College Prep Guide: The Road Map to Higher Education

At this point in your life, you're hearing a lot about college. You're getting pamphlets in your mailbox, emails in your inbox, and an earful from every parent, guidance counselor, and teacher within range. With so much information flying at your face, it's easy to lose sight of what college can actually offer you.

So what does college mean, exactly? In a nutshell, college means possibilities. In the span of four short years you will learn about exciting concepts and cultures, meet fascinating people, and discover all kinds of opportunities for your future. Attending college will grant you the chance to experience the world in a whole new way.

Make no mistake, there's a lot information to sort through and it's going to take a lot of hard work, but the end results will be incredibly rewarding. To help you manage your college search, below is a guide for your junior and senior years of high school. We've listed the essential steps you need to ensure that you're prepared for applying to college.

JUNIOR YEAR:

-Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what your interests are and what kind of college you're looking for. What are your passions in life? What are you excited to learn about? Do you want to stay close to home, or are you yearning for some travel? Talk with your parents and your guidance counselor about the different college options that are available.

-Begin reviewing college guides and online college databases. Your school guidance department will probably have a wealth of resources for your to pore over, so be sure to stop by and check it out. As you launch into your research, start to put together a list of colleges that catch your eye. Visit their websites and send away for information packets.

-Visit a college or two. Sign up for a guided tour, or just explore a campus with your friends. It's important that you learn about college life and the programs and benefits that different colleges offer. If you're feeling up to it, try talking to some students about their experiences. They won't bite, and more often than not, they can give you the inside scoop on a particular college.

-Register for the PSAT. Most students take the PSAT in the fall, so make certain you're prepared before your testing date rolls around in October.

-Once you've finished the PSAT, start to prepare yourself for the SAT. Familiarize yourself with the format of the test and the kinds of questions that will be asked. Check out some SAT prep guides online or at your local library.

-Register for the SAT. The SAT is usually taken in April, May, or June, so you will be registering several months in advance. Also, consider registering for a second SAT in the fall of your senior year. Even if things go brilliantly the first time, it never hurts to have a second SAT scheduled as a back-up.

-As the end of your junior year approaches, take some time to think about the colleges that you've researched. Finalize your list of schools, and makes plans to visit each one of them. Start to think about how you will pay for college and who you might ask for letters of recommendation.

-Make your last summer count. Don't just hang around the couch – go out there and make the most of your time. Find yourself a job or an internship, or volunteer with a worthy cause in your community. Consider some travel to broaden your mind, perhaps even a road trip to multiple campuses across the country. Remember, you're going to be filling out college applications soon, and it will be in your best interest to have as many unique experiences as possible.

SENIOR YEAR:

-Follow through with your plans to visit all the colleges on your list and begin to narrow down your choices. Each time you visit a college, ask yourself if you could envision spending the next four years of your life there. Does it seem like a good fit? If so, what aspects do you find appealing?

-Think about the teachers and other adults who would give you the best possible review and approach them for letters of recommendation. Be polite and talk with them about your goals for the future. Once the letters are finished, promptly send each person a nice thank-you note.

-Select your favorite colleges and prepare your applications. Under certain programs, you may be eligible to have your applications fees waived, so be sure to do your research. Give yourself plenty of time to get your transcript and other paperwork ready. Don't put it all off until the last minute!

-Write some polished, well-crafted application essays. Try to be clever and original, but the more importantly, be true to yourself. Choose a topic that's close to home for you, and give the reader a clear impression of who you are and what you want from your education. When you're finished, proofread your essay carefully and then ask your parents or a teacher to proofread it for a second time.

-Complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) with your parents. This required form is used by colleges to determine the amount of financial aid you will receive.

Research scholarships as early as possible. There's money available from a lot of different sources, and no matter how small they are, scholarships will add up in a big way.

-Keep your grades in top shape, especially after you receive your acceptance letters. You're in the home stretch now, so don't shoot yourself in the foot by slacking off. Many colleges reserve the right to revoke acceptance if your final semester grades are poor.

-The time has come – you're ready to make the big decision. Compare financial aid packages, locations, campuses, and areas of study. Attend “Accepted Student Day” events to help you make your decision.

-Finally – enjoy your high school graduation and the summer before college. You've earned it!