THE BLOG
07/17/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

July-to-January To Do's for Rising High School Sophomores

FALL SEMESTER SOPHOMORE YEAR

What follows is the final installment of my "Fall To Dos for High School Students"; this one is for rising sophomore students. Just in case you missed the first three, here are the links: To Dos for Rising Freshmen, To Dos for Rising Juniors and To Dos for Rising Seniors.

Sophomore year is the time to get serious about academics and extracurricular activities. If your freshman experience was not what you hoped it would be, don't worry; you can get a fresh start as a sophomore. Colleges appreciate students who are able to make a comeback as a student after a not-so-stellar 9th-grade year.

On the other hand, if you did well freshman year, good for you! You've set yourself up for an even better sophomore year.

JULY AND AUGUST

College Visits

When you and your family take summer vacations, swing by colleges that are en route or near your destination to have a look at what different campuses and their surrounding communities look like. If you are in the family or rental car, take what I call a "windshield tour"; that is, drive in and all around a campus. You can tell a lot about the feel of a college just by doing that. If you like what you see and have the time, spend a few minutes to also walk around.

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges are particularly interested in what high school students do with their summers. Make sure that you do something fun, interesting, and/or meaningful. By all means, find activities that you enjoy, but also think about whether they will impress colleges when you fill out their applications. On the one hand, don't get caught in the trap of trying to do too much; on the other hand, don't choose the opposite direction of becoming a couch or computer potato!

Financial Savvy for Parents

Most students and their families begin college planning with way too little information about financial considerations. Sophomore year is a perfect time to start getting educated. Take a look at the availability of need and merit-based aid, ways FAFSA and PROFILE help you get financing, how to use net-price calculators to understand what the real costs of college are.

Students need to keep in mind that the better the grades and test scores they have, the better the chances are for their receiving merit and other scholarships.

Some of the best financial aid resources today are Lynn O'Shaughnessy's The College Solution and her blog, and the very informative FinAid.org, and Fastweb.com websites. Also have a look at Frank Palmasani's Right College, Right Price.

Read, Read, Read

Clearly, one of the best things you can do during summer is to read books. It doesn't have to be a classic or some literary piece; find something, anything you like. Yes! You can read a book on a Nook Tablet, Kindle Fire, iPad or even on a smartphone. Reading is reading, no matter how it's done. Not only does reading help you develop your vocabulary (which is great for the verbal parts of the SAT and ACT tests), it can also open up all kinds of real and fantasy worlds to you. But...with all your might, try not to talk on your phone, text or play computer games when you're doing it.

SEPTEMBER

Academics

Meet with your school counselor to make sure that you are taking college prep courses that ensure your eligibility for colleges you might want to attend. Tenth grade is a good time to "up" the number of challenging courses you take and when many excellent students take their first AP class.

Extracurricular Activities

Tenth grade is also a good time to focus your activities on three or four areas that you really enjoy. If your school doesn't offer what you want, create it or go outside of school to get involved. Even as you develop your interests, keep exploring interesting possibilities as they come up.

Important: Keep a record of everything you do, including activities, one-day or weekend conferences or sports events, summer programs, jobs (including babysitting), independent lessons or projects, volunteer experiences, honors and awards. You will need to identify these things for the activities sections of your future college applications.

Testing

The more familiar you are with admissions tests, the better you will do on them. Consider taking the PSAT as a practice test, as well as the ACT practice test, the PLAN.

If languages are your forte, know that all Subject Test Language with Listening tests (e.g., Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) are given only on the November SAT test date. Consult with your language teacher about whether you are prepared to take one of those tests.

OCTOBER

Academics

Regardless of what kind of student you are--excellent, good or poor -- if any class gives you trouble, immediately ask for help from the teacher and/or consider getting a tutor. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, when you ask for help. Believe me, you won't regret it.

Other College Visits

Some sophomores are interested in looking at colleges; many are not. If you are interested and live near colleges, visit them to see what they are all about. Even if you don't eventually apply to them, the experience of seeing different campuses -- large and small, public and private, in or outside of town -- will help you begin to identify what you want and don't in a college.

NOVEMBER

Counselors and Teachers

Keep developing good relationships with your counselor and teachers. Not only will this help you with college admissions, but it also will make your high school experience richer and more enjoyable.

Researching Colleges

In a very casual way, begin collecting information about colleges as you read about them in magazines and newspapers. Keep everything in a college admissions file. Also, bookmark college admissions sites that are interesting and useful to you. If friends or relatives come home from college for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas vacation, talk with them about their respective experiences: Ask what they like? What don't they like? Do they recommend their school? Why? What kind of people attend the colleges? And anything else about which you might be curious.

DECEMBER

Classes and Grades

Some schools have finals before Christmas vacation. If your school does, study hard and get the best possible grades you can. If your finals will take place after the holiday break, you can still get yourself organized and ready for them. That never hurts.