College planning really starts in freshman year, so building a four-year roadmap for college is very important. For students, freshman year in high school is when grades and courses start to matter, in the sense that someone at a university will see them and might use them to make a decision about their admissions. For parents, it’s when you’ve got to start helping your child make good decisions about how to use their time. It’s also when saving money for college becomes critically important. Over 44 million Americans now have student loan debt, and the average debt at graduation now exceeds $37,000.

Here’s an overview of a four-year roadmap for college. You can get detailed month-by-month instructions on LifeLaunchr, but this is a helpful overview.

Your Four-Year Roadmap for College, by Year

Freshman Year

  • Financial Planning: Creating a financial plan starting in high school will make the decision of where to go to college much easier. For parents who are well-off, this means consulting with a financial advisor to arrange savings and income in a way that maximizes your child’s eligibility for scholarships and financial aid. For parents who are less well-off, this means creating a realistic financial plan about saving money and working out which universities might be affordable within your means. Most colleges have a net price calculator, and sites like LifeLaunchr incorporate this into your college search.
  • Course Planning: Understanding which courses your school requires to graduate in freshman year means you can maximize the opportunities your school offers you. Speak to your counselor or a coach early and find out which courses you need to pass for college admission in your state. Create a personal plan to take a challenging and interesting curriculum.
  • Interest Exploration: Freshman year is a great time to take an interest test and start exploring which kinds of careers and majors might be a good fit for you. The Holland Interest Inventory has been used since the 1970s and has scientific validity.

Sophomore Year

  • Test-Planning: Taking standardized tests, like the ACT or SAT, is a big part of college admissions. Develop your plan for the tests you’ll take, so you can lower your stress and make the entire process easier. Most universities pick your best score or “super-score” your test results, so taking the tests twice can be very helpful. And for some colleges you’ll need to take SAT subject tests. Sophomore year is a great time to come up with a plan that meets your needs.
  • Résumé-Building: A well-rounded résumé helps you build on the case you make with academics and test scores. You can use these on your application to show off your participation in school clubs, sports, or community service and volunteer work. Sophomore year is the time to decide which things you’ll focus on, and craft your portfolio for college admissions.
  • Scholarship Applications: There are scholarships for students in every grade, and for students with many interests. You can start applying early, and stack up the savings for college. Small amounts of time spent wisely over the years can make a huge difference in your ability to afford college.

Junior Year

  • Academics: Stay focused in junior year, since junior year grades are the most important for college admissions. Take a challenging curriculum and invest time and effort to get the best grades you can.
  • Standardized Testing: Most students take standardized tests in junior year (and early in senior year), so make sure you’re prepared. You can find excellent free resources available for test preparation.
  • College Selection: Start the process of creating your list of candidate colleges. You can use tools like LifeLaunchr or the College Board and create lists of colleges which interest you. Take virtual tours and explore their net price calculators to find a great fit and ensure affordability.

Senior Year

  • Essay-Writing: Starting in spring of junior year or summer between junior and senior year, you’ll need to focus on writing application essays. You may need several, and each takes time, so start early. Writing a college essay often requires forgetting many of the lessons learned in high school English class. So practice and editing are critical.
  • Application Completion: Narrowing down your list of colleges and completing the applications takes a significant amount of time. For private universities, you can often use the CommonApp or the Coalition Application. Public universities often use other application systems. So create accounts by late summer, and make sure you gather all the information you need.
  • Recommendations and Transcripts: Check with your school on deadlines for requesting recommendations and transcripts. Be sure to give your counseling department enough time.
  • Financial Aid Applications: Depending on the universities you apply to, you’ll need to fill out either the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the CSS/Profile. So check on the deadlines for these applications. Dates can vary a lot between universities and meeting the dates helps maximize scholarships and assistance.

College applications can seem stressful since there are many steps and deadlines, and because the consequences are significant. A roadmap and a task list for each year can help lower the stress and produce much better outcomes.

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