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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

Back to School Checklist for High School Students Planning for College

Whether you’re a new 9th grader or a graduating senior, check out these helpful reminders for starting your school year on the right foot. From academic to extracurricular and beyond, these action items will help you get focused, stay productive, and prepare for success in manageable, low-stress steps. This back to school checklist is geared towards high school students who are planning for college, but tasks may be adapted for other post-secondary pursuits, including employment, entrepreneurship, and enlistment.


If you're applying to college this year, congratulations on reaching this milestone! Be sure to review the College Planning and Applications section at the end of the page.


Academic

  • Finalize your course schedule before the add/drop deadline.

  • On the first day of class (and hopefully thereafter), make eye contact with your teachers and say “hi." Bonus points for introducing yourself or taking a moment to chat with teachers before or after class.

  • Read the course syllabus or overview for each class. Set appropriately challenging goals for what you hope to learn and the grade you hope to achieve in each class.

  • Develop a plan for studying and completing assignments on time (hello Google calendar, academic year planner, or organization app!).

  • Schedule an appointment with your school counselor (sometimes called a “guidance counselor” or “college counselor”). Keeping in mind that your counselor may be very busy and your appointment may not be until later in the semester, here are some things you can talk about:

    • 9th graders: introduce yourself, including your interests and any goals you have for high school or college; ask questions about school activities related to those interests and goals

    • 10th graders: say “hi,” provide updates about what you did during the summer, ask questions about opportunities for interest-related exploration or enrichment

    • 11th graders: say “hi"; provide updates; ask questions about college planning resources offered at school, such as standardized testing opportunities, college fairs, and information sessions

    • 12th graders: say “hi”; provide updates on your college planning and application process; ask questions about your preliminary college list (bring this with you), about school or counseling department deadlines for application materials, and any other questions you have about applying to college

Extracurricular

  • Attend a “club fair” at school OR obtain a list of student clubs and organizations (ask your school counselor, a teacher, or the administrator in charge of student activities if you can’t find this on the website or in your student handbook).

  • 9th and 10th graders: Try out clubs of interest to you by going to a meeting or two. Join 1-2 clubs in an academic interest area and 1-2 clubs in an extracurricular interest area. (If you’re a student-athlete, join a club or two in addition to your sports team!)

  • 11th and 12th graders: Continue participating in clubs in which you’re already a member (if you’re not a member yet, join). Look for ways to demonstrate leadership and make an impact, regardless of whether you hold an “official” leadership position or title.

  • Do the above for outside-of-school activities too, such as after school or weekend jobs, church youth groups, local or national organizations like Girl Scouts or Scouts BSA, community service or volunteer activities, and self-directed or independent projects.

  • Look for ways to contribute to your school or community:

    • When you notice a problem, issue, or gap in resources, consider ways that you can help work toward a solution. (And then make a plan to take action!)

    • Consider ways you can use your interests and strengths to help others. (And then do it!)

Personal

  • Each weekend day: Block off time to do something fun or relaxing, especially with friends or family.

  • Every day: Read, watch, or listen to one thing that makes you laugh and one thing that makes you think.

  • At least twice each week: Write in a journal or practice another form of reflection. Keep this low-pressure, fun, and creative, reflecting on topics, events, or ideas that are meaningful or interesting to you (even if the topic seems unimportant or cliché).

  • Every night: Practice healthy sleep habits. Aim for 8-10 hours of sleep as much as possible, with a 6-7-hour minimum reserved only for the very busiest days.

  • Whenever you need it: Ask for help!

College Planning & Applications


For 11th graders:

  • Sign up for standardized tests (ACT or SAT, AP exams, TOEFL if English is your second language).

  • Reflect on your interests and strengths, considering how you might apply them to a college major or career. If you’re not sure where to start, try some of the suggestions listed here.

For 12th graders:

  • Sign up for standardized tests, if you haven’t already completed them.

  • Check in with your letter of recommendation writers to make sure they have everything they need to write positive letters of support (find out more about letters of recommendation here).

  • Finalize the list of colleges and universities to which you’ll apply. Consider academic, social, and financial fit, and make sure you have a balance of "reach," "possible," and "likely" admission schools, to maximize your options when it's time to decide where to enroll.

  • Create a Common App account (or a Coalition App or institutional application account), if you haven’t done so already. Complete as much of the background, education, and other basic information as you can. For the Common App, use the AXS Companion to help you.

  • Begin working on the more time-intensive application components, including the activities and honors lists, personal essay, and any supplemental essays required by the schools you’re applying to. Check out these tips for authentic and purposeful applications, and leave plenty of time for revising and editing your work.

  • Find a trusted peer or adult who is willing to read your application materials and offer feedback as needed.

  • Attend school- or community-based information sessions related to college planning and applications (for example, local college fairs or a financial aid night at your school).


Above all, remember to HAVE FUN! If you’re not excited about or fulfilled by any of your classes or activities, then talk to a parent, guardian, friend, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult about what’s missing from your academic, extracurricular, or personal routine. The best plan for future success is a plan that is uniquely focused on the interests, strengths, and goals that make you who you are.


Have an incredible school year!


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