As part of his educational platform, President Obama has pledged government support that will help make the U.S. college graduation rate the highest in the world by 2020. And with the beginning of another school year approaching, millions of students throughout the country are preparing to do their part in working toward that admirable goal. But for many, especially in the African-American community, lack of information about how to achieve the dream of attending college holds people back. In the interest of giving college-minded students the tools to achieve their goal, below is a roadmap to college, beginning at the first year of high school.
9th graders – It may seem too early to be thinking about it, but four years of high school are over in a flash, and keeping the goal in mind from the start is the best way to make sure you’re ready when the time comes to apply. Here are the key things you need to do over the next four years:
Create a tentative 4-year plan of the classes you want take in high school. As you do this, it’s a good idea to take a peek at the admissions requirements of colleges you think you may eventually be interested in—many of them want to see that you’ve taken a specific number of years of math, English, science, and a foreign language. Having that information early can save you from scrambling and disappointment come application time. Creating a plan of study can also be a great way to get an early sense of what your school offers in relation to your academic goals, interests, and strengths.
Get used to challenging yourself academically. If your school has honors or AP classes available, and you—in consultation with your parents and guidance counselor—feel that you can do well in them, take them! Even if you aren’t quite ready to tackle honors or AP classes, plan to take classes at the highest level you can excel in. Colleges will be pleased to see that you made the most of whatever your school had to offer.
Get involved. Find a few activities that you enjoy—anything from chess club to basketball, marching band to volunteering. Participating in different clubs and sports can be a great way to make friends and learn more about your interests and what you’re good at outside the classroom.
Do well in your classes. When looking at your grades, some colleges take a more lenient attitude toward your performance in the first year of high school. But once you reach your sophomore year, each and every grade absolutely counts, so it’s crucial to begin to take your studies seriously if you haven’t already. If you find yourself running into academic trouble, don’t hesitate to seek out help—speak your teachers or guidance counselor.
Stay involved. Have you found a few extracurricular clubs or sports you like yet? It’s great to have tons of interests, but maybe by this year you’ve found one or two activities in particular that you want to devote most of your time to. If you’ve found a niche, college admissions officers will certainly appreciate your consistency. If not, don’t worry! Well-rounded students who are part of many different clubs or teams are also looked upon very favorably. Also, don’t be concerned if you aren’t able to devote that much time to extracurriculars because you have a job outside of school—colleges are always glad to see students who can handle responsibility.
Take the PSAT (again). For 11th grade students, the PSAT is not only great practice for the SAT—it’s the official National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Based on your score, the test can put you in the running for the National Merit Scholarship, which helps cover some of the cost of attending college. For students who identify themselves as Black on the test and indicate their interest in being considered, the your PSAT score also enters you into the National Achievement Scholarship competition.
Get even more involved. By this point in your high school career, hopefully you’ve found and dedicated yourself to the extracurricular activities that interest you. If you have, consider making more of a commitment to your activities by becoming an executive board member of a club or two, or becoming a sports team captain. College admissions officers greatly value this sort of leadership and initiative.
Prepare for and take the real SAT. Many students wait until the fall of their senior year to take the SAT, but taking the test earlier gives you the opportunity to try again later if you’re unsatisfied with your score. The SAT test is the primary standardized test used in college admissions, and assesses students on their math, writing, and critical reading skills. It is administered several times each year, in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June. Once you feel you’ve spent enough time preparing for the test, either by studying on your own with SAT books or taking a course, register for the date of your choice. The cost is $45, but don’t let that deter you—fee waivers are available for students who otherwise could not afford to take the test. [Note: You can opt to take the ACT college entrance test rather than the SAT. The ACT assesses students’ abilities in math, reading, science reasoning, and writing. While this test is more widely used in the Southern and Midwestern U.S., most colleges throughout the country accept it. Deciding which test to take is a matter of your own preference and what’s available in your area.]
Start seriously looking at colleges. College admissions is a two-way street: You’ll apply to schools and hope to be accepted, but you should also aim to find a school that fits your goals, interests, and personality. First, take a realistic look at your high school grades so far, your SAT scores, and your extracurricular involvement, and do some research to find out what schools students with similar profiles typically get into. Then take some time to think about what you’re looking for in a college: 2 or 4 years, location, student body size, academic programs, available sports and clubs, etc. Hopefully by now you’ve started receiving brochures and other mailings from schools who are interested in you—make sure to look them over. Also speak to your guidance counselor, and head to the bookstore, your local library, and online to learn more about different schools.
If possible, visit colleges you’re interested in applying to. Whether you go with your parents or on a college tour with other students, campus visits give you a chance to get a feel for the schools, meet students, sit in on classes and more. [Note: As you research schools, take note of their admissions requirements—some schools will want you to take one or more SAT Subject Tests, which assess your knowledge of different areas you’ve studied in school such as languages, science or history. While you may be required to take these tests for college admissions, the schools typically leave it up to you which subjects to choose. If schools you’re interested in require these tests, plan to get them done by early in the fall of your senior year. Each test is an hour long, so you can take up to three in one sitting.]
Begin scholarship research. Scholarship money doesn’t always come directly from schools. There are independent scholarship programs throughout the country that can help students pay for college. These programs select recipients based on academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, or any number of other factors. Fastweb.com is a great place to start searching for scholarships you may qualify for. Prominent African-American organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League also have well-known scholarship programs. Once you identify which ones you’d like to compete for, make a note of the application deadlines so you’ll be prepared when the time comes.
Finish up any standardized testing. If necessary, take the SAT and any SAT Subject Tests as early in the fall as you can. Getting them out of the way once and for all will free up your time and energy for getting to work on applications.
Request recommendation letters early. Most college applications won’t be due until December or later, but that’s no reason to delay asking for recommendation letters. You’ll generally need two or three. As soon as the school year begins (as in, no later than September), seek out teachers you have good relationships with and in whose classes you excelled. If you beat the late fall rush of recommendation requests, your teachers will have more time to devote to crafting a glowing letter, and getting it back to you in plenty of time.
Build a final college list and apply. Select the schools you want to apply to, working from the bottom upward. You should aim to have two or three “safety” schools—schools where your grades, scores, and extracurricular accomplishments are well above average, so you know for sure you’ll get in. Make sure your safety schools are places you’d actually want to go, if those were your only options! After safety schools, choose a few “target” schools, colleges where you fit the average profile and have a more or less reasonable chance of being accepted. Finally, choose a few “reach” schools—places that usually take students with grades and test scores that are above yours, but where you just might get lucky.
If there’s a school you are particularly interested in attending, check their website to see if they have an early application program through which you’d receive a decision from them in December or January instead of April. Some early application programs require that you attend the school if accepted, while others are non-binding. When you’ve assembled a list of places you’ll apply, start working on your essays. Don’t hesitate to ask friends, family, and trusted teachers for feedback on this important part of your application. Throughout the application process, keep in contact with your guidance counselor to ensure that all the necessary materials make it to the colleges you’re applying to. Good luck!
Apply for scholarships and financial aid. Remember all those scholarships you discovered in your research last year? Well it’s time to apply! Just as important, make sure to apply for financial aid from each of the colleges you apply to by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS profile with your parents. This will ensure that you’re able to receive loans and grants to help you finance your college education.
Congratulations! You’ve done it! Your applications have been sent off in time, so now it’s time to wait and watch the acceptances roll in. You’ve invested the time and the effort, and have given yourself the wonderful opportunity to pursue higher education and all the benefits that come with it. Soon you’ll be off to college—good luck!
Here are a few books and websites that can help you build a list of schools to apply to, prepare for the SAT, and search for scholarships:
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