The Truth About College Prep: Why Students Should Start Early

It's never too early to start planning for college. For high school freshmen and sophomores the process may seem far off, but before they know it, they will be facing the end of junior year. If students haven't prepared, there will be a lot of work ahead of them.
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It's never too early to start planning for college. For high school freshmen and sophomores the process may seem far off, but before they know it, they will be facing the end of junior year. If students haven't prepared, there will be a lot of work ahead of them.

Don't get me wrong - getting into college is hard work even if you've planned ahead - but the burden can be a lot easier toward the end if students are proactive throughout high school.

With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US, the possibilities for higher education are endless. By doing ample research, students are sure to find schools that are great academic, personal, and financial fits - and with the average amount of student debt reaching $33,000 for the graduating college class of 2014, it's important for families to do their due diligence to find institutions where students have the best chance to graduate within four years with minimal debt.

Here's why it's important for students and families to start planning for college as soon as possible.

Students need time to find the right schools to apply to.
According to NACAC, the percentage of students applying to seven or more colleges has risen from nine percent to 22 percent since 1990. Some outlying students have even reported applying to 20, 30 - as many as 50 colleges. While applying to a lot of colleges may seem to tip the scales in a student's favor (with those numbers he or she has to have better odds of getting in somewhere, right?), it's often a result of poor planning, little guidance, and panic towards the end of the admissions process.

The truth is, students should apply to a balanced list of reach, target, and likely colleges, ideally 12-15, but no more than 20. This is where starting as early as possible comes in - students need the time to effectively identify, research, visit, and apply to schools that are best-fits.

Students should be using resources like college websites, College Navigator, LinkedIn's Higher Education tools, Facebook, Twitter, and some good old fashioned Internet searching to find and research colleges they might not otherwise know about. That's a lot of information to sift through.

This is also where good college counseling comes in. Your student's college counselor can help him or her identify colleges that might be good fits. This isn't something that can be accomplished overnight. It takes time to research, build, and refine a college list--which is why it's important to start the process as early as possible.

With competitive admission rates and the nuances of each college's application, it's not enough to choose 5-10 schools that students know only by name recognition or reputation. Planning and research is critical, and can be the difference between an acceptance to a top-choice college or coming up empty handed at decision time in April.

Stellar grades, activities, and test scores don't come overnight.
When it comes to competitive admissions, it's not enough to have just a great junior year. Colleges will look at all four years of grades and activities, so students need to make good grades, identify their interests, and get involved as soon as possible.

That said, it's never too late to improve. Colleges look for upward grade trends; so if freshmen and sophomore year grades were not the strongest, focus on getting the best marks possible junior year. A dramatic improvement can signify maturity and academic preparedness to an admissions committee. Keep track of grades from day one of high school, and know how to spot red flags and when to ask for help.

Colleges will also evaluate the rigor of the student's four-year curriculum, so make sure students are taking courses with increasing difficulty each year, signifying they're prepared for a college course load.

Selective colleges are also looking for specialists to form a well-rounded class, and a scattered extracurricular list with one-off activities isn't that impressive. Students should focus on a few clubs and activities that meet their interests, and become deeply involved. College admissions committees love to see students attaining increasing positions of leadership in their activities, so students shouldn't be afraid to put themselves out there in club elections or even to form their own clubs or organizations.

Test scores take planning and preparation, too. It's rare for a student to ace the ACT or SAT on the first try, so test prep is important for students to succeed in the selective admissions process. Practice and take standardized tests as early as possible - don't wait until the fall of senior year. Students might not have enough time to improve should their initial scores fall short of their goal.

When senior year rolls around, there will be a lot less stress.
Cramming for a test the night before is no way to ensure a good outcome - and the same goes for college admissions. Waiting until the last minute, whether it's applying to college or prepping for a big exam, can cause a lot of undue stress, anxiety, and can lead to a lot of mistakes.

By starting early and spreading out research, campus visits, standardized test preparation, and extracurriculars, students won't feel as frenetic come senior year. At that point, the only thing left to do is to actually apply, and college essays are enough work without having to worry about the other factors that may have been neglected prior to senior year. Research and preparation may seem like a lot of work now, but it will be much harder come admissions season.

In the end, students will benefit from starting earlier because they'll be more focused, have the information they need, and will be confident that they've done all they can to have the best chance for admission at a great-fit college.

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