This year is about focus — on your grades, your college entrance exams, your college search, and, of course, yourself. Now is the time to determine the activities you enjoy most and the interests you want to pursue.

This is the year college changes from a distant concept looming in your future to an actual reality to prepare for today.

Your checklist

Set goals for the year

FALL

Before you even begin your college search, your school counselor can make sure you’re on track to meet your academic obligations and connect you with resources and timelines. Be proactive! It’s up to you to schedule appointments and get help when you have questions.

Take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT)

FALL

The PSAT is a standardized exam your high school administers in October. It will prepare you to take the SAT (a standardized entrance exam required by some colleges), but it also serves as a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Compile your initial list of colleges

WINTER

There are lots of colleges and universities out there and just as many ways to learn which ones might be a good fit for you. Start your search by attending college fairs and meeting with college admission representatives who visit your high school or community. Do your research, take notes, and meet with your school counselor to further shape your college list.

Pro tip: Visit the Explore Colleges section of our website to learn about the more than 850 colleges and universities that accept the Common App.

Study, prepare, and register for standardized tests

WINTER

Standardized tests - including the SAT, ACT and SAT subject tests - can help colleges assess how ready you are for college-level coursework. Talk with your counselor about what test preparation opportunities may be available, which tests you should take, and how to determine the testing requirements for the colleges you are considering.

Did you know? More than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities do not use the SAT or ACT in the admissions process. Visit FairTest to learn more and to access a searchable database of test-optional schools.

Plan your senior year class schedule

SPRING

Your academic record is an important piece of your college application, and admission officers want to see how you’ve challenged yourself. When it’s time to plan your senior year schedule, talk with your teachers and counselors about advanced options, such as Honors, AP, IB, or dual enrollment courses. Keep in mind, just because you can take every advanced class available doesn’t mean you should. It’s important to find the right balance between what will challenge you and where you’ll be successful.

Create a Common App account

SPRING

Now is a great time to start exploring the application so you know what questions you’ll be asked. You can create a Common App account at any time, and your account can rollover from year to year, using the same username and password. Your college list and any questions you answer on the ‘Common App’ tab will rollover next year - when you’re ready to apply - so you can begin answering questions in these seven sections: Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, Writing, and Courses & Grades.

Find your recommenders

SPRING

Letters of recommendation help colleges get to know you better as a person and student. Don’t wait until senior year to secure your recommenders. Ask one or two teachers while you’re still in 11th grade if they are willing to write a letter of recommendation for your college and scholarship applications.

Make meaningful summer plans, but don’t forget to relax

SUMMER

By the time summer rolls around, you’ll be ready for a vacation. Reward yourself by taking time to decompress, while also taking part in a meaningful activity or two. Volunteer in your community. Get a part-time job. Consider a summer camp in a sport or area of interest. These activities will do more than develop your character and strengthen your skills. They’ll also tell college admission officers you care about your future.

Visit college campuses in person or virtually

SUMMER

The best way to get a sense of whether or not a college or university is right for you is to visit the campus. Attend an information session, take a campus tour, talk with students, and visit a class if possible.

If you can’t make it to campus in person, take advantage of the virtual tours offered by many colleges and universities.

Pro tip: Many colleges and universities offer special visit days and fly-in programs. Talk with your school counselor or contact admissions offices to find out what visit opportunities exist for you.

Narrow down and discuss your list of colleges

SUMMER

Once you’ve had a chance to research, visit, and/or virtually tour colleges, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for in a school. When you receive your junior year grades and any college entrance exam scores, you’ll know how your credentials stack up to a college’s acceptance ranges. Discuss your college choices with your parents and school counselor to ensure your list is reasonable and balanced.