When Should High School Students Start Preparing for College?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

extracurricular activities for students

When Should High School Students Start Preparing for College?

While high school is primarily about students getting a good education, it also is a very important time for students to start looking towards their future. Specifically, the majority of students that take their high school years seriously are doing so because they have plans of one day attending a four year college or university. If you are a student who is either about to start your high school education, or has already started your high school education, you might be asking yourself the question, “When should I start preparing for college?”

if you are wondering, “What should I do in high school to prepare for college?” or simply want to know when high school students should start looking at colleges, then you have come to the right place.

At AdmissionSight, we work with high school students every single year to help set themselves up for success when the time to start applying to colleges comes around. However, that does not mean that we only help advise students during the application process itself. In fact, a lot of the students that we work with reach out to us several years before they plan to start applying to schools, and some students even reach out to us before they begin high school.

When it comes to students who are about to enter, or are currently in, high school, the ways in which we help advise them can end up having a major impact on their overall high school experience. The truth is that no time is too early for students to start preparing for college while in high school. After all, a lot of the things that students do from their freshman year onward will end up playing a role in their overall application profile when the time comes for them to start applying to schools.

Whether a student is trying to decide what kinds of courses to take or needs to figure out which extracurricular activities to pursue, admissions consultants can help offer clarity by providing insight into which classes, extracurriculars, and more could be the most beneficial to a student when they start applying to schools.

You’re not supposed to know the answer to the question, “When should I start applying to college?” all on your own. And even if you end up not working with an admissions consultant during high school, you can still depend on teachers, high school counselors, peers and parents for guidance. However, as long as we have you here, we figured we would start breaking down some of the most important things to keep in mind about how and when high school students should start preparing for college.

When should I start preparing for college?

Did you know that according to a report by the ACT administrators, only 38.0 percent of the 2.1 million students that took the exam during the 2015-16 school year met the organization’s benchmarks in three out of the four tested areas for university readiness? While the company does believe that part of the reason why they saw that massive disparity between prepared and unprepared students was due to the fact that standardized testing was at its height of popularity at that time, it certainly shed a light on the achievement gap. It also made it abundantly clear that there is a strong difference in readiness when it comes to students who are preparing for college and university versus the students who are not.

Group of students answering a test in a room.

Though the ACT Is just one potential part of any student’s readiness for college, this quick allegory he’s really good to keep in mind and can be applied to all of the other important factors and components that go into a student’s Success at getting into college and readiness once they arrive there.

The general sentiment among mission officers, consultants and teachers is that the sooner a student starts preparing for college, the better. After all, more time means that students will get more opportunities to develop their interests and passions, under skills, and gain greater confidence and ability within the classroom. In fact, some experts within the field recommend that students start preparing as early as the 6th grade.

At AdmissionSight, we offer pre-high school consulting for students that have finished elementary school and are on the cusp of starting their high school education. With that in mind, students can prepare for college in different ways in each year of high school. What freshmen should be doing to prepare for college is going to be very different from what juniors should be doing to prepare for college.

But you’re not worried about those students, are you? You’re simply asking the question, “When should I start preparing for college?”

Let’s break down all four of the years of high school and go into the different ways in which students can start preparing for their undergraduate education in each high school year.

What freshmen should be doing to prepare for college:

When students start out their freshman year, they should take advantage of the fact that they will be beginning with a clean academic slate. That means that everyone is on an even level and you can quickly start separating yourself from the pack with exceptional academic performance. Even in your freshman year of high school, your course selection is going to be very important, as well as your grades.

If your school offers Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or honors courses, you should start taking as many as you feel comfortable as early as possible. The reason for this is because highly selective colleges and universities are going to want to see that you pursued and engaged in a rigorous academic curriculum while you were in high school. Admissions officers often look at a student’s performance in these advanced courses as a way to predict how that student will underperform in college.

Outside of the classroom, students should start seeking out extra curricular activities that fit their areas of interest. While your freshman year is the perfect time to explore different passions and interests, students should make sure not to spread themselves too thin. Typically, admissions officers are looking for students that take part in three to five extracurricular activities throughout the entirety of their high school years. Remember, this means taking part in those activities in all four years.

Finally, when it comes to your freshman year, make sure that you are establishing regular study schedules and seeking help when you feel that you may be falling behind. Establishing these kinds of strategies and habits will help you enjoy success in your freshman year and beyond.

What sophomores should be doing to prepare for college:

When you reach your sophomore year, the need for you to pursue rigorous courses becomes even more important. After all, it is a widely held belief that admissions officers look primarily at a student’s sophomore and junior year academics when analyzing an application. Aside from taking advanced courses and committing a lot of your time and energy to excelling in the classroom, students should also start thinking about what kind of careers and majors they might ultimately be interested in.

When it comes to your activities out of the classroom, students should continue to pursue their extracurricular activities and we want to start running for positions of leadership in the clubs, groups or teams that they are part of.

During the spring or summer months of your sophomore year, students should start taking practice tests for the PSAT, ACT and SAT. Starting out early will allow you to get a great sense of familiarity and comfort with the different testing formats.

What juniors should be doing to prepare for college:

A student’s junior year of high school arguably is the most important year when it comes to preparing for college. Students need to continue building upon the academic and extracurricular success that they have enjoyed thus far, and we want to push even harder to earn the roles of import and leadership within those designated activities. Along with that it is also a good idea to start seeking out internships in areas that you might be interested in pursuing as a major in college or as a career after that. This will not only help you get more information about whether or not this path could be right for you, but can also help you stand out from the crowd when you actually end up applying to schools.

View of group of students sitting near a bench.

Your junior year should also contain some focused preparation time for your ACT or SAT that most students take in the second half or summer after junior year.

By the spring and summer months of your junior year of high school, you will want to start identifying certain schools but you are interested in applying to in the following year. In fact, a lot of juniors in high school will end up going on unofficial campus visits during the spring and summer of that school year.

What seniors should be doing to prepare for college:

While there is something of a cliche of high school seniors slacking off and skipping school, students who are dedicated to not only getting into a college or university, but also getting into one of the best colleges or universities in the country, will have to make sure to avoid the draw of that cliche. Students will watch remain engaged and committed to the rigorous academic responsibilities as well as their extracurricular rules of leadership.

Young woman smiling for the camera.

If you have earned top grades, fantastic test scores and have an excellent resume filled with extracurriculars, internships and volunteer activities, you should consider applying to the top school on your list via the early action or early decision process (if the school offers such an admissions option). Applying via early action or early decision can be beneficial to students, as those applicants have been known to receive more favorable acceptance rates at even the most competitive schools. Moreover, early admissions applicants find out about the fate of their application sooner than regular applicants do.

When the time comes for you to start sending in your college applications, you should have a list of approximately 6 to 12 schools – including reach schools, target school and safety schools – that you will apply to.

Top tips for high school students applying for college

So now that you have a year-by-year breakdown to the questions, “When should I start preparing for college?” as well as “What juniors should be doing to prepare for college?” You might be curious about other bits of useful information that students can take advantage of when it comes to what I should do in high school to prepare for college.

So, to finish up what we hope has been yet another really helpful and informative AdmissionSight blogspot, we wanted to break down some of the other top tips that high school students can benefit from when it comes to the all-important questions of when should I start preparing for college.

Let’s get into it.

Tip 1 – Maintain a high GPA

The simple truth is that it is much harder to maintain a high grade point average than it is to take a low GPA and bring it up to a great average. Think about it, if you don’t take your grades seriously in freshman year and end up with a C average, and then turn things around in your sophomore year and finish with an A average, you will still enter your junior year with just a B-average GPA! While admissions officers definitely take improvement from one year to the next into consideration, it is always best to start off strong and finish off strong. That’s how you make sure your academic record sets you apart once you send in your resume to admissions offices all over the country.

Tip 2 – Forge a connection with your high school teachers and counselors

The reason why this tip is so important to keep in mind is because it can help students in multiple ways. First off, forging relationships with your teachers and counselors in high school will ensure that you have someone in your corner should you ever need them. Teachers and counselors have years’ worth of experience and can help you navigate any issues that you may face. Moreover, teacher and counselor letters of recommendation are an incredibly important aspect of the college application process, and having strong relationships with the people who could end up writing your letters is a very strategic move.

Young woman explaining an extracurricular activity to a student.

There is no need to force these relationships, either. Teachers and counselors love developing meaningful bonds with students, and they will be happy to help in any way you need if you show that you are interested.

Tip 3 – Take the SAT or ACT

This might be somewhat surprising to see on this list since so many schools have decided to enact a standardized test optional policy in recent years, but the truth is that millions of high school students are still taking either the SAT or ACT and using the exam as a way to improve their chances of getting into the schools that are at the top of their list.

In fact, 1.5 million students took the SAT in 2021 alone and 1.3 million students took the Act in that year. Though there is no way to be sure, it is quite likely that the majority of these students did have the goal of attending a relatively competitive college or university.

Beyond that, the beauty of test-optional policies at these schools is that if you take one of the exams and don’t love your score, you can just leave it blank! If you do have a great school, it could help you further convince admissions officers that you are ready for the rigors of a top college curriculum.

Tip 4 – Visit campuses

The final tip when answering the question, “When should I start preparing for college?” has to do with really making sure that you are applying to the right schools. Typically, students will start visiting schools in the spring of their junior year, so basically a good six months before the application process will really start.

Young woman walking in the campus.

The reason why this is such an important and useful tip is because visiting a campus will really help you get a better idea of whether or not you can see yourself living, learning and loving the time you spend on that campus. When you are scheduling a visit, make sure to reach out to the school to see what kinds of resources and opportunities they have for prospective applicants.

Let AdmissionSight help you prepare for college

While admissions consultants often come in once students are ready to start applying to colleges, there is also a lot that we can offer in the years leading up to that. If you are interested in learning what we can do for you to help you prepare for your college education in high school, contact us at AdmissionSight today to schedule a free consultation!


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