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Make a Plan

An ancient phrase reminds us that, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." But no matter how unsure you feel taking that first step, every single one after that will be a little easier.

Having a map and making a plan can help along the way. Use the following timelines to create your own path to college.

Middle School

Figure out what you want to do.

  • Start thinking about your future and career possibilities.
  • Explore different occupations that match your interests.
  • Keep your options open.
  • Use time outside of school wisely.
  • Get help when it's needed.

Do your best in class.

  • Take control learn to be a good student.
  • Get off to a good start! Study hard, turn in all assignments, and do your best to earn good grades.
  • Review your academic strengths and weaknesses. Talk with friends and family about careers and possible college choices.
  • Sign up for pre-algebra, if at all possible.
  • Get to know your teachers.
  • Take the right courses.
  • Read, read, read!

Start saving.

  • Start learning about different financial aid programs from your school counselor or teachers.
  • Visit colleges and talk with college students, and your friends.
  • Save money now to pay for school, and keep saving, a little at a time makes a difference.
  • Talk to your parents about educational loyalty and affinity programs.
  • Attend, with your parent or guardian, any financial planning or "how to afford college" programs offered at your school or in the community.
  • Research on the web, check out our Resources section for some helpful links.

Talk to your school counselor about:

  • Going to a college or university.
  • College-track courses to start taking in middle school.
  • The importance colleges and universities place on grades, and at what year will your school grades start to matter in the admissions process.
  • College preparatory, AP, and other honors-level courses you should be taking in high school (9th through 12th grade).
  • Academic enrichment programs (including summer and weekend programs) available through your school or local colleges.
  • Pursuing extracurricular activities (such as sports, performing arts, volunteer work, or other activities that interest you).

Other top tips:

  • Apply for a Social Security Number if you do not already have one.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity to participate in enrichment activities.
  • Visit a local college campus.


Plan out a challenging program of classes to take.

  • Colleges care about which courses you're taking in high school. Remember, you will have more options if you start planning now for college and do your best to earn good grades.
  • The courses you take in high school show colleges what kind of goals you set for yourself. Are you signing up for advanced classes, honors sections, or accelerated sequences? Are you choosing electives that really stretch your mind and help you develop new abilities? Or are you doing just enough to get by?
  • Colleges will be more impressed by respectable grades in challenging courses than by outstanding grades in easy ones.
  • Do your high school course selections match what most colleges expect you to know? For example, many colleges require two to four years of foreign language study.
  • Establish your college preparatory classes; your schedule should consist of at least 4 college preparatory classes per year, including:
    • 4 years of English
    • 3 years of math (through algebra II or trigonometry)
    • 2 years of foreign language
    • At least 2 years of natural science
    • 2 years of history/social studies
    • 1 year of art
    • 1 year of electives from the above list
    • Enrolling in algebra or geometry classes and a foreign language class for each semester (most colleges have math and foreign language requirements)

Create a file of important documents and notes.

  • Copies of report cards.
  • Lists of awards and honors.
  • Lists of school and community activities in which you are involved, including both paid and volunteer work, and descriptions of what you do.

Start thinking about the colleges you want to attend.

  • Create list of colleges and universities in which you are interested.
  • Discuss the list with your school counselor and narrow it down to your top few.
  • Start visiting the campuses.

Find out about honors-level courses at your school.

  • Ask if AP or other honors courses are available.
  • See if you are eligible for the honors classes you want to take.

Stay active in clubs, activities, and sports that you enjoy.

  • Study, study, study. Colleges look at your permanent academic record for admissions beginning with freshman-year grades.
  • Think about an after school or summer job to start saving for college.


Prepare for standardized testing.

  • There are a variety of standardized tests available - PSAT, SAT, SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Test, ACT PLAN, ACT, and AP tests to name a few - but you don't have to take every test in order to be college-ready.
  • Discuss the standardized test options with your school counselor and determine which ones would be most beneficial for you. Below are some possible options and scheduling information:
    • Take the ACT PLAN test in the fall, normally in October or November. This is a valuable test to help you prepare for the ACT which you can take during your junior year in April or June.
    • Review PLAN test results with your parents and school counselor. Compare these to your EXPLORE results to measure growth.
    • Take the PSAT in October. The scores will not count for National Merit Scholar consideration in your sophomore year, but it is valuable practice for when you take the PSAT again in your junior year when the scores will count, as well as for the SAT Reasoning Test, which you should also be taking in your junior year. You will receive your PSAT results in December.
    • Start preparing for the SAT Reasoning Test.
    • Register in April for the SAT Subject Tests that you will be completing before June.
    • Take the SAT Subject Test in June.

Update your file of important documents and notes.

  • Copies of report cards
  • Lists of awards and honors
  • Lists of school and community activities in which you are involved, including both paid and volunteer work, and descriptions of what you do

Continue your college search and visits.

  • Think about selecting a school, finding out about the different types. Decide which characteristics are most important to you, such as the size of the school, distance from home, cost, and extracurricular activities.
  • Visit colleges and talk with college students.
  • Be ready with a list of questions to ask on your campus visit.
  • Use this list of college characteristics to decide how to evaluate different colleges.
  • Review the high school course you need to take to meet the requirements of the colleges you are interested in attending.

Find out about honors-level courses at your school.

  • Ask if AP or other honors courses are available.
  • See if you are eligible for the honors classes you want to take.
  • Find out how to enroll in them your junior year.

Other top tips:

  • Continue extracurricular activities, as admissions officers look at students' extracurricular activities when considering them for admission.
  • Continue participation in academic enrichment programs, summer workshops, and camps with specialty focuses such as music, arts, and science.
  • Continue to meet with your school counselor at least once a year


Prepare for and take standardized tests.

  • Check the schedules for the PSAT in the fall, and the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Test, ACT, and AP tests in the spring.
  • Discuss with your school counselor why you should take these tests and how they could benefit you.
  • Determine which tests you will take. (You can always change your mind.)
  • Sign up and prepare for the tests you've decided to take.

Maintain good grades and other academic activities.

  • Continue to take and seek out challenging courses.
  • Join an academic club.
  • Start or update an academic resume.
  • Assume leadership roles in your activities and sports.
  • Consider putting together a portfolio that highlights your special skills and talents.

Continue your college search and visits.

  • Gather information from colleges. Request brochures and catalogs and attend college fairs.
  • Visit colleges and talk with college students.
  • Check into applying to colleges online.
  • Talk with your parents and high school counselor about colleges that interest you.
  • During the summer between your junior and senior year, write practice applications and essays and decide where and if to apply early decision, early action or regular decision.

Fall Semester Timeline


  • Start your year off right: Talk with your school counselor about your options and your plans. Be sure to ask about test dates for the PSAT, ACT, and SAT. You'll need to register up to six weeks ahead of time.
  • Sign up for courses with your eyes on the prize: college and money to pay for it! A tougher course load may pay off with scholarships and may get you a better chance to get admitted to the school of your choice.
  • Start investigating private and public sources for financial aid. Take note of scholarship deadlines and plan accordingly.
  • Sign up for activities to boost your college applications.


  • Find out about schools you are interested in attending. Treat your school selection process like a research paper: Make a file and gather information about schools, financial aid, and campus life to put in it. Go to college fairs and open houses and learn as much as you can from the Internet about schools.
    Begin planning college visits. Fall, winter, and spring break are good times because you can observe a campus when classes are going on.


  • Take the PSAT. You'll get the results by Christmas.
  • Sign up for ACT or SAT prep courses.
  • Do your top college picks require essays or recommendations? Now is the time to begin planning your essays and choosing whom you'd like to ask for a recommendation.


  • Sign up for the ACT and SAT, if you haven't already.


  • Begin the application process for service academies (West Point, Annapolis, etc.)
  • Decide if you should take AP exams in May. Investigate the College-Level Examination Program or CLEP, which grants college credit for achievement in exams covering many different college-level subjects.

Spring Semester Timeline


  • Meet with your school counselor again to develop your senior schedule.
  • Organize your Individual Graduation Plan.


  • Think about lining up a summer job, internship, or co-op.
  • Plan campus visits for spring break.
  • Memorize your Social Security number if you haven't already. It will be your identity on campus.


  • Get ready for AP exams next month.
  • Write a resume.


Senior Year Timeline: August

  • Sign up for the ACT if you didn't take it as a junior, or if you aren't satisfied with your score.
  • Review ACT test results and retest if necessary.

Senior Year Timeline: August to December

    Visit with your school counselor to make sure you are on track to graduate and fulfill college admission requirements.

Consider taking courses at a local university or community college.

  • Keep working hard all year; second semester grades can affect scholarship eligibility.
  • Ask for personal references from teachers, school counselors, or employers early in the year or at least two weeks before application deadline.
  • Follow your school's procedure for requesting recommendations.
  • Visit with admissions counselors who come to your high school.
  • Attend a college fair.
  • Begin your college essay(s).
  • Apply for admission at the colleges you've chosen.
  • Avoid common college application mistakes.
  • Find out if you qualify for scholarships at each college where you have applied.
  • Start the financial aid application process.
  • See your school counselor for help finding financial aid and scholarships.

Senior Year Timeline: January to May

  • If you need it, get help completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
  • Ask your school counselor in January to send first semester transcripts to schools where you applied. In May, they will need to send final transcripts to the college you will attend.
  • Visit colleges that have invited you to enroll.
  • Decide which college to attend, and notify the school of your decision.
  • Keep track of and observe deadlines for sending in all required fees and paperwork.
  • Notify schools you will not attend of your decision.
  • Continue to look for scholarship opportunities.
  • Keep track of important financial aid and scholarship deadlines.
  • Watch the mail for your Student Aid Report (SAR) it should arrive four weeks after the FAFSA is filed.
  • Compare financial aid packages from different schools.
  • Sign and send in a promissory note if you are borrowing money.
  • Notify your college about any outside scholarships you received.

Senior Year Timeline: June to August

  • Make sure your final transcript is sent to the school you will be attending.
  • Getting a summer job can help pay some of your college expenses.
  • Make a list of what you will need to take with you for your dorm room.
  • If you haven't met your roommate, call, write, or e-mail to get acquainted in advance.
  • Make sure housing documentation is quickly accessible when you move into the dorm.
  • Learn how to get around at your new school. Review a campus map.
  • Wait until after your first class meeting to buy your books and supplies.
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