With several years of high school still ahead, it might be intimidating for many freshman students to begin planning for life after graduation.

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With several years of high school still ahead, it might be intimidating for many freshman students to begin planning for life after graduation. But laying a good foundation early can lead to a smooth passage into college.

Often, freshman year is a time for exploration and trying new activities. However, since colleges expect applicants to meet certain requirements, there are few steps every freshman student should begin taking early in high school.

Focus on academics

Achieving good grades is essential for every freshman. Transitioning from middle to high school can be a stressful time for many students, warns Karen Edgar, an independent college consultant and founder of Launching Futures College Consultants, and ninth-graders should not let academics take a back seat.

“A lot of students don’t realize that freshman year does count toward college,” Edgar says. “And what happens is students don’t do well freshman year and they spend time in sophomore, junior and senior years trying to develop a better academic profile, than if they started initially with a good plan.”

To be successful, Edgar suggests freshman students develop good study and sleep habits early.

Vanya Dimri, a freshman at Redmond High School who has her sights set on attending a highly selective university, discovered she needed to establish new study techniques in order to juggle all her activities while maintaining a high GPA.

“In middle school, you could take a long amount of time studying for your quizzes. But now you have so many quizzes to study for, you have so many classes and each of those classes are demanding along with all the other activities and commitments,” Dimri says. “So you have to be efficient about studying.”

Students should also be challenging themselves academically by taking the most rigorous classes their school offers that they can individually handle.

“We really try to stress colleges are looking for rigor in the schedule, [to see] that your student is really choosing to challenge themselves,” says Kimberly Herring, a counselor at Redmond High School.

Explore extracurriculars

When choosing activities, students shouldn’t pick an extracurricular based how it will look on a college application, stresses Roger Cibella, an independent college consultant and president of Cibella & Associates in Seattle.

“It’s really important to understand the overwhelming majority of colleges don’t have a prescription for which extracurricular activities a student should be involved in,” Cibella says. “Rather, what colleges are looking for, especially the most selective colleges, is that kids are following their interests and passions.

“In ninth grade, I like to say kids should explore ideas and parents should help kids open various doors,” he adds. “Even if it’s a minimal interest, try it out.”

Edgar suggests starting with a big pool of activities to see what fits.

“Extracurriculars can lead you to careers and majors, and that’s why extracurriculars are so important,” Edgar says. “It’s a way of learning along the way through osmosis.”

Meet your support team

In the fall, guidance counselors are usually busy maneuvering seniors through the college application process, so freshmen might have to be proactive to arrange a meeting.

“Kids sometimes wait til later in high school to get familiar with their high school counselor, to get to know their teachers,” Edgar says. “The sooner they do that, the stronger the support and the better the outcome.”

Cibella advises freshmen to prepare for a meeting with a guidance counselor by compiling a list of questions or colleges the student might be interested in.

Depending on your student and their college goals, below are a few more steps a freshman could take.

Visit college campuses

For students who are curious or highly motivated, it’s not too soon to begin touring campuses.

“They should go on official tours, go to official information sessions. Get a sense of what colleges might be looking for in a student,” Cibella says. “And get a feel for the different kind of campuses that are out there.”

“That just gets the juices of a young high school student flowing,” he adds.

However, for students who can’t relate to being on campus, more informal college visits might be beneficial.

“Whenever you travel as a family, if there is a college in that town, detour, stop and visit,” Edgar says, sharing what she called the best advice she had received.

“It helps them to visualize when they get older,” Edgar adds. “If the student gets the idea that college is in my future — this is part of life — then they will have the right mindset when it comes time to apply.”

For students who can’t visit college campuses, career centers at the high school are often a good resource to explore different colleges. Herring says the Redmond High School career center is constantly hosting colleges from around the country.

“So if a freshman isn’t ready to go visit a college campus, or isn’t able to, they can come to the career center and visit with college admission representatives anytime throughout the school year,” Herring says.

Look for scholarships

While saving for college should have begun years ago, freshmen can begin exploring other ways to fund their college education.

Pointing to Fastweb, a website where students could search for potential scholarships, Edgar says there is no harm in students beginning to apply to scholarships that interest them, especially during quieter periods, such as over summer break.

Enjoy high school

Don’t make college the focal point: Let your freshman relax and enjoy high school. Many independent college counselors don’t start working with students until their junior or senior year.

“Don’t spend too much time focusing on college,” says Debbie Schatzman, an independent counselor and founder of OnRamp College Counseling. “It could have negative effect on the student if they are spending four years of high school focusing on the next four-year period of their life.”

It’s not where you go to school, it’s what you do when you get there, Schatzman adds.

“I’ve gotten older and done more research,” Dimri, the Redmond High freshman, says. “Now I have a more open mind about different colleges and I know there’s not one fit for all.”