There are key steps to college admission. They start earlier than the summer before college entrance. It’s indeed a good idea to have this in mind when you finish grade eight. Personally, I think it’s better to create a plan that includes what you love and what you are good at as your first criteria in creating your student portfolio. Next you can plan time for taking courses or spending extra personal time on subjects and skills you are weakest at.

1.  Try the PSAT: Quite a number of Grade 9 and Grade 10 students take this test to help prepare for the SAT. Americans also get to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program.

2.  Study and take the SAT or the ACT or both: Many juniors sit for the SAT and ACT for practice. If you take both, it will help you decide which one you’re likely to do well in. You can try either test a couple of times and then take your last one around September in your senior year.

3.  Start speaking to your school counsellor and teachers: It’s important to let your counsellor and teachers know about your aspirations so that they can give you guidance about which subjects are necessary and what colleges may be suitable for you. Also, once you realize what are the pertinent subjects, you may begin to see which core subject teacher would write the most appropriate recommendation letters for you. I can’t stress this enough. Teachers remember students who take the effort to get to know them (without bothering them too much of course). I often recall students who stayed back after writing class who would share with me a book they love (I have given some my own favourite novels) or who ask what magazines or books they should read to improve their writing and comprehension skills. That said, you may come across teachers who are not as approachable. You aren’t looking for a best friend, but if you find there is absolutely no rapport with a certain teacher, you can still find another one that knows enough about your strong subjects to be your referral. Both teachers and counsellors root for students who show they are trying even if they are not as abled as some brighter students. Don’t be shy and remember, it often takes many months to allow your referral writer to know you well and to develop an authentic bond.

4.  Research your colleges: The first people to talk to are your older friends and relatives who know about and/or who are attending the colleges you have interest in. There are also online resources including the College Board’s Big Future website. You can start building a list of the harder to reach colleges as well as the safety ones that you feel more confident about. Take a look at each college website which will inform you about their requirements and what majors they are known for. Develop a chart and print any such relevant information including application deadlines.

5.  Visit some college campuses: Some of my students have actually taken a summer program at a college they are interested in, some in Grade 10, some in Grade 11; some take consecutive summer programs in both 10 and 11.  If there is any possibility at all, visiting the campus of your intended college or colleges is actually a good idea. Walking tours are offered throughout the year on most campuses. Information sessions are less regular and you may have to register for one such as you do in Cornell or NYU.

There are good reasons for a visit. Sometimes you need to get the vibe ie. the feel for a place to see if that’s the campus you really want to spend four years of your life in. Also, info sessions and even a private meeting with a college representative will allow you to ask pertinent admission questions. You can then do a more realistic comparison of your favourite colleges. Lastly, you can write about the visit in the opening paragraph of one of your personal statements (usually with the maximum of two or three lines). It will show how keen you are about enrolling in your prospective college.

6.  Sit for the SAT Subject Tests: Students take the specific tests according to the classes  they’ve already gone through at school. Some could be in the spring or fall in junior year.

7.  Sit for the AP Exams in May.

8.  Or sit for the IB Exams in May or November.

9.  Consider the different admission processes if some of your target colleges are not part of the common application process. Start thinking about your college interviews in your junior year: For the colleges with optional interviews, find out about the type of relevant courses and research they do. Start jotting down how your own interests and strengths are a good fit for the corresponding colleges. Practice your own response with your parents or another friend.

10. Start thinking about your college application essays and the common application essay: Most of my students do this in the summer after junior year before they get busy the following year. Most will begin writing such essays seriously by the beginning of their senior year in September. This whole process will take anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks, depending on how many colleges you apply to and what sorts of personal statements these colleges require. Quite a number of students will add a last-minute college as another safety choice which is also made possible with rolling admissions. Feel free to ask your teachers or counsellor to review your personal statements.

11. Confirm who will be writing your recommendation letters: Begin making requests 4 to 5 weeks before your first college deadline. Help your teachers by writing out a few points which will highlight both your strengths, interests and personality. (Please see the “recommendation letters” section later in this manual.) It’s important to explain what you got out of their class so that your teachers understand why you chose them. Also, if there is an odd chance that a teacher tells you they do not feel they are the appropriate recommender (it’s a busy season for them due to many other similar requests), then respect that and find someone more suitable as there is nothing worse than a lukewarm reference letter.

12. Organize and check your list of application materials—Keep a “College Application” binder with plastic sleeves containing a list of needed and collected materials for each of your colleges. It’s also good to write down deadlines on these lists. You can also keep a virtual folder on your computer with similar information. Try to transfer this to your cell-phone so that you have information handy and that you are completely aware of the next step you need to take.

Also keep a copy of your school portfolio including any information about your extra-curricular activities and any school responsibilities and events you’ve participated in. A large percentage of your college admission submissions will be done via the Common Application while the University of California Colleges and some none C.A colleges will have their own online submission sites. Feel free to write to their admission office if you have any questions that your school faculty could not answer. By mid-fall of your senior year, make sure that you’ve completed most or half of each of your college lists. This means that you have started organizing the right admissions materials including admission forms, school test scores, personal statements, recommendation letters, and transcripts.

13. Consider financial awards sooner rather than later: Find out about possible scholarships: Your teachers and counsellor should know about the relevant scholarships available in your senior year of high school.

14. Consider financial aid if you are worried about college tuition fees.