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Sophomore Year: Time to Begin Thinking About College

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The summer season is always an active and engaging time on college campuses, when we in the admissions field meet families who are visiting to learn more about the opportunities available at their institution. Usually this time of year, we speak mostly to rising high school upperclassmen--juniors and seniors--who have college on their minds and are closest to the application process.

Increasingly, however, we host families with students who are just entering their sophomore year. Barely finished with their first year of high school, these enterprising students are already fast-tracking the process to entering college. I am always impressed with these intrepid individuals, and think how their foresight and dedication to the cause might be an inspiration to all 15 year-olds.

With this in mind, I would like to offer some suggestions to high school sophomores who know college is in their future, but maybe have yet to give it much thought. It is not too early to think about this major life step, and one's actions sophomore year can help pave the way to success. While students have heard many of the following suggestions before, it is important to emphasize the following steps in an early college search:

1. Challenge yourself and keep the grades up. Your high school transcript is arguably the most important document in your application for college admission. The courses you take and the grades you earn are paramount to a college "accept." If you have the chance, begin taking an Advanced Placement (AP) course or two. They may be rigorous, but admission committees would rather see you earn a B+ in an honors-level course than see a straight-A transcript in less-rigorous, basic coursework. And along the way, read! There is no better way to stretch your mind and to prepare you for upcoming exams and college-level work.

2. Meet with your guidance counselor and think about careers. Some second-year high school students have yet to sit down with a member of the guidance office. The time is now to introduce yourself. Begin to map out a plan that leads to a successful college process. At this time, a broad discussion of your interests, likes, and life goals will help point you to appropriate college choices down the road. Here, your counselor may introduce you to Naviance, a popular college planning and career assessment software tool.

3. Go online to begin some researching of your own. Maybe you have a particular college in mind? Go to its website and look into majors, activities and opportunities. Beyond specific searches, log on to sites like Zinch, Cappex, and CollegeXpress to create a profile and explore several institutions at once, based your entries. Head to sites like Unigo to read college reviews directly from students attending. Explore; the web is a great place to get your proverbial feet wet!

4. Think about signing up for some of those standardized tests. You know about the SAT or ACT, and how these tests may be an important component of your college application. While these tests may be a year or so away, you can still sign up for the PSAT--sort of a practice SAT exam that gives students an idea of how they will fare on the real SAT and can qualify students for scholarship awards. This is also a good time to take any SAT 2/Subject Tests, sometimes required for college admission. Take these focused exams right after you finish the coursework and the material is still fresh in your mind. You may also want to look into the ACT's Plan test for sophomores, which is, again, a sort of practice exam (its name is changing to Aspire in the next cycle).

5. Get involved and hone your leadership skills. A resume of your meaningful extracurricular activities is another important part of your college application. Remember, though: think "quality" over "quantity." Join clubs and pursue activities that you will stick with over time, will show your dedication and perseverance, and will demonstrate your maturity and focus. Sometimes a meaningful activity is outside of school. Volunteer in the community, and cultivate meaningful relationships with people who can comment on your drive and character.

6. Okay, now go visit some actual schools! As I mentioned, many younger high schoolers are already visiting campus. Plan some trips with your family to visit a few schools on your "long list" of possible choices. Go to some larger schools and some smaller; go to some urban colleges and some more rural. At this stage, you will want to explore broadly to see what aspects of an ideal institution appeal to you. While there, speak to students (many are still studying in the summer) and get their impressions. Also, in the spring, attend any official college fairs in your area to gain an additional perspective.

Sophomores, enjoy the upcoming school year! And know that this early preparation and action will help to make some important college decisions down the road.