How to Get to College (a Road Map of High School)

How to Get to College (a Road Map of High School)

Ava Palo, Co-Editor

Warren does well to prepare its students for their post-secondary plans. What I think that it lacks, however, is the advice and reality of the process from students who actually wrote essays and filled out the Common Application. In this article, I am going to tell you what things are important, that aren’t as important as people make them out to be, and what I wish I knew. Let’s begin.


Freshman Year

Welcome to Warren! 

Academics: Make sure you’re being challenged in your classes, but not overwhelmed. 

Extra-curricular Activities: Pick a few extracurricular activities that you can stick with for a few years (sports, clubs, etc.). Colleges want to see that you’re involved, and passionate about your activities. 

PSAT 9: You really shouldn’t study for this. It’s good to benchmark where you are right now, so you can see what areas you need to improve in. At the end of the test, you’ll see a box to check if you want to be a part of the “Student Search Service”. Do not check that box unless you want 10-15 emails from colleges you’ve never heard of a day. If that’s something you’re interested in, make a separate email account first. And they do not stop once you apply to college. They are year round, 24/7. Just be aware. 

Ava’s Advice: Focus on getting good grades and adjusted to high school. 


Sophomore Year

Keep challenging yourself in school. 

Academics: Colleges would much prefer a B in an AP class to an A+ in an Honors class. 

Extra-curricular Activities: Continue to stay involved in-school and out. Consider joining a volunteer group either through the school or through your church or just volunteer on your own. Community service experience is regularly asked about in the college process.

College: Start thinking about your post-secondary plans. What are you passionate about? What job do you think that you would not only be good at, but enjoy as well? Are you enlisting, working, or attending a college? Talk this through with your parents, adults in your life, or a College and Career Counselor

PSAT 10: You really shouldn’t study for this. It’s good to benchmark where you are right now, so you can see what areas you need to improve in. 

Ava’s Advice: Don’t feel like you’re behind in the process; you don’t have to worry about college for another year (plus).


Junior Year

Some will tell you that this is the most difficult year in high school. I would argue otherwise. It’s not as scary as some would have you believe.

Academics: Take those AP’s! Don’t let them scare you. AP Classes not only challenge you, but could save you thousands of dollars in college credit. Even if you want to be a Biology major, your AP Language credit could go towards your elective credit in college. However, don’t take AP’s just to take them. Know your strengths and play to them.

Extra-curricular Activities: By this point, you should aim to have a leadership position in your extra-curriculars, or have one. If you play sports, shoot for Varsity. Continue to be active in your club/sport.

National Honor Society: If you get invited to apply for Warren’s National Honor Society chapter, you should apply. NHS is one of the easiest clubs at Warren. As a member, I am only required to complete ten hours of community service and attend two meetings a semester (this may change). 

PSAT/NMSQT: You can take this in the fall (it’s optional). I would recommend taking this test. It’s good to see where you’re at for the SAT in the spring, as well as putting you up for the National Merit Scholarship. This is a prestigious title, and even being a semifinalist is commendable.

SAT: You are required to take the SAT to graduate in the State of Illinois. The best way, in my opinion, to handle this is to take the SAT in the spring, but plan to retake it in the summer. This way, you have a little cushion if you don’t do so hot the first time around. Keep in mind that taking the SAT (or ACT, for that matter), costs money and seats fill up insanely fast, so make sure that you plan ahead. As for studying for the SAT, I cover Test Scores further down in the article, but I don’t believe it’s that important. Yes, you should brush up on your Algebra and Geometry skills, but you shouldn’t stress about it. Focus on your homework and extra-curriculars instead. Before taking the test, check out Khan Academy’s free practice test to familiarize yourself with the format and timing.

College: Tour colleges when you can and take advantage of those College Visit Days (you get 3 days of no-count absences for college visits during the year). If you can’t tour schools during the school year, plan trips for the summer. If you can’t tour schools for other reasons, check out the college’s website; they have lots of virtual tours. Attend the CLC Regional College Fair in the fall. It’s a good place to meet your admissions counselors, as well as learn about colleges you’ve never even heard of. Plus, it’s a good place to get general information about the colleges, it’s much easier to read off of a brochure than click around a website in my opinion. Almond also has a lot of college representatives coming in on a daily basis, so attend those.

Ava’s Advice: Don’t be afraid to use your Mental Health Days.


Senior Year

Don’t let the Senioritis affect you. Seriously. You think it won’t be that bad, but trust me, it is.

Keep doing all the things aforementioned for school/extra-curriculars. For this section, I’m going to focus on College Applications.

Things that are actually important about applications:

  • ESSAYS!!! This is the most important part of the application (well, besides your name). When writing an essay, you should ensure that no one else could’ve possibly written that essay. Make sure to avoid what counselors call the Big Three: death, disease, and divorce. Write an essay that shows how you’ve grown, how you overcame a problem, or how someone or something changed how you saw a situation. 
  • Planning Ahead. Do yourself a favor and print out a monthly calendar. Mark all of your application deadlines, scholarship deadlines, college visits, etc. November 1st may seem like a while away, but it’s actually only 10 weeks from the start of school.

Things about applications that aren’t as important as they seem:

  • Test Scores. Seriously. Thanks to COVID-19, colleges have been forced to go “test-optional”, meaning that you don’t *have* to submit a test score. My advice is, if you think that your SAT/ACT score is an accurate or better reflection of your grades, then add it. But if you had a headache the day of the test and scored lower than you should’ve as a result, don’t add it. Trust your gut with this one.
  • Grades. One C in an art elective will most likely not affect you becoming a Biology major. If that C is in a STEM class however, it may be a different story.
  • Being involved in everything. Colleges want to see that you’re passionate about something. If you want to be a business major, focus on FBLA and winning awards there, rather than being the president of FDA just because you can. Pick a few activities, and stay loyal to them. This way, you’ll also have a lot of stories to tell in your essays.

Best advice I’ve gotten/Things I’ve Learned about the Application Process:

  • Think of your application like a pizza that you’re catering to each college you apply to. You’ll need the dough (your basic information), the sauce (your grades), and some cheese (your essay). And, of course, you’ll add toppings- maybe some pepperoni (extra-curriculars), some sausage (demonstrated personality), or some veggies (community service). Do you think that Dartmouth would like better cheese or better sauce? Would UIUC want a few really good pepperoni, or a lot of Dollar Store pepperoni? It may sound silly, but it’s a good way to visualize it.
  • Plan, plan, plan. (Have I stressed this enough?)
  • Don’t rule out private schools (or any school, for that matter) based off of their price tag on their website. Private colleges have a higher percent of students receiving merit aid, so they may actually be cheaper than a public school. Just apply and wait for the financial aid letters to arrive.
  • Save yourself some time and apply to colleges via the Common Application. Unless a school offers an incentive (like a fee waiver) to apply through their website, focus on the Common Application. Take some time during the summer before senior year to familiarize yourself with the website- you’ll be on it a lot.


Final Thoughts:

Everyone’s high school journey looks different; try not to compare yourself to others. If you’re a junior and feel behind, don’t. There’s always time to prepare yourself, college applications are a marathon, not a sprint. Also, don’t let yourself feel sad for too long if you get deferred or denied from your dream school. Remember that you got into other colleges and that college is really what you make of it.

Best of luck to you all as you begin some crucial years of your teenage years. Remember to enjoy the experience, as these four years really do fly by.