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College Investigation Basics: FAQ


The first year in high school should be spent acclimating to high school; as freshmen, students learn how to adjust to the increasing demands and independence of learning in their new high school setting.  The best way to prepare for college this year is for students to focus on their education: to learn to how they learn best, to develop a disciplined study habit, and to achieve at their optimum level in every class. As appropriate, students should enroll in the five traditional academic subjects including English, mathematics, lab science, social studies, and international language.  In addition, freshmen should begin to explore the world outside of themselves and engage in activities that they find rewarding. These might be in athletics, employment, volunteer work, or the fine or performing arts.



The second year of high school is one where students continue to work on their intellectual skill development.  Students use the freshman year experience to evaluate what worked and what didn't work in and outside of the classroom to fine-tune their academic and extracurricular achievements.

Sophomores interested in pursuing specific college information might purchase a Fiske Guide to Colleges or a Yale Daily News Insider's Guide to Colleges and read about a college each week, annotating in one color what they like and in another color what they dislike about what they read.  Reviewing this information every week with a parent provides the student and parent the chance to discuss what college life is like.  While these books are helpful, they have limitations; they only include some 240 schools and are based on campus interviews, so while they may help assess how student life might fit the reader, they are largely based in opinion, not facts.


This year is when the investigation process becomes more intense. In many cases, the school counselor helps students find colleges that might meet their interests.  If not, we can accomplish this.  Students who have a preliminary list of colleges to investigate should, after reviewing the Fiske or Insider's Guide to assess the personal fit, next check out the websites of those colleges and universities, looking beyond the propaganda and photos into "Academics" and "Programs" to see what kinds of intellectual and professional opportunities are offered.  This requires some significant digging through websites, and helps students determine the academic fit, from prospective career options to finding interesting majors and/or courses with which to fill their heads.  Only after this work is done should students and families decide if and when to visit colleges.

Of course, continuing dedication to developing a strong transcript of grades remains a priority.

Most college applicants need one letter or recommendation from a teacher.  It's important this year to develop solid, respectful relationships with teachers so that applicants will have teachers who like them and who can positively describe those candidates in any required letters of recommendation.  Only some 68 colleges and universities require more than one letter of recommendation.

This is also the year that students complete standardized, now largely optional testing such as the ACT and/or SAT.  An increasing number of colleges no longer require testing for admission; this list can be found at

It is possible to begin the work of the application - particularly if the student is considering some of the over 850 colleges and universities that use the Common Application - even before the list is finalized. Some of this work can be completed junior year or during the summer between the junior and senior year.

College Investigation Basics: Text


This is the year students actually apply. Many colleges have priority application deadlines of November first for candidates to be considered for scholarships or early notification of admission. 

Unless applying under a binding early decision admission plan, students have until May first of their senior year to determine where they want to enroll. Admission offers are sent based on the college's admission programs; some are sent one to twelve weeks after the application is submitted, others on specific dates in January, February, or March. Students should wait to hear from all colleges under consideration before submitting an enrollment deposit, as that deposit serves to commit the student to enrolling at that university.

If finances are a concern, the core financial document, the FAFSA, is available on October first of the senior year and should be completed at least by Thanksgiving to maximize a student's opportunity to obtain all the funding for which they may qualify.

It is possible, and encouraged, for students to work ahead on most of the college application in the summer before the senior year. The most popular application format, The Common Application, is updated in late February prior to the senior year. College-specific supplemental sections are typically available August first. This leaves the fall for tweaking the application, writing any college-specific supplemental essays, and reviewing the overall list before submitting the applications. - many colleges release applications in August, and some offer their essays even earlier in the summer.  Organization is key here.  The more work completed before the school  year begins, the better the student can focus on the academic demands and social excitement of senior year.

College Investigation Basics: Text
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