Middle school • Take challenging classes. They'll give you stronger skills and make it easier for you to take rigorous high-school courses. Ninth grade • Prepare a four-year...

Share story

Middle school

Take challenging classes. They’ll give you stronger skills and make it easier for you to take rigorous high-school courses.

9th grade

Prepare a four-year class schedule with your school counselor and fill it with the basics: math, science, social studies, English and foreign language. This will give you better skills and a stronger transcript.
Commit to doing your best classwork. Colleges look at a high-school student’s cumulative grade-point average, which includes grades in core subjects from freshman year.
Apply for a Social Security card. It’s required for college applications and for getting jobs.

10th grade

Review your four-year high-school schedule with your counselor and adjust it if needed.
Continue to take killer classes and aim for good grades. If you can, sign up for Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate or honors classes.
Attend the National College Fair at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to gain a general sense of school choices.
Start collecting recommendations from your favorite teachers. It’ll be easier to get the letters when you’re in their class (and fresh in their minds).
Clear a bookshelf where you can organize your growing collection of college materials. Better yet, start a filing system.
Follow your passion outside of class. Volunteer at a food bank. Join a chess club. Form a rock band. It’ll be fun, add balance to your life and, as a bonus, it’ll enhance your college application.

Summer before 11th grade

Take summer-school classes if you need to boost your math and writing skills.
Work, if you can, and start socking money away for college.
Continue to follow your passion and challenge yourself. If you love rocketry, volunteer at a science camp. If you love to cook, take a culinary class.


Sign up in September for the October PSAT, a three-hour test that will help you pinpoint academic areas to work on. (The test could also qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship.)
Talk to your parents about college choices and finances. Find out how much tuition they can handle.
Pinpoint what you really want in a college then start looking for good fits. Use an interactive college-search survey (such as www.collegeboard.com), tour local colleges, pore through guidebooks, visit college Web sites and talk to college students at your choice colleges.
Visit the National College Fair and talk with college reps. If you’re thinking of going into the arts, don’t miss the Visual & Performing Arts College Fair.
Register for the spring SAT or ACT exams if you aim to apply for Early Decision. Sign up, too, for the SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II) if you’re applying to highly selective colleges. Such colleges usually require three subject tests, but vary in which ones they require; check with individual colleges.
Plan to visit some campuses over spring break.


Save any school papers that bring you rave reviews. It may benefit you to submit such class work with your application — and sometimes colleges request it.
Introduce yourself via e-mail to coaches of college teams you’re considering.
Take AP tests if you’re eligible.
Register for a rigorous senior-year courseload.

Summer before 12th grade

Work at a job or continue following your passion, making sure to keep a journal of your adventures. Your notes will come in handy when you write your college essays.
Talk with students home on vacation and, if possible, tour more colleges.
Begin to narrow your college choices.
Collect college applications off the school Web sites or go to www.commonapp.org for the Common Application used by 230 colleges (from Adelphi to Yale).
Prepare an application folder for each college and put up a calendar marked with application due dates.
Study for the fall SAT, if you haven’t taken it already. Practice tests are available online at www.collegeboard.com. Many high schools and community colleges also offer study courses. Seattle Central, for example, provides a 6-week online course for $80.


Meet with your counselor to review your college-application plans.
Prepare a final list of possible schools.
Make copies of all applications so you’ll have a fresh form if you make a mistake.
Ask your counselor and teachers for recommendation letters — and give them at least a three-week lead time because you don’t want them to feel rushed (and cranky).


Submit your application for Early Decision, if needed.
Work on your college essays.
Take the SAT and/or ACT if you haven’t done so already or if you think you can improve your scores.
Remind your recommenders of their deadlines.


Fill out your college applications.
Review your high-school scholarship bulletin and apply for scholarships.


Request transcripts be sent to colleges requiring them.
Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and submit it to the processing agency, Federal Student Aid Programs. That agency will send the results to each college you’ve listed on the form. (You may need to nudge your parents to work on their taxes, because tax forms must accompany your request for financial aid.) Note: It’s important to file as soon as possible after Jan. 1 because financial aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Submit returned FAFSA forms to colleges where you’re applying.
Keep working hard. Your course choices and grades continue to count throughout your senior year.

February and March

Call colleges to be sure they received your application (if they haven’t already sent you a card confirming receipt).
Confirm that your counselor sent a midyear school report to colleges requesting them.


Expect to receive application responses from colleges.
Visit accepting colleges (if possible) to help you make a final choice.
Compare financial-aid offers and ask for more money, if needed.
Prepare to take advanced-placement tests.


Choose a college and notify them of your intention to enroll. Let the other colleges know your decision.
Send in necessary tuition deposits, your student-housing forms and any other required paperwork to your chosen college.
Thank everyone who helped you apply, letting them know your final decision.
Take a bow. It wasn’t easy, but you did it.