College prep timeline: Experts say students should spend four years in high school laying groundwork

Preparation for the college admissions process should begin as soon as your child starts high school. Waiting until junior year can put your student behind.

When it comes to the college application process, most of the students that Guidance Director Amy Thompson interacts with feel the same way: overwhelmed.

Students don't know what to expect, and the prospect of leaving home scares them, she said. She reassures them with this advice:

"You can do it. It's a learning experience, and it's a growing experience. Everybody does it; everybody has to leave home at some point."

Thompson is the sole counselor for the Military Magnet Academy's nearly 300 high school students.

No matter how busy she gets, she said she always makes time to help students apply for college.

She'll start that process in a few weeks by going through each student's transcript to make sure they're taking the classes they need to graduate. She begins by looking at seniors' records. Then she meets with them afterward to talk about filling out college applications and financial aid.

Later in the year, she'll arrange college visits and tours.

Two of her biggest pieces of advice during the ap- plication process are: write the essay, even if it's not required, and take the SAT and ACT college admis-sions tests twice.

Writing the essay gives students a chance to let the college know more about them, and taking the admissions exams more than once could lead to a higher score, which could make a difference in whether they're accepted.

Across the country, college admissions officials, guidance counselors and private consultants urge families to stretch the application process over four years of high school to make it less of a mad dash and more of a marathon.

Try this timeline to break down the to-do list:

Enroll in rigorous classes, said Jim Montoya, a former admissions dean at Stanford and Vassar and a vice president of the College Board.

The board,, administers the SAT, Advanced Placement testing and SAT Subject Tests.

"Often I hear parents say, 'If only I would have known, I would have had my son or daughter take a science course in the ninth grade,' " Montoya said.

If you have a specific college in mind this early, check its academic requirements online and find the school on Facebook for up-to-date chatter and official announcements.

Generally, colleges prefer four years of English, as well as history, math, science and a foreign language, Montoya said.

Explore SAT Subject Tests in your strongest classes and expect to take them while the material is fresh. Some colleges require subject tests. Either way, it wouldn't hurt to throw them into the mix.

Visit a college informally when school is in session, especially if you've never stepped foot on a campus. Formal touring can wait. The idea is to provide a glimpse into college life.

Make a long-term commitment to an extracurricular activity and community service. Don't pile on the extras. Choose things you truly love and work toward making a significant contribution over four years.

If financial aid is in your future, get literate on how to find it and how to apply for it. Have a heart-to-heart with your parents on money matters. Begin looking into how scholarships work and what the FAFSA is (it's the Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

"It's never too early to begin to understand financial aid," said Rick Dalton, who heads College for Every Student, a nonprofit that helps low-income public school students move toward higher education.

"It's important to understand the concept, that there's money out there. Not understanding that is a huge impediment in getting interested in college to begin with."

Think about when to take the practice SAT or ACT college entrance exams.

The preliminary SAT, called the PSAT, is given in October and is combined with the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Free online practice and prep books are everywhere.

The College Board suggests using your access code on your PSAT score report to sign in to the board's "My College QuickStart," a personalized planning kit to help prepare for the real SAT using a study strategy based on your preliminary results.

Taking practice exams for both the SAT and the ACT will help you decide which is the better test for you. Test-optional schools do exist. Go to for a look at more than 800 four-year colleges that don't require them.

Start thinking about what areas of the country appeal to you. Would you like to land on a small campus or a large one, an Ivy League or a liberal arts school, in a rural, suburban or urban setting? Take every opportunity to visit a wide range of campuses to help you decide.

Begin exploring what you might like to study in college. There may be something you haven't thought of that appeals to you, or connects in an unusual but valuable way to an existing area of interest.

"Don't put that off until junior year, which is what a lot of students do," advises consultant Ann Garber. "You don't want to be the 11th- grader who gasps, 'I have no idea what I want.' "

Martha Merrill, dean of admissions and financial aid at Connecticut College, a test-optional school, said that only a general idea of the types of schools that appeal is necessary sophomore year. "Their interests, needs and wants will change over the next few years," she said.

Montoya cautioned that the application process "should not be driven solely by the student's intended academic major."

He added: "The vast majority of college undergraduates will change their major at least once or twice." is a trove of information. It includes a college search tool and heavy message traffic from young people if you're looking to network.

Melanie Reed, director of college advising at a private prep school in Seattle, the Seattle Academy, said the focus in 10th grade should be building a sound high school transcript and a foundation in extracurricular activities. Summer should also be used to that end.

"Your greatest advantage and healthiest approach is to develop plenty of positive application material and continue to love what you do," she said.

It's crunch time.

There are nearly 4,500 degree-granting, two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

A high school junior should have a list of anywhere from five to 20 they wish to tour formally, including information sessions with college officials.

Scheduling tours during the summer between 10th and 11th grades may come in handy, but note that campus life can look sparse without many students around.

No way to visit every campus on your list? Check to see if your choice is among more than 3,000 virtual tours available. offers a more limited selection.

Request information packets from chosen schools but keep in mind that glossy brochures and sweeping mission statements don't tell the whole story. Dig deep into department pages on school websites and check out faculty profiles, Merrill said.

Seek out students or alumni either online or through friends, family and recruiter visits scheduled nearby or at your high school.

By 11th grade, a high schooler should have paid a call on the guidance counselor, though public school counselors are stretched to the limit. They'll meet with you junior year, but the number of visits might be restricted to just a couple, so be well-prepared to review your transcript and talk about specific college and financial aid options.

Junior year is also the time to schedule the SAT or ACT.

The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school, according to the website of the American College Testing Programs Inc., which administers it.

The SAT is more of an aptitude test, covering reasoning and verbal abilities.

The SAT is administered seven times a year: October, November, December, January, March, May and June, always on Saturday mornings.

The ACT is given six times a year: September, October, December, February, April and June.

Special arrangements can be made. Test sites fill up, so book early. Both tests cost money but need-based waivers are available. You can take them more than once. Some colleges allow you to send them your best scores but others require the results of all attempts.

This is also the year that students consider which teachers, coaches and other grown-ups they will hit up for letters of recommendation, so make nice.

Garber said juniors should begin thinking about the dreaded application essay by keeping a journal or diary.

"It's a way for them to think back and ask, 'What are the things in my life that have helped me become who I am, that have set me apart?' " she said. "Starting to be a little self-reflective can lead to essay topics."

Some experts suggest putting together a rough draft of the essay junior year and honing it later on. At the very least, the essay shouldn't be left until the last minute.

Merrill said students should begin college essays the summer before senior year. "With the pressure of looming application deadlines still months away, students have the freedom to play around with different ideas, test different angles and solicit feedback from friends and family."

Continue your "education" on how to seek financial aid. Know the difference between need-based aid and merit-based aid, and how to access grants (free money) versus applying for loans that must be repaid.

Seek out adult mentors to see you through the application process if your guidance counselor and parents can't handle the job, said Kate Schrauth, executive director of, an online educational and career mentoring program for at-risk young people.

"So many kids are trying to do this on their own," she said. "It's a lousy proposition for many, many kids."

Welcome to the home stretch.

Montoya suggests making a master calendar to keep track of test dates, fees and deadlines, including those for retakes of the SAT or ACT and tests on Advanced Placement courses and subjects. College application and financial aid deadlines should be included. So should a list of those who plan to write recommendation letters, whom to ask for transcripts and when they're due.

Now's the time to dig into the essay and begin work on applications, including the FAFSA form and scholarships. Let your parents handle the easy stuff like filling in names, addresses and the like while you concentrate on the essay and other more personal touches.

Many schools use the "common application" but some have their own systems. Regardless, most are filed online.

It's also the time to determine whether you'll seek "early decision" at a specific school, meaning you're committed to accept if you get in. Early decision and early action, which is nonbinding but states a strong preference, allow you to apply earlier and hear back early while also applying to other schools.

Don't forget to request a final transcript at the end of senior year.

And don't think senior year is a time to slack off. "Once the applications have been submitted, avoid senioritis," consultant Katherine Cohen said. "Senior year grades count!"

If a "gap year" is in your future, make sure you understand the deferred enrollment policies of the schools where you're applying.

"Use your senior year to refine your search and arrive at a decision," said Edith Waldstein, vice president for enrollment management at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

"What questions remain unanswered? Do you need to go back to campus again to answer them? Use your gut, your heart and your head to know where you will feel at home, where you will be successful academically," she said.