Throughout High School:
- Extracurricular Activities: College admissions are about more than grades and test scores. Make sure you’re involved in activities outside of your classes. Seek out experiences that will be meaningful to you and that will give you opportunities to develop leadership roles. Whether you’re involved in theater, music, athletics, or community service, your extracurricular activities show a college that you’re a passionate, engaged, and well-rounded individual. Learn more with these articles: What Counts as an Extracurricular Activity? | What are the Best Extracurricular Activities?
- Grades: Grades matter from the beginning of 9th grade until the end of 12th grade (note that some schools don't consider 9th grade). College may seem a long way off when you’re in your first year of high school, but those grades will affect your GPA and class rank. And don’t think you can slack off at the end of senior year -- most colleges reserve the right to overturn an admissions decision if an applicant’s grades take a sudden nosedive. Learn more: What's a Good Academic Record?
- Challenging Courses: Colleges aren’t impressed with high grades if they come from classes that are easy. If you want to get into a top school and be well-prepared for college, you should choose that physics class instead of woodworking.
- PSAT: Take the PSAT in October. This test doesn’t play a role in college admissions decisions, but you should take the exam seriously. A high score on the exam can win you a National Merit Scholarship, and many schools in the country offer a free ride to National Merit Scholars. Also, the PSAT will let you know whether or not you are prepared for the SAT. Learn more about the PSAT.
- Keep Taking Challenging Courses: Those Honors, IB, and AP classes are going to be the most important part of your college application. Having one or two AP classes junior year can be a huge perk because if you get a 4 or 5 on the exam, you'll have the scores in time to report them to colleges (Learn Why AP Classes Matter).
- Visit Colleges: Although you can wait until senior year to make these visits, junior year is better. By touring campuses and talking to admissions personnel, you’ll better understand what’s required for an impressive application. Also, if you find a school that excites you, that excitement can help motivate you to earn the grades and scores you’ll need to get accepted.
- Test Preparation: If your PSAT scores indicate that you’re not prepared for the SAT or ACT, now’s the time to improve your test-taking skills. At the least, get a couple books to help you study for the exams. If studying solo isn’t your strength, consider taking a test preparation course (for example, Kaplan offers a range of SAT prep and ACT prep options).
- SAT and ACT: You’ll need to take the SAT or ACT by the fall of your senior year. Since you’re allowed to take the tests more than once and most colleges consider only your highest scores, it’s wise to take the test in the spring of junior year. If you don’t do well, you still have time to beef up your skills and retake the exam. Follow the links to learn what is considered a good SAT score and a good ACT score.
- AP Courses: If your school offers AP courses, keep taking them. Senior year isn't the time to slack off. Colleges will make admissions decisions before they see your senior year AP scores, but they’ll be impressed by your challenging curriculum. Also, AP credits can give you a lot more freedom in college to take elective courses or pursue a minor or double major.
- Visit More Schools: Early in senior year, you’ll have to start figuring out which schools will best match your personality and interests. The more schools you visit, the better informed your choices will be. Be sure to get the most out of your campus visit.
- Review Colleges' Applications: Look at all of your applications early so that you know what’s required of you and so that you can start thinking about the essay questions. Realize that even if all of your colleges use the Common Application, they are likely to have supplements with unique short answer and essay questions. Getting applications requires little more than a quick visit to the admissions area of a school’s website.
- Admissions Essay: Don’t put off your essay until your application deadline is looming. In the summer or early in senior year, start thinking about the essay questions for the schools you’re interested in applying to. Your admissions essay should be the most thoughtful and polished piece of writing you’ve ever produced. Allow lots of time to write drafts and get feedback from teachers and counselors. Be sure to consider these tips, and check out the sample essays. For the Common Application, check out the tips and samples for the six essay options.
- SAT or ACT: To meet application deadlines at most competitive schools, you’ll need to have taken the SAT or ACT by early in your senior year. Also, if you took the ACT or SAT in your junior year but aren’t happy with your scores, the fall of senior year is your last chance to try again. Keep track of the SAT test dates and registration deadlines and/or the ACT test dates and deadlines.
- Letters of Recommendation: Your teachers and mentors are busy people, so be sure to give them plenty of time to write your letters of recommendation. Also, try to spend some time talking with your recommenders before handing them the forms -- you’ll get the best letters from people who understand your interests and ambitions. Read more about getting good letters of recommendation.
- Submit Your Applications: The sooner you submit your applications, the better. Admissions offices tend to get overwhelmed as the application deadline nears. But don’t rush -- take time and care to make sure your application is complete and polished.