Start prepping for college early in the high school years

Alabama Living Magazine

Preparing for college can be stressful on high school students and parents. Kathleen Stallings, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Undergraduate Admissions, provides a timeline to help future college students prepare for college at an early age and guide them through the application process with a realistic timeline.

“Start early,” Stallings says. “Many students wait until their junior or senior year to even think about college applications. We encourage potential students to start thinking about their future college career during their freshman year of high school.”

Freshman and sophomore year: Buckle down and explore

It is never too early to start thinking about how experiences in high school will impact the future. From grades to extracurricular activities, each year of high school is a steppingstone to the next, and eventually a student’s college career. 

Lay out a success plan and set goals for each year with a school counselor. Stallings suggests discussing the following with a counselor at the beginning of each year:

  • Class schedule
  • Current GPA and class rank
  • Potential colleges 
  • Career options and various testing options

Start thinking about grades in terms of what scholarships to pursue. Most colleges will look at a student’s cumulative GPA for the first three years of high school to determine scholarship eligibility.

“Some high school students think they can get their grades up during their junior or senior year in order to get into college,” Stallings says. “If you are looking to get a scholarship to pay for college, you need to consider this early on. Your senior year might be too late.”

Get involved in extracurricular activities. State schools may not value extracurriculars as much as Ivy League schools, but these activities could lead to additional scholarships and opportunities once accepted into college.

As sophomores, students should start preparing for the SAT or ACT by taking prep courses and practice exams.

“Prepare and practice early on for the best results,” Stallings says. “There may be minimum scores required to get into the college or university of your choice. If you are looking to obtain scholarships, these scores will matter even more.”Other recommendations from Stallings for freshman and sophomore high school students include:

  • Begin college research by talking to others in the community and looking online
  • Keep track of extracurricular activities, volunteer experiences and any other positions help in a resume

Junior year: Get serious

Start looking at colleges more seriously, suggests Stallings. Attend college fairs at school and in the community. Visit college campuses to get a feel for the campus, its culture and the overall experience. Many high schools allow excused absences for juniors and seniors to make college visits, so students should talk with their counselors to see what is allowed and take advantage of these opportunities to visit campuses, suggests Stallings.

“We encourage potential students to visit the college campuses they are interested in attending,” Stallings says. “It is important to get a feel for what everyday life on campus is and how that makes you feel about attending school there. You can also explore opportunities available to you and your interests while you are on campus.”

Think about standardized testing early. Take the PSAT during the fall. This will help students qualify early for scholarships, such as the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Get organized early on, suggests Stallings. Lay out key dates for standardized testing, application deadlines and scholarship deadlines. Set deadlines early to ensure the needed items are pulled together in a timely fashion to make college deadlines. Talk to the people who will provide recommendation letters or transcripts from early in the process so they have time to meet deadlines.

Determine how to pay for college. Stallings suggests starting the conversation early between caregivers and students to map out a plan. Set a yearly budget to know what will be needed when and for what. What scholarship applications are needed? What are the deadlines? What financial aid can be utilized? Will a job during the summer or during the school year be needed to help offset costs?

Senior year: The home stretch

As students who intend to attend college move into their final year of high school, they should consider every move they make as a move to get into the college of their choice. Stallings suggests taking advantage of the summer months to do an internship in the field of study one is pursuing or volunteering at local organizations. These resume-type items may not factor into state school applications, but fare well on college scholarship applications and provide opportunities to learn about various career fields.

During the fall, make a final list of colleges to apply for, and apply early. Many colleges and universities award scholarships to the early applicants based on grades and standardized testing scores.

Do not sit back and wait. Watch for decision letters in the mail.

“If you haven’t heard from your top colleges, contact the office of admissions to make sure they received your application,” Stallings says.

Submit financial aid and scholarship applications before the deadlines.

“Make sure you are taking full advantage of financial aid that is available,” Stallings says. “Many times there are federal funds, like the Pell Grant and Federal Work Study, that go unused simply because students don’t apply for them.”


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