Although it's important to focus on getting the most out of your high school years, there are a few things you can do from day one to help ready yourself for the next big step: College.
Develop good study habits.
Even if school comes easily to you, it's important to get into good habits now. These will serve you through high school and into the more difficult challenges you'll face in college.
Pursue extracurricular activities.
Colleges are looking for well-rounded applicants who succeed both inside and outside of the classroom. Look for extracurricular activities that suit your interests - these should be fun! - and also demonstrate positive qualities such as leadership and social responsibility.
Volunteering is another good way to show prospective schools that you're more than just a grade point average. This can also help you fulfill your high school's service learning requirement if it has one.
Staying on Track
It's important to keep your college goals in mind as you continue through your sophomore and junior years. Here are a few additional things you can do during these years:
Pursue advanced courses.
Always challenge yourself by pursuing the most advanced classes within your ability, including Advanced Placement (AP) courses. This will not only help you get the most from your high school experience, but also impress college admissions officers and help prepare you for college-level coursework. AP courses may even lead to some college credit.
Study a foreign language.
Many colleges have a foreign language requirement. Get a jump-start on this requirement and improve your study abroad opportunities by taking foreign language classes in high school.
Prepare for college entrance exams.
The beginning of your junior year is a great time to start thinking about what your strengths are in testing and how you can most effectively prepare for college entrance exams. Most students take the PSAT early in their junior years and you'll need to take the SAT or ACT either late junior year or early senior year in order to have time to retake it if necessary. (Note: The PSAT is not a college admissions test, but a high score can lead to certain competitive state scholarships.)
Keep up either your extracurricular activities or your volunteering service, or both if you're really ambitious.
Your junior year is a good time to start learning more about colleges. Start thinking about what factors are most important to you, such as size, location and type of institution, and do some research into schools that meet that criteria.
The Home Stretch
Your senior year is crunch time for college applications. Here's how to stay on top of the game:
If you have the time and money to travel, start visiting colleges to get a feel for what they're really like. If you can't travel, long distance options include phone interviews, virtual campus tours and forums where you can ask questions of current students.
Attend information sessions.
Many colleges send recruiters to visit high schools and share information about their schools. Attend as many of these as you can, particularly if you aren't doing very many campus visits.
Get the SAT and ACT out of the way as early as possible just in case you need to retake a test to get a better score.
Polish your application.
Meet with your school's college counselor for tips on preparing an effective application. Make sure you leave yourself lots of time to get good recommendations and write a solid admissions essay.
Apply for financial aid.
Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in January. Most federal and institutional funds are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so this will help you get an early start on financing your education.