Preparing for college begins well before application

Amanda James, class of 2010, at bat for the Saint Leo Lions softball team. Photo by Saint Leo University
Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel stands at the head of the academic quad at Thomas Aquinas College. Photo by Thomas Aquinas College

Most high school students began evaluating potential colleges and universities during their junior year, but the college application process should run throughout their entire high school careers, high school guidance counselors say. Below is a general checklist for the college admission process.


Colleges and universities today seek students who will enhance the current student body and make a positive contribution, so the more well-rounded a student is academically and socially, the more likely the student will be accepted at their colleges of choice. To that end, high school students should begin building their résumé beginning on the first day of high school by maintaining a strong grade point average (GPA) and participating in a wide range of extracurricular experiences.

In order to maintain a high GPA, it’s important that students start off strong academically during their freshman year of high school. High school freshmen should challenge themselves academically and begin exploring fields of study that interest them. It’s also important to begin tracking extracurricular and service activities so they can be included in college applications.

Standardized testing

High school sophomores should consider taking the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) or the trial American College Testing (ACT) to prepare for the SAT and ACT. As high school juniors, they should take either the ACT or SAT once or twice, and then once again during their senior year of high school. One suggestion is to take each test once and then repeat the test that best suits the student.

There are numerous online and in-school study aids available in high schools across the country. One such aid, Naviance, is individualized to the student.

The ACT composite score of between 1 and 36 is the average of scores on the test’s math, reading, English, and science sections. The SAT composite score of 400 to 1,600 is the average of the test’s math and evidence-based reading and writing sections; there is no science component. Scores on the tests drive merit scholarships and are one of many factors colleges use in evaluating applicants. In today’s changing landscape, however, some schools make the test scores optional, while others don’t require them at all.

Evaluating colleges and universities

In evaluating schools to consider, students should determine what they want from their college experience, both academically and socially. Consider the amenities of schools and how those fit with the student’s wants and needs. In researching schools, students should look at the academics, location, size, student-faculty ratio, support services, campus life, safety and security, costs, internships, and opportunities for international study. Research the college’s four- and five-year graduation rates, freshman retention rate, average amount of graduating student debt, and internship opportunities during the college years.

Students and parents should have an honest conversation about the realities of college costs. Students need to understand what is realistic and what financial assistance their parents can provide. High school counselors are available to help students with researching schools that fit each student’s criteria. Regional college fairs enable students to visit with representatives from scores of schools at a single event. The representatives can answer questions about the application process and programs offered on campus; many times the representatives are admissions counselors who will be reading and assessing student applications. This is a great time to make a face-to-face impression and get a personal response to questions.

Letters of recommendation, essay

Ideally, the résumé should be completed by the end of junior year. It is also important that students have asked their teachers, counselors, and other key people to write letters of recommendation. The summer after junior year, students should begin the college essay. Some high schools offer workshops to help students get a head start on the essay.

On-campus visits

An on-campus college visit is the best way for a student to experience the “vibe” of the school and its academic and social life. While visits can’t begin too soon, it’s important that students visit colleges in their junior and senior years. To maximize the visit, students should get off the tour and talk with college students in the dining hall or other areas of campus. They can ask the tour guide where their roommates are from. They can find out about student organizations and how many people participate in various groups. They might find out what one class everyone wants to take, how freshmen students are housed, and about the academic advisers.

High school counselors encourage students to visit different-sized schools to get a feel for where they best fit. Many students find that once they get on campus, they are able to remove a school from consideration or just know that it’s the right school for them. Students can also visit campuses after they have been accepted by a particular college.


In evaluating applicants, colleges and universities review such things as the grade transcript, club activity, leadership qualities, letters of recommendation, and personality. Admissions officials seek those who are willing to come to campus and get involved in student life outside of the classroom. Counselors encourage students to apply to between four and eight schools. It’s best to broaden the list rather than narrow it. Students typically apply in the fall of their senior year; the research is done during junior year. There should be at least one school on the list that the student knows they will be admitted to and that they would like to attend.

Financial aid packages differ for each college, so while a student may be admitted everywhere they apply, the financial cost is obviously going to be different and can be a major factor in the college a student chooses to attend.

Many high school counselors are able to help with the application process by working with students to complete their applications, résumés, and essays, and they can also help evaluate available scholarships. In addition, counselors will help students narrow down school choices, understand the financial aid process, complete housing forms, choose meal plans, and figure out roommates.

Sources: Angela Bucheit and Brion Treadway, counselors, Badin High School in Hamilton, Ohio (a coed Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati); Sarah Boocock Beyreis, director of college counseling, Cincinnati Country Day School, Cincinnati.

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