Planning for college is a two-year process. And unless a rich uncle is going to write that $30,000 check for you, it is going to involve acquiring and submitting financial aid forms, scholarship applications, and grant applications. But don't despair. By following the suggestions below, and by carefully monitoring the process, you should be buying college textbooks before you know it. Keep in mind, however, that is a process; it isn't like taking one test and getting an A. It requires diligence, double-checking, and follow-up.
When you are a high school JUNIOR:
Take the SAT and/or ACT ... this is a must.
Keep your grades up! Remember that colleges look at your entire high school academic record when making admissions decisions: what you do in 9th through 11th grade is just as important as what you do as a high school senior.
Consider college options. Decide what is important to you: Location? Curriculum? Size? Diversity? Athletics? Social life?
Keep an eye on your local papers and community bulletin boards for college nights and open houses; talking to representatives at college fairs is a great way to find out about the colleges you are considering.
Research your scholarship and grant options. Utilize the best-customized scholarship service available on the Internet.You just can't mimic their resources yourself; they will save you time and headaches and help you avoid scams.
Send away for scholarship information and application with early deadlines. It's never too soon to do so since some scholarships and grant applications need to be received in the fall of your senior year.
Make an effort to be involved in your community or in extracurricular activities at school.
Join a club, do a service project, sign up for a committee at your church. Admissions officers and scholarship providers will want to see evidence of your leadership and commitment to service when they review your applications next year.
In the FALL of your SENIOR year.
Select the colleges that interest you most, as soon as you enter your high school homeroom. Don't delay.
Send away for information and applications; be sure to check out web sites for the information you can obtain online.
Sign up to re-take the SAT or ACT. Buy a study guide or sign up for a test prep course to take before the actual test date. Believe it or not, you CAN improve your test scores by taking them a second time, and better scores could affect your ability to get scholarships!
If possible, visit any colleges you can. Find out when there are prospective student activities or if you can sign up to "shadow" an existing college freshman.
In September (and then once each month thereafter), search for scholarship opportunities using a premiere online service. Take time to fill out the entire profile on the site, making sure to ask your parents about their work experiences and association memberships for optimal results.
Pay attention to early admission deadlines. By October or November, submit applications for early decision programs.
Attend a financial aid presentation. These are offered at schools, libraries, and college campuses.
Narrow your list of intended colleges, and make sure you have all the financial aid forms required by each school. Required documents may not be the same at each school, so pay close attention to what each requires.
Obtain a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). This should be available in January, and it is very important. Call 1-800-4-fed-aid; the online address is http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA form can also be obtained from high schools, colleges, and local libraries.
Complete and submit the FAFSA immediately (it can be submitted anytime after January 1st in your senior year). Make a copy for yourself. Parents should compile income tax information and complete taxes early.
In the SPRING of your SENIOR year:
Verify that you have submitted all of your financial aid forms. The FAFSA must be filled out and sent in between January 1 and March 15 -- get it in early and file it correctly to avoid delays in funding decisions.
Be sure to send in your scholarship applications on time: several scholarships have spring deadlines. Check back regularly with your online service to find even more awards during the spring and summer months; you should update your profile each month to generate new, customized award lists.
Verify that you have received your Student Aid Report (SAR); it should arrive about 4 weeks after you have submitted your FAFSA.
Compare financial aid packages when you receive admission notifications. Look for the best rather than the most.
Finalize your choice and notify the college.
Sign and return financial aid forms to the university you plan to attend.
Send your final transcript and student loan application.
Notify the schools whose enrollment offers you decline.