By Ned Johnson

Your To-Do List: Reaching the college or university of your dreams is a four-year process, but it doesn't have to be a scary one. When in doubt, start early

Freshman Year

Ninth grade can be both exciting and scary.

Amid all the newness, remember that high school is not a four-year audition for college. Still, for all those planning to go to college, it will help to know what will be important to colleges three (short!) years from now.

The philosopher Aristotle observed that excellence is not an act but a habit. Your grades reflect what you do day after day and month after month. Take studies seriously. And remember that colleges like people who are successful, whether as students, athletes, musicians, or community volunteers. Colleges also like test scores but, by and large, that is not a big deal for another year or so.


Grades are important in ninth grade. So is academic rigor. Seek advice from someone you trust--a guidance counselor, teacher, or parent--when choosing your classes.

Writing will be central to nearly every class in high school and college. If you don't write as well as you think or speak, work at it.

How many times have you groaned over a bad essay grade, then stuffed it into a binder without another thought? Stop! Accept that C as constructive criticism, really read your teacher's comments, and seek advice on doing better.


If your school offers an ERB (a skills and knowledge test) or the PSAT in the ninth grade, use these scores to identify academic strengths and weaknesses. Don't worry about preparing for these tests, but do talk with a parent or guidance counselor to help you understand your underperformance or get extra academic support in areas where you were weaker.

Read voraciously (look that word up if you don't know it)--books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, whatever. Strength with words is a key to success.


Get involved. Not only are you developing talents and interests that will catch a college's eye, but school is more fun when you have activities to look forward to.

When planning for summer, don't think only about "no more pencils, no more books . . . ." Find programs that build on favorite subjects, extracurricular activities, or hobbies.


Talk to your parents about the family budget. Is there a plan for college? Your parents will be thrilled to know that you are thinking ahead.

It's not too soon to look into requirements for honors or scholarship programs at colleges. Your freshman year could impact your candidacy.

Are you a good athlete? If so, learn about the NCAA Clearinghouse requirements if you plan to pursue athletics in college.

Sophomore Year

Now that the dust has settled, begin thinking about scores and continue to focus on grades. While you might not be required to take the PSAT or PLAN this year, any test taken seriously can help you gauge strengths and weaknesses.


While registering for 10th-grade courses, also check out your options for 11th grade. Take note of classes you are very likely to excel at or are interested in and whether they have prerequisites. If they do, sign up for them now.

Watch out for academic overload. Create a balanced schedule. You want the best grades you can get, but you also want to stay sane.

Work on study skills and writing. You are still exploring how you learn best. Compare ideas with friends and talk with teachers.


You will get info in September from your counselor about the PSAT. You don't have to take the PSAT in 10th grade, but it's not a bad idea as a diagnostic tool.

Consider taking an SAT subject test at the end of 10th grade. You don't have to take one at this point, but if you are enrolled in an AP or honors course now and have the information fresh in your mind, the timing may be good. The College Board, the firm behind the test, also makes practice versions. Take one.


Make a résumé (really!) of activities, academic experiences outside the classroom, hobbies, etc. For now, it's just to help keep track.

While lounging by the pool or TV can be relaxing, they don't lend themselves to the most compelling college essays. Plan to do something productive over the summer. Work, volunteer, play sports, or take a course at a college.


Use the Web for something other than Facebook. Explore college websites and resources like usnews .com.Ask adults about what college was like for them. Jot down appealing things about this college or that, and save your notes.

Junior Year

Essays and testing and APs, oh my! OK, let's be serious. Grades, test scores, and activities of junior year constitute a big chunk of the data colleges use for admissions calls. Do your best in class and prepare for the tests you take. It's not all toil and trouble, though. This can be a time of leadership in the world outside academics. Explore things that interest you so you can flourish--not just because they look good on an application.


These will be the most recent academic-year grades a college will have when you apply next year. So study hard, and do not hesitate to ask a teacher for extra help.

It's time to show you can handle rigorous courses, but choose wisely. If you struggled for a C in an honors science class, don't sign up for the AP. Push yourself, but know your limits.

Speak up in class. You will need to ask two junior-year teachers to write a recommendation. They can't know you without hearing your thoughts.


Standardized testing intensifies. Keep in mind, though, that grades remain the key part of college apps.

You will take the PSAT in the fall. If your scores from 10th grade were strong and you think you have a shot at a national merit scholarship, it would be wise to spend time preparing for the test.

Talk over test prep--timing, budget, and options--with your parents.

Discuss testing plans with parents and a guidance counselor. Take the SAT or ACT (maybe both) in the winter, and don't worry if you don't get your ideal score on the first try. You can retake these in the spring.

If needed, take SAT subject tests in the spring (May or June administrations) in only those areas where you will shine, or in subjects you have covered in junior year. Practice.


Being a leader shows you've worked hard, are dedicated to an activity, and play well with others. Start an arts discussion group that goes to museum openings or be voted captain of the team.

Polish that résumé.


Once you have your PSAT scores or an initial SAT or ACT score, talk to a counselor to begin building a college list with a balance of safeties, targets, and reaches.

Make plans for college visits over spring break or the summer. Try toenjoy these visits. You're the one shopping for a college at this point, not the other way around!

Attend college fairs, but remember there is much more to a college than fun handouts. Talk with the folks behind the tables, who can give you a better feel for a school and might be good future contacts.

Procrastination doesn't make for a good college essay. Aim to have first drafts done by Labor Day. Share drafts with an English teacher or counselor.

Senior Year

You made it. Let's party! Well, not quite yet. It is a time to celebrate, but this is also a year of hard work and continued preparation. Colleges consider senior-year transcripts. They can and will rescind offers to students who slack off. Retake the ACT or SAT if you need or can get better scores. Do your best so colleges have every confidence that the successful person they see in senior year is the one who will show up next fall!


Make sure you're completing your high school's graduation requirements and meeting course requirements of the colleges on your list (these are often outlined on their websites). Watch out for foreign language, science, and math requirements.

Your admission is contingent upon a consistent academic performance on the final transcript. Keep it up.


This is the final chance to retake the SAT, ACT, or subject tests, if needed. October or November test dates are often the last before early action or early decision deadlines. For January deadlines, November and December tests are still options.


SEPTEMBER: Learn your high school's procedure for obtaining teacher recommendations and requesting that your transcript be sent to colleges. Complete appropriate forms and secure two teacher recommendations.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER: Review your college list with a counselor and your parents. Decide whether to apply early decision or early action if these options are offered.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER/DECEMBER: Fill out applications carefully. Edit essays one more time.

By DECEMBER (earlier's better): Finish all applications; check that the colleges have received records and recs from your high school. Officially send your SAT or ACT scores.

By FEBRUARY: A month from the date you submitted your application, call colleges and confirm that it is complete.

FEBRUARY 1: Many colleges require FAFSA and CSS (financial aid) forms to be turned in by February. Again, earlier's better.

MARCH/APRIL: Decisions arrive. Stay calm. Breathe.

APRIL: Explore colleges where you've been accepted. Visit the campuses again, talk with alumni, or attend an accepted-student reception.

MAY 1: Make your college decision official by sending in your deposit. Finally!

Double-check with your guidance counselor that your final transcript will be sent to the college.

By Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters (, a test preparatory and educational consulting firm based in Maryland, and coauthor of Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Available on

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Reaching The College or University of Your Dreams is a Four-Year Process