Preparing for College: A Checklist for High Schoolers

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!

The good news? Planning for college can be divvied up into smaller steps to make it more manageable — for you and your wannabe college student.

Here’s a year-by-year look at what your family can do to prepare for college.

Freshman year

Test prep

No need to break into those SAT and ACT study books just yet. That said, if your child’s school offers practice tests, encourage them 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.

Class schedules

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.

Extracurricular activities

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.

Application readiness

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 her phone or a Google doc and then share it with you.

Sophomore year

Test prep

Practice test time! Have your child sign up for and take the PSAT and PACT. Review their scores together – if he struggled on certain sections of the test, he might consider adjusting their school schedule to take coursework that will help them in those areas, whether it’s math or reading comprehension.

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 he 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.

Class schedule

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 potential college accepts AP coursework.

Extracurricular activities

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.

Application readiness

As with freshman year, make sure to capture all the awards and accolades your child has garnered over the past year.

Junior year

Test prep

Have your child sign up for and take the PSAT, which can qualify them for the National Merit Scholarship Program, depending on their 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. If the schools that interest your student offers visits, plot out when to visit top choices (NOTE: some schools have canceled on-campus visits due to the pandemic and are offering more options to get to know the campus virtually so reach out to the schools in advance for guidance). 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.

Class schedules

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.

Extracurricular activities

Now that your child is in fewer activities, suggest that he look into leadership positions within the various clubs/sports he’s involved in.

Application readiness

Still have the list of accomplishments? Dust it off and have your child add to it for the year. Also, have them start thinking about what he can write about for their college essay. Guidance counselors will tell you the colleges are looking for authenticity in college application essays – not a dissertation on all their accomplishments.

Senior year

Test time

In a normal year, this is the time to take and retake the ACT and SAT. However, many schools are waiving this requirement for incoming students due to the pandemic. Make sure to check with the schools that interest your student. Typically, 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).

Choosing a college

Have your child create a list of their top five to seven college choices and outline the differences between them, like financial packages available and other cost considerations, deadline for applications and other details so he can easily compare their options – and know exactly when to apply for their chosen schools. If you haven’t already, and if possible, visit a few of the colleges your child would like to attend.

Class schedules

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 them to explore their interests, along with building their critical thinking skills.

Extracurricular activities

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.

Application readiness

Your senior will need to write their college essay – but before he puts pen to paper have them review the application requirements for the schools he’d like to attend. Some may have them 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: College application deadlines vary. Consider having them set a reminder on their phone for all the upcoming application deadlines.)


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