College Countdown: What You Need to Do, When You Need to Do It

By Arkansas NEXT on Friday, September 25, 2020

Feeling overwhelmed by the idea of getting into college? Don’t worry, and follow this timeline to stay on track and get into the college of your dreams.

8th Grade
Ready? Set? Start!

Begin your Student Success Plan.

Participate in your school’s Student Success Plan program. You will work with your school’s advisor to create a personalized education plan that will help prepare you for high school, college, career and community engagement. This can help you plan for the future by enrolling in classes that are suited to your specific career goals.

Take harder classes.

If you get a say in your class list, take a stab at courses generally considered “hard” or that intimidate you. Don’t worry — even if you score lower than you’d like, colleges don’t look at middle school grades. Find classes that roll over for high school credit like foreign languages.

Develop strong connections early.

It’s important for every teenager to have strong connections and relationships with people who have similar interests. Research clubs and organizations at the high school you will go to. By pursuing what you love, you are more inclined to meet people who share the same passions. Build lasting and meaningful relationships with people who encourage and uplift you, while also challenging you to be better.


Take advantage of any career education and training programs provided at your middle school. These activities exist to get you thinking about careers and higher education paths.

9th Grade
Focus on your academics — they count now!

Stay on top of your studies.

Believe it or not, your freshman year academic performance can set up your GPA for the rest of your high school career! If you keep up with your grades, your GPA can only grow from there. Your GPA will help colleges determine whether you are eligible for admission and scholarships. The higher the GPA, the more scholarships you are eligible for.

Make good friends.

A lot of changes happen between middle school and high school. Friends come and go, and you’ll change a lot in the next four years. Make friends with people who truly care about you, share your interests and support your goals. Get to know your teachers and befriend your favorite; they will help you grow and write a great recommendation letter for you one day.

Sign up for extracurriculars.

It’s never too early to run for a freshman spot on student council or join a club at your high school. Now is the time to explore all your options and find out what you’re interested in. If your high school doesn’t have a club that interests you, make your own! Extracurriculars are increasingly important in college essays and resumes.

Meet with your guidance counselor.

Guidance counselors are there to help you figure out what you want to do throughout high school and after. Their job is to answer any questions you may have about classes, encourage you to challenge yourself and make you aware of any requirements you must meet before graduation.

Build a resume.

Write down all the achievements, awards and recognitions you receive in high school. Leadership roles in electives and extracurricular activities look great on a college resume. Colleges and universities want to know that you’re well-rounded.

10th Grade
Start thinking ahead!

Good grades make a great GPA!

Adjusting to high school classes is difficult, but it’s not too late to get your GPA up and meet the standards for the college of your dreams. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your classes, think about investing time in a tutoring program. Many high schools offer free tutoring sessions for almost every course. Use your teacher’s office hours to your advantage.

If a PSAT practice test is offered, take it.

Junior year, you will take the PSAT and receive a few scholarship offers for college. Taking a practice PSAT test will better prepare you for the real thing. Talk to your counselor about how to take the PSAT as a sophomore!

Take the ACT.

You can start taking the ACT! The more you take the ACT, the more likely your score will continue to improve. The higher the score, the more money you can receive for college.

Become a familiar face.

Each semester, pop your head in to see your guidance counselor. They are there to help you and answer any questions you may have about future high school courses, Advanced Placement or dual-credit classes and study tips for the SAT or ACT.

Attend some college fairs.

You may be surprised by the schools you gravitate toward. Research any training programs, colleges and universities you might want to attend. Know what courses they require as prerequisites for enrollment. Some may require two years of advanced math and science courses, while others may require two years of learning a foreign language.

Never too early: Consider majors.

Another step to help you narrow down the school of your dreams is to pick the field you want to major in. Some colleges and universities won’t offer the major you want to pursue — this helps narrow down your list. With a major in mind, consider attending any high school club meetings that relate to that career path. Interested in journalism? Join the school paper or yearbook staff! Interested in science? Attend forensics, biology or physics club meetings.

Give back.

Volunteer work is not only good character development but also looks great on college resumes. Start volunteering around town at nonprofits like animal shelters, children’s hospitals and food banks. Volunteer work is necessary for some scholarship applications too and will help you stand out among other applicants.

11th Grade
Take the ACT or SAT and start applying!

Time for Tests!

Find out what scores you need to make to get into your first-choice college and find out where you can find an SAT/ACT tutoring program. Many schools also take these scores into consideration for Honors Colleges. There are many tutoring programs specifically for these tests; ask your counselor for help signing up for one.

Do your research: Careers.

If you haven’t already, look into fields that complement your skills, passions and interests. Make sure the colleges you’re applying to offer degrees in what you’re interested in.

Do your research: Scholarships.

Taking the PSAT in the fall semester can qualify you to be a National Merit Scholar or Finalist. These two titles come with lots of scholarships which means more money put towards your first-choice college. Also, research what scholarships are available in the state of Arkansas specifically, such as the Arkansas Academic Challenge Lottery Scholarship and other scholarships available through the Arkansas Division of Higher Education.

Take AP or Dual-Credit Classes.

Do your research on what advanced courses the colleges you are considering will take as credit. Many high schools offer AP courses in which you can take a test at the end of the year that counts towards college credit, and some offer Dual Credit courses in which professors from local community colleges will come and teach your course for college credit. These options are a great way to get ahead when you start college. Some first-year students can even begin college as a sophomore with the right credits.

Visit colleges.

Use every college visit day your high school grants you. A college may sound great on paper, but when you visit, it may not feel like home.

Don’t forget about your resume.

Bring out that list of accomplishments that you’ve been working on and updating every year. Now is the time to make it look pretty and send it out with your college applications. Looks aren’t everything, but the more professional your resume appears, the better.

Set aside time with your counselor.

Things may start to feel a bit overwhelming now that graduation is a year away. Your guidance counselor will help you remember deadlines, give you advice about how to finish high school strong and encourage you to get serious about college.

Apply to your top school choices.

Applying as early as junior year can prove to be beneficial because application fees can be waived the earlier you apply.

12th Grade
First Semester

Schedule time with your guidance counselor.

Ask your guidance counselor what graduation requirements still need to be met so you don’t have to pay any late fees or miss out on what your classmates may know.

Take Two. Keep taking the ACT or SAT to build your score.

If you have test anxiety, taking the test two or even three times can help improve your score because you know what to expect and where you went wrong. Who knows, maybe this time your score can bring you more scholarships, or even get you into that honors college!

Organize all the necessary documents.

Remember the teachers you befriended? It’s time for college letters of recommendation, ordering transcripts from your counselors and polishing your resume for college and scholarship applications. Don't wait to ask for letters! You're probably not the only one asking. Make sure your test scores get sent to your prospective schools.

Apply, apply, apply!

Apply to your dream, target and safety schools now. Fees may not be waived, but this is the perfect time to apply so you can hear back by the time you graduate.

Scholarships are going fast!

If you haven’t already applied for scholarships, now is the time to hit panic mode and submit applications. There are hundreds of thousands of scholarships and grants out there to apply for — and some can bring you money to cover random things like textbooks or housing costs.

Don’t forget about The FAFSA.

The FAFSA application process opens on October 1st. Many schools require financial aid applications by the end of October, but check in with your counselor to see when your financial aid and FAFSA deadlines are. You will probably need your parents or legal guardians to help you because it takes their financial situation into consideration.

12th Grade
Second Semester

Choose a school.

Out of all the universities and colleges you applied for and got accepted into, which is the one? Notify that school. Get excited! Don’t feel pressured to declare a major right now if you aren’t sure. You have time, but it’s important to think about it now.

Apply for housing.

Apply for housing as soon as you are accepted. The earlier you apply, the better options you may have. There are many sources to find a roommate for the college you have selected. Call your college recruiter and ask about how to get plugged into the different resources available to find a freshman roommate.

Motivation is key.

Don’t let “senioritis” take away your motivation now! You have one last semester of high school left. End on a high note, stay involved, stay on top of your grades and have the best semester yet. Make some lasting memories with your best friends.