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Your College Search: A year-by-year guide of what to do and when

By Brooke Dailey, Director of Admissions at Belmont UniversityBelmont University The college search process.  For some students and families the thought brings excitement and great anticipation.  For others, a sense of confusion and perhaps anxiety may more accurately describe what they feel when they start thinking about college and the application process.  Searching for the place where lifelong friendships will be formed, self discovery is encouraged and nurtured, and intellectual development is pursued is overwhelming.

Not surprisingly, admission professionals often hear questions like “Where do we even start?” or “I wish I would have known to start searching earlier.”  So, in an effort to make the college search process a less-stressful one (and perhaps an enjoyable!), here are some proven tips and checkpoints I recommend for the four years leading up to your freshman year in college:

9th grade

  • Concentrate on your grades.  Freshman year is just as important as your junior year and even more important than your senior year.  Too many times students do not understand the importance these grades have on a college’s decision to admit a student.  Study!
  • Become involved in your high school clubs and your local community.  Start building your resume now.
  • Most colleges have a recommended high school curriculum.  If you know a few colleges that you may be interested in, make sure to get this information so you can plan out your high school schedule and take the classes necessary.

10th grade

  • Start seeking leadership positions to enhance that resume.
  • The PSAT and PLAN tests are the “prep” tests for the SAT and ACT, respectively, and are administered to sophomores – treat them as serious preparation for the “real” tests to come.
  • Start touring college campuses in your local area.  This is in most cases at no cost to you.  Getting on a college campus to start hearing what is required for admissions, what they offer their students and what programs are available is an excellent way to start slowly getting comfortable with the college search process.
  • Continue to take your classes seriously.  Sign up for Honors or AP classes if your school offers them and are consistent with your academic strengths.  Push yourself to be challenged.

11th grade

  • Take the ACT or SAT test.  And then take it again.  Personally, I recommend you take each test once, pick the one you did better on and take it again.  Each test is unique in its own way, so finding out which one is best suited for you is an important step.
  • Start visiting colleges outside of your area if you are interested in leaving town.  Visit schools of all different sizes and see where you feel more comfortable.  Ask questions on the tour.
  • Take on leadership positions at your high school.  Continue to build your resume by being involved and being an active member.
  • Attend the college fair put on in your city or at your high school.  Take them seriously and be open-minded throughout the fair.  Take advantage of any college representatives who come to visit your high school.  Do not shop for colleges based on “sticker price.”  Keep in mind that merit and need-based aid may be available; don’t rule out a school because of the initial costs.

Summer before 12th grade

  • Start a timeline that organizes the application, scholarship, and financial aid deadlines for each of the colleges to which you are applying.
  • Finish your resume with all activities in which you’ve been involved since freshman year. Have someone review and edit it. Be sure to highlight those leadership skills you have developed.

12th grade

  • Apply to the colleges you are interested in as early as you can.  Get to know your admissions counselor for each college.  They are there to help and guide you through the process.
  • Adhere to deadlines!  Do not be the student who submits the application on the actual deadline.  Colleges and Universities are inundated with applications at that time, so preparing and submitting it early will only be to your benefit.
  • If letters of recommendation are required, ask your references if they will write your recommendation letter at least three weeks prior to when it is due.  Be respectful of their time.
  • Continue visiting colleges and attending any special events for prospective students.  Make a second visit to your top one or two colleges.  Your questions will be different at this point and your comfort level on the campuses will have increased.  Stay with a current student on his/her campus if it is allowed and attend a class.
  • Choose your college by the May 1st National Candidate Reply Deadline.  Notify the colleges to which you were admitted, but are not attending.

Last but not least, enjoy your summer before college.  Make memories with your high school friends, spend time with your family, and attend or prepare for the orientation at the college/university you chose.

Congratulations:  you’ve survived the college search process!