child is involved in — she might want to make a list on a note app on his phone and then share it with you.
2. Sophomore year
Practice test time! Have your child sign up for and take the PSAT and PACT — it might feel early, but it’s a must on a solid preparing for college checklist.
Exploring college choices
Talk to your child about what he’s looking for in colleges — does he want to attend a large university or small liberal arts school? What kind of career field is she thinking of going into? Talk through finances as part of the conversation — that liberal arts school may not be quite as appealing once you check out the price tag that goes with it.
Continue guiding your child towards classes that are both rigorous and where she can perform well. She might want to start plotting out classes once she’s an upper classman like, AP (Advanced Placement) courses that may offer college credits, if she meets certain requirements and her college accepts AP coursework.
Time to start narrowing down the clubs and activities he’s participating in to those that he feels passionate about. While colleges are looking for well-rounded students, they’re also focused on those who show they’re willing to get involved and contribute.
As with freshman year, make sure to capture all the awards and accolades your child has garnered over the past year.
3. Junior year
Have your child sign up for and take the PSAT, which can qualify him for the National Merit Scholarship Program, depending on his scores. Now’s the time to break out the test guides and start studying.
Exploring college choices
Develop a list of potential colleges with your child, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, including cost, programs/majors offered and other factors, like if it’s close to home or farther away.
Plot out when to visit top choices — for example, you might combine a college visit with a family trip or visit a few over spring break. Make sure to have your child check in with the guidance office to see when college representatives may be visiting her school, or the area, to talk to prospective students.
Students need to keep at their studies. If they feel like they can excel at more challenging classes, like AP courses, consider having them take these classes and then the test for college credit.
Now that your child is in fewer activities, suggest that he look into leadership positions within the various clubs/sports he’s involved in.
Still have the list of accomplishments from earlier on the preparing for college checklist? Dust it off and have your child add to it for the year.
Also, have him start thinking about what he can write about for his college essay. Guidance counselors will tell you the colleges are looking for authenticity in college application essays — not a dissertation on all their accomplishments.
It’s key in preparing for senior year of high school.
4. Senior year
Take and retake the ACT and SAT. Many students take these exams multiple times (yes, your child isn’t alone if she doesn’t get a stellar score on the first go around). Within the application, have your child select the colleges where she’d like her scores sent.
Choosing a college
Have your child create a list of his top five to seven college choices and outline the differences between them. That includes factors like financial packages available and other cost considerations, deadline for applications and other details so he can easily compare his options
Also, know exactly when to apply for his chosen schools. If you haven’t already, and if possible, visit a few of the colleges your child would like to attend.
Seniors may be under the impression that they can slack off during their last year in high school. Not so. Your child should continue sticking to a rigorous class schedule, but one that also allows him to explore his interests (journalism course, anyone?), along with building his critical thinking skills.
Now’s the time for your student to take advantage of chances to lead within the clubs she’s participating in – track co-captain, backstage manager or drama club secretary.
Your senior will need to write his college essay — but before he puts pen to paper have him review the application requirements for the schools he’d like to attend. Some may have him answer a series of questions versus submitting a full essay.
He needs to review other requirements, too, like whether he needs to submit recommendation letters from teachers.
Note that college application deadlines vary quite a bit. Consider having him set a reminder on his phone for all the upcoming application deadlines.
Other pro tips
Take your preparing for college checklist to the next level with these extra insights from professionals who understand the college admissions scene.
Do a social media gut check
“Monitor your social media,” Jen Henson, M.Ed., a professional ACT prep coach, advises high schoolers. “Colleges and workplaces will look at your social media accounts. Ask yourself before posting, ‘Would I want this read on the evening news?'”
Set a date for college
As a longtime advisor, Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D., the associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools, says there are two pieces of advice he gives parents of college-bound students.
The first, “a little support goes a long way.” He suggests that families take the stress out of college planning, for both the parents and the kids, by setting up weekly 20-minute college-planning meetings. “Having these meetings gives students a sense of support but also autonomy,” explains O’Connor.
The second tip? “Remember the lessons of little league. You can buy your kids the equipment and you can drive them to the ballfield, but ultimately they have to take the swing themselves.”
In other words, let your child be in charge of the college process as much as possible. “You need to let them drive – they do better when they do the practicing themselves.”
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.