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Tips for Starting the College Search

US News and World Report

It’s never too soon for high school students to start searching for a college to attend, according to some education experts, who recommend researching major fields of study and admission requirements as early as ninth grade.

Here are seven tips for starting your college hunt right:

  • Plan early.

  • Know yourself.

  • Take college-level courses in high school.

  • Develop disciplined study habits.

  • Do your research.

  • Pursue scholarships to limit borrowing.

  • Find your fit.

Plan Early

Starting the college hunt in your senior year is late, experts agree. Taking the time to plan early will help you in the long run, says Darrin Q. Rankin, vice president for enrollment management and retention at Jarvis Christian University in Texas.

“High school students planning to attend college to seek an undergraduate degree should start becoming familiar with colleges that have the academic programs that interest them as early as the ninth grade," he says. "Students should begin thinking early to allow them to take the right courses in high school that put them on the right academic track for their interests.”

Beginning the college selection process in ninth grade “gives students four years to research every college that you feel you would like to be a part of,” says Paula Payton, assistant director of admissions at Claflin University in South Carolina. “This gives you a chance to talk to recruiters and college planning experts and also set up long-term goals while getting the grades and test scores necessary to get in that college or university.”

Angela Sharp, a counselor at Park Hill South High School in Missouri, says the 11th grade is a critical year in the college search.

“At this time, they are halfway through high school and are hopefully beginning to think about their post-secondary plans," she says. "Academically, they have time to still challenge themselves by enrolling in dual credit or Advanced Placement classes. This is also the year most take the ACT or SAT for the first time. Following a student's initial test, we can look at their scores and see where improvement is needed."

Many colleges now make submission of ACT or SAT scores optional. Students who decide to take either test should look beyond composite scores to subscores for areas of improvement, possibly scheduling courses in those areas or taking other steps to ensure their test scores and GPA are competitive with students accepted to the same preferred college, Sharp says.

Rankin notes that many colleges have community service requirements for incoming students, and planning early gives students time to fulfill some of those expectations throughout high school.

Lisa Fulton, a school counselor at Eastern Lebanon County High School in Pennsylvania, notes that many students start exploring college and career options as early as middle school.

"That is a good time to start thinking about what they want to do as far as college or technical school, trying to set the stage for what they want to do in life," says Fulton, assistant chair of the American School Counselor Association board. "Students in the ninth grade do a lot of interest inventories. A lot of that self-discovery needs to happen in middle school and by the time they get to high school."

Know Yourself

“Students need to know themselves – what they like, what interests them, how they learn best, how they thrive," Rankin says. "Some students have parents who push their kids to attend their alma mater, but students need to choose wisely the school that is the best educational and cultural fit for them.”

Some colleges may have a strong reputation for excellence in one or more specific areas, from science and mathematics programs to the arts, music and theater. Students with specific interests and skills that they want to pursue in college and perhaps after should research pay attention to that when doing their research, experts say.

However, for students unsure of what they want to study in college, "it helps to choose a college with a wide variety of degree programs," Rankin advises, "since some students discover what they thought they wanted to study is not what they want to pursue after all.”

Take College-Level Courses in High School

College level courses in high school are "very important," Payton says. "They enable the student to learn not only advanced material but how well you are able to handle the rigors of college-level courses. (They) also teach the student time management and how to balance social and family life while being committed to your education."

Sharp says taking college-level classes in high school is "a nonnegotiable," suggesting that doing so is about more than course content.

"It teaches a student how to read independently, note taking, test-taking skills and more," she says. "There are a different set of expectations in a college-level course." Students may struggle, but "if they do, they will learn how to be a self-advocate and ask for help – and maybe for the first time ever."

Rankin notes that taking college-level classes in high school can save money for students as they earn early college credits, in some cases through AP. “They may enable students to enroll in dual-degree programs in college or enable students to pursue graduate or doctoral degrees sooner,” he says.

“High achievement in those college-level courses gives colleges looking at transcripts an idea about how well-prepared a student is to succeed in college," Rankin adds. "Few colleges seek out students who need remediation. A trend we see more frequently today at Jarvis is incoming first-year students who have completed a semester or two of college credits, and some students have already completed their associate degree.”

Develop Disciplined Study Habits

High school students preparing for college should expect to spend about two or three hours of reading and studying each day to be prepared for classes when they are in college, Rankin says. That's partly because there's a lot of required reading in college.

“College professors expect you to have read the assigned class content material and to come to class ready to discuss," Rankin says. Developing disciplined study habits in high school gives students a stronger start once they enroll in college, where distractions and competition for their time can be hard to resist."

Self-discipline is a key life skill, and students who develop it in terms of their study habits will find it easier to succeed, Rankin suggests.

Such good habits are formed by repetition, Payton says. “If you have a great study routine for high school, keep that routine up in college and always do more, go further. Have a good place to study regularly and always keep track of certain dates and deadlines. Review your notes after class, and study groups are always welcomed.”

Do Your Research

Students should research which colleges and universities offer the academic programs they want to pursue, Rankin says.

“For students who may be the first generation in their family to attend college, they may find that a smaller school is less overwhelming and may be a better fit,” he says.

Rankin also notes that affordability is a major issue for many prospective college students, and they should understand what level of financial assistance they can expect from their families. They also should not rule out potential colleges strictly based on sticker price.

“Many public institutions post tuition and fees that appear to cost less than private institutions, and yet, often private schools can offer more in scholarship aid, sometimes enough to make a public vs. private college education competitive,” Rankin explains.

Another factor to consider is how far from home a student may want to attend college.

“Most traditional-age, first-time college students seek to move onto a college or university campus and enjoy the traditional college residential experience," Rankin says. "Some students have their own reasons to prefer staying closer to home, possibly commuting or taking online courses."

Payton recommends reaching out to people who are in the profession the student wants to eventually enter. "If they desire to be a veterinarian, talk to a veterinarian and get some idea of their path. It gives the student an idea of what to expect in college and beyond.”

Pursue Scholarships to Limit Borrowing

Scholarships are a great way to help pay the costs of a college education, since they don't have to be repaid and help reduce reliance on borrowing.

“High school students should fully understand the differences between scholarships, which do not have to be paid back, and loans, which do have to be paid back, with interest," Rankin says. "While students are researching colleges, they should also be hunting and applying for scholarships for which they can qualify.”

Some scholarships are specialized, such as those only for children of military veterans or students studying a certain field. Some scholarships require the recipient to qualify as low-income; many scholarships require applicants to write an essay.

Find Your Fit

If possible, high school college hopefuls should experience walking onto a college campus, Sharp says.

“Technology today allows us to view pictures, videos and even take virtual tours, but nothing compares to an actual college visit," Sharp says. "When a student walks on a campus, they get that gut feeling that says, ‘Yes, this is it! I can see myself here.’ Or, they get that feeling in their gut that says, ‘This is just OK.’"

A college visit allows a student to see the campus layout, residential life and campus buildings, Sharp says.

"If a student is a science major, taking a look at the science buildings is important. What do their labs looks like? What kind of technology do they have? Colleges differ greatly in what they can offer a student. Having the opportunity to see firsthand what the college has to offer and to speak to college admissions representatives and financial aid representatives is crucial in the college selection process.”

It's hard for a student to know if a college truly will be a good fit without visiting it, Rankin says.

"Many students and parents find that the college visit is a great experience to help them choose a place where they feel they will belong, will expand their cultural awareness, will find friends and will grow academically, personally, socially and spiritually,” he says.

Fulton strongly recommends taking some virtual tours, particularly when whittling down a long list of prospects.

"By junior year, you should have a narrowed list of the six or seven colleges to go visit," she says. "By Thanksgiving of your junior year, you should know the school that you are applying to" as your preferred choice.

When making a final college decision, students should consider any input from their parents, but they must also understand that the decision on the best match for them is ultimately their own, Rankin says.


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