Roadmap To College for High Schoolers: What to Do Grade by Grade

Students are thinking about college earlier and earlier thanks to the ever-growing hype around low acceptance rates, upcoming changes to standardized testing, and the increasing cost of tuition.

High school students want success and as manageable a journey as possible in the college admissions process. But where to start? Here’s what you can do to plan in advance:

Ninth Grade

This is the year to lay the academic and extracurricular foundation for the next four years. Begin by taking these initial steps:

  • Visit your guidance counselor or academic advisor to formulate a challenging curriculum.
  • Focus on your schoolwork from the start — freshman grades do appear on high school transcripts.
  • Participate in student clubs, teams, and activities, both in and out of school.
  • Take on community service commitments, preferably something you stick with over time.
  • Visit college campuses during your school breaks.

Tenth Grade

More and more students and parents recognize the benefits of continuing the college journey this year. There are important steps that students take now that may ultimately impact applications. In addition to the most important goal — keeping up strong grades and always looking to improve upon weaker subjects — students begin prepping for standardized tests and crafting a preliminary college list. Here’s the plan of action:

  • Check if the PSAT and/or PLAN are offered at your school. Once you get your scores back, speak with a school counselor or independent tutor to assess the results and select which standardized test, the SAT or ACT, is best suited to you.
  • Concentrate on one or two extracurricular activities that you are most passionate about.
  • Consider summer classes to improve upon grades, or to fit in a needed course. Colleges like to see students who challenge themselves.
  • Discuss SAT subject tests with your teachers to choose those that you’re strongest in, and register to take one, possibly two, in June.
  • Think about how you envision your college experience and the type of college that best suits your personality.
  • Look for local college fairs on NACAC to research schools and to meet with college admissions officials.

Eleventh Grade

Junior year is the most critical year of all. Everything you do this year goes under the microscope as your academic workload picks up and your responsibilities mount. How you manages this pressure shows colleges how ready you may be for your college career. Here’s what you need to focus on:

  • Continue with test prep on a regular basis and register for a winter SAT or ACT.
  • Start to record a list of activities, honors, leadership positions, internships, and jobs that will comprise your student resume to accompany college applications.
  • Continue to check out local college fairs, and ask your college counselor for the schedule of college representatives visiting your school this fall so you can attend these sessions.
  • Visit college campuses in the fall and build connections with admissions offices.
  • Think about which teachers you will ask for recommendation letters.
  • Register for AP exams if you are eligible.

Rising Senior Summer

Students often seek out an internship or college level summer course to delve more deeply into an interest or passion over the summer. This is also the time to get a head start on your college applications by crafting your admissions essays in June and July. FInishing these up over the summer months takes enormous pressure off of senior year.

Twelfth Grade

College applications are the focus of the fall semester. Here’s what you should be aiming to do:

  • Meet with the college counselor to finalize your list of schools.
  • Visit any additional schools you want to check out.
  • Make sure that teachers have submitted their recommendation letters.
  • Register for fall SAT/ACT tests before the deadlines.
  • Review, edit, and proofread all of your admissions essays.
  • Complete Early Decision or Early Action applications with November deadlines.
  • Continue to maintain, or improve upon, academic performance; mid-year grades will be sent to colleges.

Check out Noodle's customizable college search, which allows you to explore schools by what you consider important — size, location, social life, and more. You can find student reviews, ask questions, and receive expert advice on the general college topic page.