College

Create a To-Do List for Your College Search

High school students need to stay on task from freshman year through senior year.

Freshman Year

Get set for a great high school career. It’s important to remember that what lies ahead is not just a four-year audition for college. Still, it will help later to think now about what admissions staffers will be looking for.

  • Seek advice: Ask someone you trust to help you map out your classes. Grades are important in ninth grade. But rigor is really key, too, so don’t just go for easy A’s.
  • Learn from teacher feedback: How many times have you groaned over a bad essay grade, then stuffed the paper into a binder without another thought? Instead, accept that C as constructive criticism, really read your teacher’s comments and figure out how to do better.
  • Read voraciously: Books, newspapers, magazines, blogs – choose what engages you and remember to look up unfamiliar words.
  • Get involved: Not only are you developing talents and interests that will catch a college’s eye, but also school is more fun when you have activities to look forward to.

[Learn more about getting an early start on college prep.]

Sophomore Year

Now that you’re no longer a rookie, your job is to evolve as a learner.

  • Refine your route: Look ahead to which 11th and 12th grade courses you might be interested in taking and plan to work in any prerequisites.
  • Challenge yourself, but wisely: Create a balanced schedule. You want to strive for the best possible grades, but overtaxing yourself is bound to be counterproductive. Stressed-out brains don’t work well.
  • Get some practice: Will you take the PSAT this year? You’ll get a better sense of where you stand if you know what is on the test before you take it.

Also, consider whether an SAT subject test makes sense in the spring. If you’re enrolled in an AP or honors course now, the timing may be good. The College Board makes practice versions. Take at least one.

  • Put together a resume: Note your hobbies, jobs and extracurricular activities. For now, it’s just a way to keep track.
  • Make the most of your summer: Although lounging by the pool can be relaxing, it won’t help you uncover your passion. Work, volunteer, play sports or take a class. Find an activity that builds on a favorite subject or extracurricular interest.

[Follow a summer study plan to maximize SAT prep.]

Junior Year

Your grades, test scores and activities constitute a big chunk of what colleges consider for admission. Do your best in class and truly prepare for tests you take.

Junior year can also be a time to step forward as a leader in the world outside academics. Explore pursuits that interest you, not just because the exercise will look good on an application, but also because it allows you to flourish as a person.

  • Ask for help: If you feel stuck in your studies and in need of a breakthrough, ask teachers, parents or friends for help in finding a new approach.
  • Speak up in class: You will need to ask two junior-year teachers to write recommendations. They can’t know you without hearing your thoughts.
  • Get enough sleep: The single most important thing you can do as a learner is to get enough sleep. The average 16-year-old brain needs more than eight hours of sleep to function at 100 percent, and that’s exactly where you want to be.
  • Plan your testing calendar: Grades come first. But test scores matter, too. Talk with your parents and guidance counselor about which tests to take, when to take them and how to prepare for them.

First up, the PSAT. If your 10th-grade scores put you in reach of a national merit scholarship, it might be wise to spend concentrated time prepping. Then take the SAT or ACT in winter or early spring.

Don’t worry if you don’t get your ideal score; you can try again. The SAT subject tests are also an option for May or June in areas where you shine or in subjects you covered junior year.

  • Get involved: It’s great to be able to show you’ve worked hard, are dedicated to an activity, play well with others – and can lead them. Start an arts discussion group that goes to museum openings, or be voted team captain.
  • Start building your list: Once you have a handle on your test scores, talk to a counselor and start your list of target schools, reaches and safeties. Explore college websites and online resources.
  • Make some college visits: Spring break and summer vacation are ideal times to check out a few campuses. Also try to attend college fairs and talk with the folks behind the tables.
  • Write: Procrastination doesn’t make for a good college essay. Aim to have first drafts done by Labor Day. Share them with an English teacher or counselor.

[Avoid making these common college application mistakes.]

Senior Year

You made it. Let’s party! Well, not quite yet. This will also be a year of hard work and continued preparation. Colleges do consider senior-year transcripts. They can and will rescind offers to students who slack off.

  • Check requirements: You’re in the final stretch, so don’t veer off track. Make sure you’re completing all of the requirements for graduation as well as course requirements of the colleges on your list.
  • Finish testing: Retake the SAT, ACT or subject tests if needed. The early fall test dates will give you time to apply early.
  • Ask for recommendations: Early in the school year, ask two teachers who can offer different perspectives on your performance if they are willing to write a letter on your behalf. Choose teachers with whom you have a good relationship and who will effectively communicate your academic and personal qualities.
  • Apply: Fill out each application carefully, and ask someone to look over your essays with a critical eye. Check that your colleges have received records and recs from your high school, and have your SAT or ACT scores officially sent in. A month from the date you submit your application, call the college and confirm that it is complete.
  • Follow the money: Many colleges require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and CSS/Financial Aid Profile forms to be turned in by February. But the earlier the better.
  • Make the choice: Explore the colleges where you’ve been accepted. Visit their campuses again, talk with alumni, attend an accepted student reception. Then confidently make your college choice official by sending in your deposit.

By Ned JohnsonSept. 23, 2013 | 9:00 a.m. EDT

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2014” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.