College Planning for High School Students: Make the Most of the Process


This College Planning post originally ran in November, 2020.


College Planning is one of those things that always seems so far off, and then all of a sudden … you’re in it! There is a swarm of information, emails, and an overwhelming sense of feeling like you’re missing important details that your child is not sharing with you. As a college counselor at a high school, I meet families at all levels of knowledge with the college application process. My students range from those who are the first in their family to go to college, children of professors and Ivy League Alumnus, or children raised by their grandparents. Everyone comes from a different place and perspective, but the process is the same! Here are a few things to consider during your child’s high school career and some tips to help you navigate the process.



Please download the free printable that details the essential to-dos for your high school student! 



Freshman Year 

Getting off to a strong start is important. It helps build confidence in your student and puts them on an optimistic path for their high school career. Don’t be afraid to encourage your student to start taking the lead in their education. And be sure they’re using a planner/app to help manage their time. Push them out of their comfort zone and suggest that they join an extracurricular activity. Grades really do “count” – colleges will weigh performance as a Freshman equally to what is done in subsequent years. 


Parent Tip: Encourage your students to communicate directly with their teachers, take a step back, and allow them to lead the conversations with the adults in their high school.


Sophomore Year

Establishing a strong GPA is an important foundation when considering a four-year college. If they haven’t already, I would encourage students to challenge themselves by taking an honors course in at least one subject area where they feel most confident. Also, college prep starts to creep in this year – one of the first tests you can take is the PSAT, which some schools may offer to sophomores. It is a practice for the SAT and is taken to enter students into a national scholarship competition.

Outside of academics, having a meaningful commitment to a couple of activities is better than stacking a resume with every club your student’s school offers. Part-time jobs also begin around this time for 16-year-olds, which is  a great way to encourage responsibility, time management, and fiscal awareness. These are all crucial skills for a student to be successful in college (& life).


Parent Tip: On a family vacation? Investigate (and visit) colleges/universities out of town to start getting a feel for some options.


Junior Year

This is the year where your student will do the most “work” in preparing for applications. College visits, standardized testing, handling AP courses, and other responsibilities can be overwhelming. Be sure to make a plan with your school’s counselor this year so you can make most of the year and the summer leading into application season. 

Don’t focus on your child getting into the very best school; focus on finding the school that will be the best for your student.


Parent Tip: Schedule time where “college talk” is off-limits. It can be a consuming and overwhelming topic of conversation for your student to manage.


Senior Year 

It’s go time! Seniors will be applying to college beginning in August. The majority of applications are due in late fall and before the end of the calendar year. Students may consider retaking a standardized test to maximize opportunities for admission and scholarships. Students and parents will  apply for Federal Financial Aid via the FAFSA. Although students should lead this process, often, the final decision making will consider the entire family.  Lean on your school counselor to help every part of the way! 


Parent Tip: Start having your student do some adult things on their own: Scheduling doctor appointments, refilling prescriptions, managing a bank account, contacting colleges for info, budgeting for monthly expenses, doing their own laundry, etc. It will make for a much smoother transition when they leave the nest!


Hopefully, these tips will be helpful to you as your student considers their life beyond high school! Just trust that they will end up in a place that is a good fit for them and somewhere they can grow and thrive.