Mapping Your Future

When it comes to setting out on the road to higher education, preparing early really pays off.

There are certain steps that every college-bound student needs to begin taking, starting as a high school freshman. The four years of high school are going to fly by, and you don't want to wake up in the middle of your senior year in a panic. Here are some important ways to begin preparing.

by Courtney Dabney

Listen to your academic counselor

Most admissions departments require a letter from your high school counselor, so developing a good relationship is very important. Your counselor knows what universities are looking for in applicants, and what courses you need on your transcript in order to meet your future goals. Plus, they have developed relationships with many universities and can be your first line of communication.

Students should try to narrow down their options, understand the specific admissions requirements, and begin gathering their application materials prior to their senior year. Counselors are a valuable resource.

Take challenging classes

Your grade point average is only one piece of the puzzle that a college admissions department is evaluating. After all...while Underwater Basket Weaving was an easy "A"...it does not prove that you are cut out for higher education.

Heath Einstein serves as director of Freshmen Admissions at TCU. He says, "One of the first things we are looking for is the rigor of a student's coursework. In the context of their school, was it appropriately challenging?"

Advanced placement courses also help to verify an applicant's college readiness. Samantha Moran, who graduated from Paschal High School last spring, will be attending TCU this fall. She says, "I think AP courses look good on your transcript, it shows that you have extra motivation and can handle the tougher coursework."

Balance yourself with extracurricular activities

You don't have to join every club on campus to satisfy this requirement. "Follow your passions and do it because you love to, not because it is expected of you," says Einstein. "Evaluating a student's level of involvement helps us understand where they will fit into our community of scholars."

Is it more important to show volunteer hours or employment history? It doesn't matter, as long as you are involved in something outside of class. Even if your part-time job is all you have for an extracurricular activity, it speaks highly to admissions officers that you have learned how to balance your academics with hobbies, work and social life.

Research and visit several campuses

It is important to find the right fit when looking into which college you will attend. Don't limit your options to just the big name schools - the one you may not be as familiar with, could be the perfect fit. It is suggested that applicants visit a variety of types of campuses. You should visit both rural and urban ones and explore campuses both large and small to see where you feel most comfortable. Just because the past three generations of your family have graduated from the same institution does not necessarily mean it is the best choice for you.

Most college visits take place around the junior year of high school. There are many things to consider when you begin narrowing down your search. What areas of study does the school offer, and will they prepare you to meet your future goals? What is the location and size of the campus? What are the costs, including travel expenses? What are the entrance requirements? These are all areas to explore when deciding which campuses to visit.

Prepare for and take assessment exams

There are many indicators of future success in college. Your grade point average and your class ranking are only two of those factors. Your SAT or ACT scores (many universities accept either) are another of those indicators that admissions departments are taking into account. Don't worry - decisions are not based solely on one test score. But, it is an important factor and one not to be taken lightly.

Test preparation is important. Moran says she began going to a three-week PSAT Camp offered every summer at Paschal. She went for four summers beginning after her eighth grade year to prepare for taking the tests. "They focus on each of the three sections you will encounter - reading, writing and math - and they teach you strategies you can use to increase your scores. The format of the questions is a little odd, and the more exposure you have to it the more confident you will feel when it comes time take the exams."

Apply for financial aid and scholarships

Getting your hands on an acceptance letter from the college of choice is only the beginning. Figuring out how to pay for it requires preparation and planning as well. Financial aid is needs based, while scholarship money is most often merit based. You may qualify for more of both than you think.

Einstein says, "If you think about financial aid as one big pile of money that the school has to hand out to qualifying students - it makes sense to be at the front of the line. When that money is appropriated for the school year, it is gone!" So, if you are applying for financial aid, it is crucial to get your application in early.

Merit based scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. The ones we are most familiar with are awarded for academic excellence. But, there are a myriad of other scholarships to tap into, based on your talents, athletic ability, family background, and chosen field of study. "I researched for myself both online and by studying a copy of the 2013 Scholarship Handbook, put out by College Board," Moran said. She found that it was well worth her time to fill out the forms and write the essays. She qualified for scholarship money because her father is a former marine, and her mother is a police officer. You might be surprised how much money is out there just for the asking.