02/20/2013 01:43 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Applying to College? The Three Keys to Success

Now that most high schools have completed scheduling for next year, high school juniors are starting to feel like the Real Deal. There may be fifteen weeks until June and much longer until fall, but now that the Class of 2014 has next year's plan on paper, the end of high school is in sight--and the start of college plans isn't far away.

As you start to put your post-high school plans in action, keep these three steps in mind:

Make the most of what you have now. Colleges, training programs, and the military are sending all kinds of mail and texts your way, showing you more options and opportunities than you could possibly imagine. It's great to have choices, and even better to keep tomorrow's choices open for as long as possible by making the most of the choices you have today.

I know, I know--high school seems a little old school, especially since your senior year schedule has you in "I'm outta here" mode. But the high school senior who started a homeless shelter saw 12th grade differently; so did the senior who managed all the volunteers for a campaign for Congress, and the student whose small business was earning $10,000 a month by the time senior year started. The glossy brochures of college can show you what can be in the future, but your view of today shows you what will be right now. The best way to blend the two is to give your all to where you are.

Appreciate what others have to offer, then make up your mind. Right now, adults seem more like border guards than role models; get through the checkpoints that are 12th Grade English and Parental Expectations, and freedom is yours. But teachers are more than grade dispensers, and parents are more than the curfew police. They've lived lives that often required making hard choices they weren't prepared for, and they want you to be better prepared because they care about you.

You might think that means they want you to live a better version of their life, but that isn't it at all--they want you to be the best you can be, ready to shape a brighter future for all of us. When Henry Ford was asked if he'd ever done customer surveys, he said "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." The adults in your life get that, and only want to give you the ground rules that will help you understand what is in a way that will help you create what will be. This is a deal--take it.

Dream big, and be real. A student found a dream college his family couldn't afford, and his parents didn't want him to apply there. I asked if this was the only college on his list, and he mentioned two others where he would be admitted with ease that his family could afford. He applied to all three, was admitted to all three, and received a full ride scholarship to the college that seemed out of reach.

This student dreamed with his eyes open, and you should do the same. Applying to 20 colleges that admit 6% of their applicants doesn't give you a 120% chance of being admitted to one of them, so make your college list real. Apply to your dream schools, find two great schools that will be sure to take you, and be ready to give feet to your dreams wherever you end up--it's the only way they'll come true.