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Image of collegeMost eighth graders plan to attend college, but most have no plan to take college prep or advanced courses once they get in high school. Unfortunately, if you don't plan ahead and get started right away, you may have difficulty completing the required or recommended courses that will help you qualify for college.

Once you reach high school, your extracurricular activities also become important in the eyes of college admission counselors. Colleges are looking for depth, rather than breadth, when it comes to extracurricular activities. Some colleges and scholarship committees are looking for leadership potential, but most want to see commitment, responsibility, and the ability to follow through on an activity. Time management -- the ability to balance schoolwork with other activities -- is important, too.

Classes, activities, tests, and forms -- that's what on this checklist. The tips and advice on preparing for college will take you through your senior year in high school and beyond. We even include a list of what to pack when you move away from home.

High School Checklist

Freshman Year

Meet with your guidance counselor to make sure you're taking the courses that colleges require. For example, many colleges prefer that high school students take at least geometry and trigonometry, rather than only general math and algebra. Basic computer skills are now essential, and some colleges prefer three or four years of a foreign language. Natural science courses should include labs.

Take advantage of special academic opportunities at your high school such as Honors level or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. AP courses are college-level courses in approximately 16 different subjects. Students who take AP courses are often more prepared for the academic challenges presented in college. In addition, a student who takes an AP course and scores a grade of 3 or higher on an AP exam can often receive advanced placement in college and/or credit for a college course. Even if you don't get credit, college admission counselors will notice that you were willing to challenge yourself.

Become active in extracurricular activities that interest you. Many colleges will look at your involvement in clubs and organizations, as well as community service, when making their admission decisions. Start a list of your activities so that your resume will be easy to put together when you apply to colleges. Remember, though, that it's quality, not quantity, that counts when it comes to your involvement.

Sophomore Year

In September, begin preparing for the College Board Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT I) and/or the American College Test (ACT), as well as the preliminary tests for both -- the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) and the PLAN (formerly P-ACT+). Visit your guidance counselor, library, or local bookstore and ask for guidebooks with sample tests. You'll want to see how the tests are organized and what types of questions are asked. Go ahead and take the preliminary tests this year, even though your sophomore-year scores won't count for the National Merit Scholarship competition.

You may want to register for the SAT II: Subject Tests. Some colleges require three of these one-hour exams that test proficiency in a particular subject area. Math and writing are the most often required, and you should take these in your sophomore year for practice only. However, if you want to take your third test in a subject you studied during your sophomore year -- such as biology or chemistry -- you may want to complete the test while the subject is still fresh in your mind. Look at the admissions requirements of any colleges you are considering. Many don't require the SAT II at all.

Whenever you can, visit college campuses to start getting an idea of various environments. Consider taking a summer course or getting a summer job to help pay for college.

Junior Year

In the fall, practice for the SAT and/or the ACT by taking the PSAT and/or the PLAN. The National Merit Scholarship Program will use your PSAT as the basis for selection when you are a senior.

In the spring, take the SAT I or ACT. Remember, you can take these tests more than once if you are not satisfied with your scores. Sign up to take the late spring SAT II subject tests also if the colleges you are considering require them.

Explore various colleges and universities by checking out their web sites and attending college fairs in your area. Talk with college representatives and request viewbooks and other publications from the institutions that interest you.

Begin investigating sources of financial aid during the fall, including government programs, community organizations, foundations, credit unions, commercial banks, and insurance companies.

During spring break and the summer, visit the colleges on your list. Make appointments to talk with admission counselors and tour campuses, or attend a scheduled program offered on campus for prospective students. Review academic requirements, curricular offerings, campus life, and costs.

This summer is a good time to write for private scholarship applications and to work on college application essays. If you are hoping for an athletic scholarship or want to get on an athletic team, contact the coaches at the colleges on your list. (Make sure you file with the NCAA Clearinghouse if you want to play for a Division I or II team. When registering for the SAT or ACT, enter "9999" as one of the college choices to have test scores sent to the Clearinghouse.)

Senior Year

If necessary, take or retake the SAT I or ACT in the fall and have your scores sent to your chosen colleges. Take the SAT II: Subject Tests if you haven't yet taken them or if you want to try to improve your scores.

In the fall, attend college fairs and schedule return campus visits to the colleges and universities that interest you most. Make these visits while classes are in session so you can talk with professors and students and see the campus in action. Make arrangements with the admission office in advance.

Begin to finalize your college choices and submit admission and financial aid applications to the institutions on your list as early as possible in your senior year. Be aware of the deadlines at the various colleges.

Follow up on transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other support materials required with your application. Make sure your transcript is accurate before it is mailed. Some colleges require that you submit everything together, so check with your high school to determine its procedure for mailing applications and transcripts.

Apply for financial aid after January 1. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) before February 1. Filling out the form online and submitting it via the Internet makes the process easier.

You should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) four weeks after you send in the FAFSA form. Review your SAR for errors and correct them immediately. If you do not receive your SAR, call 1-800-4FED-AID to check on your application.

Some colleges use the information collected on the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE to help them award non-federal student aid funds. Determine whether any colleges you are interested in require this financial aid application form. If so, ask your guidance counselor for a copy or register online.

Make certain you file all the required financial aid paperwork with each college you are applying to. This may include your tax forms as well as your parents' form.

At tax-filing time, parents should check their eligibility for the Hope Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, or other tax benefits outlined in the Internal Revenue Service's Publication 970. You can get a copy of the publication by calling 1-800-829-3676.

At this point, you'll begin to receive responses -- offers of admission, scholarships, and awards. A great place to study and live is in your future!

Remember, once you have decided on the college you will attend, inform other colleges that accepted you about your decision. They may be able to offer admission to one of the students on their waiting list.

The college you attend may well send you many more forms to complete, such as a housing/meal plan application. Sending these back in a timely fashion will help smooth your transition to college.

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