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Preparing for College 101

Starting early is the key to college success


The place to begin is your high school guidance office. The counselor or career advisor can help you evaluate your options, and provide guidance and resources to help you pick and get into the school that’s right for you. Your counselor is your strongest advocate in the college search process.

According to Karen Brown, director of the College and Career Center at James River High School, the best approach is to get students involved in active college planning early on. The first step of what she calls the “Four Year Plan” takes place even before freshman year officially begins. In August, James River hosts Rising Freshman Parent Night, where incoming students can find out about clubs and student organizations that, says Brown, “may help them rise in their possible field.”


Freshman year is the time to begin an academic and career file, and to start to think about your interests and academic strengths. Work on developing skills that establish your self-discipline and independence. It’s a time to resolve to take responsibility for your life; your behavior, your homework, your role in the home and community. Learn about the eligibility requirements for organizations like the National Honor Society.

Sophomore Year

Visit your school’s Career Counseling Center or Guidance Office and sign up for career oriented workshops. It’s not too early to attend College Information Nights. It’s a great way to get information you need, particularly about admissions and financial aid. If your school doesn’t host a college fair, a nearby school will. Be sure to attend. Gather and read the admissions materials.

And it’s not too early to take the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test). The PSAT will help familiarize you with the format of the SAT, which you will take in the spring of junior year or the fall of senior year. The PSAT will point out areas you need to concentrate on before taking the SAT. High scores on the PSAT can possibly qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship.

Sophomore year is also the time to begin working at a part-time job, as soon as you’re old enough. Be sure to save as much money as possible. Join one or more school or community organizations. Besides the invaluable life experience you’ll gain, you’ll look even better to colleges and universities and future employers.

Junior Year

Junior year is the key time to think about your future career. “What do I want to be?” can be a tough question for many young people, but if you take a systematic and self-analytical approach, you can find the focus you need to get the answers.

List activities you enjoy and skills you possess. Think about which of your school courses have been your favorites. Brainstorm a list of potential occupations that fit your interests and skills. Research each potential career. What are the primary job duties? Where would you be working? Find out about the average annual salary; after all, your lifestyle will be greatly determined by the amount of money you earn each year. What are the work hours each week?ÿ What are the educational requirements, and where can you receive the education or training necessary? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of the occupation? Where can you get more information about it? What kinds of businesses or organizations offer this kind of work?

This is also a good time to assemble your “career team.” Your team can consist of family members, teachers, coaches and counselors, neighbors, friends of the family who are professionals, community leaders, older students, alumni and mentors. These are folks who can help you find out more about career and education options.

When you have an idea of your career direction, you can begin to explore which colleges and universities offer the courses and the programs you need.

Attend college admission presentations sponsored by your counselor’s office. Take the PSAT in the fall if you haven’t already.

Attend Financial Aid Workshops to find out what’s available and what you may be eligible for. Investigate scholarships and grants (free money), work-study programs (money earned through work assignments and based on financial need) and loans (money you must repay over time). James River High’s monthly financial aid newsletter, The James River Scholarship Ripple, suggests you check out the following web sites:

ÿ ÿ Study for and take the Advanced Placement Exams (AP). Colleges grant credit or higher-level placement to students who do well on the AP tests. Students who score exceptionally high can sometimes test out of freshman year entirely and enter college as a sophomore.

In the spring of junior year, be sure to take the SAT or the ACT (formerly known as the American College Testing program). You may do better on one than the other, and if you don’t score as well as you wanted or expected to, you have time to take them again. The SAT tests verbal reasoning, critical thinking and math problem solving. The ACT measures what you’ve achieved in English, science, social studies and mathematics. Many schools accept either one, but some schools may require one or the other, so be sure to check. Many schools also will require the SAT II subject tests. There are a number of excellent test preparation workbooks available.

Plan your senior year now; select courses to match your career goals and enhance your chances of being admitted to the college of your choice. Seriously consider taking as many college-prep or honors courses as you can.

Keep your grades up. “This is your most important year,” says Brown. “These are the grades the schools will be looking at.

The summer before senior year is the time to kick your college planning into high gear. Visit several college campuses to get a feel for each school’s academic and student life. Begin to draft your admission essays.ÿ Many schools require these essays as part of the admissions process.

Work a summer job. Save, save, save.

Begin the college application process NOW. Senior year will be a very busy one.

Senior Year

Plan on taking subjects this year that will help turn your interests into skills. Be on the lookout for internships or part-time jobs that afford you the opportunity to get a feel for various careers before graduating from high school.

In the fall of senior year, if you haven’t taken them already, be sure to take the ACT or the SAT college admission test. December is the last month in which a student can take the tests and be considered for admission the following fall.

Apply at the schools of your choice and have your test scores sent to the each school. Arrange for college interviews.

In January, get the Free Application for Financial and Scholarship Aid (FAFSA) from your Guidance Office. This form must be completed by anyone who is applying for federal financial aid. It can also be accessed on the Internet at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

Be sure to send your tuition deposit in immediately after being accepted; classes fill up fast.

After graduation in June, have your final transcript sent to the college you’ll be attending. Begin gathering up the things you’ll need for dorm living, if you’re going away to college. (See sidebar.)ÿ Attend your new school’s summer orientation. Get familiar with your professors and advisers. And take a “College 101” class if they offer it.

It’s a dramatic transition from high school to college, but one that is made much more manageable by all the advance preparation and planning during the four years preceding the move.

“If you know where you’re going, it’s easier to get there,” says Brown. “I want to help students get there.” FS

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