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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education---Chapter One

The Big Picture

Many students are surprised at how easy it can be to choose among the thousands of colleges out there. Once you have a clear understanding of who you are, what you like, and how you best learn, picking a college becomes a pretty easy and fun thing to do. Learning about yourself is something you've always done, and that's the key to a successful ninth grade, where you ramp up and fine tune your self-knowledge by learning to be a good student, participating in clubs and activities, and learning how to help others. You keep building these skills throughout high school, while you begin to visit local colleges in tenth grade, so you can get a better understanding of the different kinds of colleges that are out there. In eleventh grade, you'll visit more campuses and meet college admissions officers that visit your school or home town, all while continuing to grow as a student and as a person. This gets you ready to build your first college list in the spring of eleventh grade, a list that will change and grow, but serve as a place to begin to develop the college options you'll choose from in spring of the senior year.

You would think picking a great college would be a pretty easy thing to do—and in many ways, you're right. While there are over 3600 colleges in the United States alone, most people will apply to no more than six, after visiting no more than two dozen, and doing online research on less than 50.

What is it that gets students so excited about these colleges, and makes it so easy to focus on only less than two percent of the many college choices out there? The same thing that makes it easy to pick out your favorite foods at the grocery store, the few online videos you watch over and over again, and the clothes you buy out of all of the options you have at the mall—you learn to know what you like. Starting with a strong understanding of who you are, what you need from a college, and where you'd like to go in life, picking a college can be as fun as choosing what new songs to download, and just as easy.

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Most students think the college search begins some time in tenth or eleventh grade, when a parent, teacher, or school counselor sits you down in front of a computer or a very thick college guide and asks you to pick out the names of some colleges you'd like to investigate. That's certainly an important step in the college selection process, but since your college choice is based on your interests, talents, and needs, you're really preparing for your college search since birth, as you learn about what you like to do, subjects you like to study, places where you like to hang out, and careers you might pursue. In many ways, looking at the menu of college choices is like looking at the menu of a restaurant where you're eating for the first time. No matter how big the menu is, it would be a little intimidating, if this were the first time you'd ever eaten—but a life time of experience leads you to make great choices.

A big part of the life experience that shapes your college choices is your time at school – elementary school, middle school, and high school. College is a great experience both in and out of the classroom, but the biggest part of that experience involves challenging yourself with new ideas. Every day you spend in school of any kind gives you a chance to shape the way you take on new ideas, whether it's learning Algebra in high school, or learning about what makes a flower grow in first grade. Over time, your ability to take on new ideas and work with them becomes the basis of your study habits, your grades, your hobbies, and the way you look at life—and all of those things are part of the college application process.

Since choosing a college is really just another way to show the world what matters to you, you can begin your preparation for college at any time. College readiness means you have the classroom skills, study habits, and decision-making tools necessary to make the most out of the learning experiences of college, and you become college ready with every class you take in school.

College readiness consists of three big parts, and the first big part is study skills. By figuring out how you best study, you are learning more about how you learn. That's different for everyone, so it's more than OK if your friend knows they can only study in a quiet room at a desk, while you can study on the bus, or one friend uses flash cards to study, while you need to study by reading everything out of the book. When it comes to study skills, there's no such thing as one best way to study. There are better ways for you to study, and learning about those is a big part of school. Your teachers can help you figure out the best way for you to study.

The second big part of college readiness lies with extracurricular activities. The sports teams, clubs, and hobbies you develop may just seem to be fun to you, and they should be. But these activities also help you learn more about yourself and the world around you. They also help you develop essential skills that will really pay off in college and in life. Skills like getting up early in the morning for practice, tracking down the answer to that hard question for Model UN, or perfecting that tricky move on the dance floor require the ability to keep at a task even when it's tough, to think about others as well as yourself, and to put in a lot of time to something that matters to you. All of these skills offer big payoffs, and the biggest one is knowing more about yourself and what you can do, all while you're having a good time.

The third part of college readiness is learning to give back to others. It doesn't always seem like it, but many of the opportunities you have in the world are the result of people who do things to help you, even when there's nothing in it for them. The teacher who meets with you after school doesn't get paid any more to do that; they just care about what you learn. The referee who works the basketball games at the community center is getting paid next to nothing; they're really there because they want you to have a chance to play. The person who picks up the trash on Saturday mornings on the road you take to schools wants everyone to have a cleaner neighborhood, including you. Community service may seem like one more thing your high school might require so you can graduate, or something you do just to help out other people. But as you keep doing things for others, you start to see how important that work is, and how it changes the way you see the world, all for the better.

As a student, you're always studying, playing, and helping others, so it should come as no surprise that you should keep doing those things in ninth grade. What surprises most people is that, to be college ready, that's really all you have to do in ninth grade. If you really want to, you can start researching colleges then, and it's always a good idea to visit a college campus when you can. But the best college choice begins with knowing who you are, what you like to study, and what you can give to the world—and that's what college readiness is all about. So if you really want to be college ready, spend ninth grade doing what you've always done—making the most out of every opportunity.

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Tenth Grade

You'll be working on college readiness throughout high school, so every year, you will continue to use and explore the study skills that work best for you; you'll keep pursuing the teams, activities, and hobbies that mean something to you, and you'll look for opportunities to help others. No matter how well you did these things in ninth grade, tenth grade gives you the chance to do more of them in different ways. Be sure to make the most of this new opportunity.

Tenth grade is also the time many students start to learn about the different kinds of colleges that are out there. Chances are you've heard about different colleges before, and even been on campus to watch their teams play or go to a concert. All of those experiences are important as you think about what you want to do after high school, and tenth grade is an important time to understand more about each of those choices.

There's a good chance your school counselor will introduce you to different kinds of colleges in tenth grade, either through some kind of classroom presentation, or through an online exercise where they give you guided virtual tours of colleges. These are important experiences, but the best way to learn about colleges is to get on some college campuses and experience them in person. If your high school doesn't arrange college visits for you, work with your parents and your friends to visit campuses on days when school is out. Most colleges that offer tours let you sign up for them online, while other colleges don't offer tours, but will let you come and walk around.

In visiting college campuses in tenth grade, you want to get a feel for how colleges are similar, and how they're different. To do this, you want to make sure you're visiting different kinds of colleges—and most students don't have to travel too far to do that. A quick online search of Colleges Within 100 Miles From Here should give you a wide number of campuses to look at, all within an easy drive of home. As you choose, make sure you're investigating as many different kinds of colleges as possible, including:

Four-year residential colleges

These are colleges where students work towards a Bachelor's Degree, while living on campus or in student housing near campus.

Four-year commuter colleges

These are colleges where students work towards a Bachelor's Degree, while living at either their own home or their parent's home. Most four-year colleges offer students the choice of being residential or commuter colleges, but some require students to live on campus for at least the first year.

Community colleges,

Community colleges, or colleges where students are working on a certificate, Associate Degree, or classes that will allow them to transfer to a four-year college. Some community colleges offer housing options, but most are largely commuter schools.

It's a good idea to visit at least one of each kind of college in tenth grade, and it's even better to visit at least two of each kind. This may mean some students have to travel farther than 100 miles from home; if that's the case, try and design your college visits so you can see one college in the morning, and one in the afternoon. It's usually best to only see two colleges in one day, so you can remember the details of your visit.

What should you do once you're on campus? Take the tour, for sure. These tours are designed to introduce you to the most important parts of the college, and to answer any specific questions you might have about the college. To make the most out of the tour, take about 30 minutes to look at the college's website. Make sure to look at the list of majors they offer (here is an example). It is more than OK if you don't know what you want to study, but it's good to know what they offer. Also, take a look at their student life, or activities section (like this one, for example), so you can know what it's like to be on campus when you're not in class. And be sure to sign up for the tour!

Once you're on campus, listen closely to the tour guide. This will likely be a student from the college, and while they've been given a script of information to share with you, you can learn a lot from how they tell you the information, the jokes they make, and the way they answer any questions people have. It's great if you bring some questions along to ask the tour guide, especially if you want to know about specific classes, programs, or activities the college offers.

As you take the tour, and especially once it's over, try to get a feel for the atmosphere at the school. How is it the same as your high school? How is it different? Are the students friendly—are they too friendly? Do they like to study and socialize as much as you do, or are they a little more serious about school—or less serious?

If you can visit a class, do it. It's best to visit a freshman class, and you only have to stay for 15 or 20 minutes, but classes are a big part of the college experience, so it's good to see what they're all about. The same is true for looking at where students live, and where they eat. Finally, see if you can find a place on campus where the students hang out. Stay there for at least 20 minutes as well, and just people watch. Once you're done people watching, ask yourself: Do I feel comfortable here? What do I like about this college? Is there something missing that would make me feel more comfortable here? It's good if you know what's missing, but even if you don't, it's important to know that you're looking for something else in a college that may not be here.

As soon as your visit is done, write down what you think about the college, good and bad. Some students take notes on their phone; some will use a notebook, and others will put their thoughts in an online organizer that's offered through their high school. No matter where you put your final notes, make sure you write these ideas down right away—and write them down before you talk with your friends or parents about what they think of the college. Their opinions are important, but it's always best to start with a clear idea of what you think.

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Summer programs

Tenth grade is also a good time to think about experiencing college life through a summer program. Since many colleges don't offer classes in the summer, some will offer special programs to high school students, so they can take a course they don't have time for during the regular school year, try out a class where they can explore a career, or take a course their high school doesn't offer. Many of these classes are taught by college professors, and some are available at little to no cost. Registration for these programs usually starts in January or February; a great list of summer programs can be found here.

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Eleventh Grade

Students are continuing to take the most challenging classes they can in junior year, all while developing stronger and more advanced study skills. Extracurriculars continue to be a big part of your life, as you take on roles of leadership in clubs and teams you've been a part of for a long time (something colleges like to see) and as you explore new interests. The same is true with community service, as the number of hours you're contributing now begins to total the hundreds, and you have the chance to assume leadership positions in these volunteer activities.

Your exploration of colleges also continues in eleventh grade, but it begins to take on a more specific focus. You don't have to know what college you want to attend at this point, but your tenth grade college visits and the research you're doing on colleges on Web sites like Big Future and Cappex are probably pointing you to a number of colleges that have a great deal in common.

You can build on the success of your tenth grade college visits in three important ways. First, continue to visit campuses you've researched online. These visits are very much like the visits you took in tenth grade, except this time, you're not just going to see what makes one kind of college different from another—you're going to see if this is a school you'd like to attend. Your eleventh grade search could lead you to touring colleges farther away from home, and that's great, if you're comfortable with the idea of being somewhere new for school. Qualities like the size of the college, where it's located, what programs it offers, and how much it costs are all a part of choosing a school, and every student has their own likes and dislikes. Junior year is the time to discover what yours are, and campus tours will do that.

Since some colleges are just too far away to visit, colleges will often come to meet you. Many college admission officers will schedule time to come to your high school and talk with you about their school, while other colleges will hold these same kinds of meetings at an area hotel. This is a great way to get to know a college before deciding to spend the time and money to visit campus. Be sure to bring your questions to these meetings, and don't be afraid to ask them, even if there are lots of other students around. Asking good questions is one way to get noticed by a college, and that can be an important part of the application process. (Don't know what to ask? Take a look at this list.)

This list of questions is also good to use when attending a college fair, where dozens of colleges send representatives to talk with students and parents. Usually held in the fall or spring at a local high school, these fairs are open to students throughout the area, and give you the chance to get to know a lot about many colleges, all at the same time. Just like a college visit, it's best to do a little online research about the colleges before you attend the fair, since there are so many colleges to choose from once you're there. At the same time, it can be fun and beneficial just to pick one or two colleges at the fair you've never heard of, and start talking with the admissions representative.

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Making Your First College List

By spring of junior year, it's a good idea to begin to put together a list of colleges you'd like to apply to. The application process itself won't start until summer or fall, but it's a good idea to develop a list and share it with your parents and your school counselor. This is the team that will help you apply to college, and what they know about you and your college interests can help them support your choices.

Just like each student's college choice is different, the college list for every student is also different. Students looking at certificate programs or community colleges may have only one or two colleges on their list, based on the programs the student is interested in, and the location of the colleges. Other students may be looking for four-year colleges that are so popular, they only admit a very small percentage of the students who apply. In this case, students will want to include a number of colleges where they would be happy to attend, since there is no guarantee these highly selective colleges will admit even the most successful students.

For students thinking about four-year colleges, a good starter college list usually includes:

All of the research, visits, and things you know about yourself should come together in a way that you've found schools that fit well with your interests, needs, and abilities. This “fit” is that feeling you get on a campus tour when you just know this is a place where you'd love to live and learn after high school, and it is one of the keys to a strong college choice.

While every college you apply to should give you a good feel for fit, this beginning list of 3-6 colleges should also give you a wide menu of options to choose from when you have to decide what college to attend, a decision you make in the spring of your senior year. That's important, since what you're looking for in a college could change between the time you make your first list in junior year, and time you actually have to choose a college, once you're done applying.

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More Resources

College readiness

Five Key Skills for Academic Success

Why is Community Service important to me?

Sample list of majors, Oakland University

Sample student life page, The Ohio State University

Summer programs

Big Future college search

Cappex college search

What to ask at a college fair or college session

Building a Balanced List

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