By lwilliams We know you hear it all the time. “The earlier you start, the better.” Well, sometimes these age-old words of wisdom can be true — especially for college planning. Now, if you’re a high school freshmen or sophomore, don’t get too jealous of the upperclassmen applying for college. While you may not be planning on who will be your college dorm roommate just yet, there’s still plenty you can do to start working toward your goals of getting into a dream school. Your final year of high school is going to be filled with college admission applications, essays, entrance exams and final college visits, all while trying to maintain a solid grade point average and complete the required credits to graduate on time. To avoid being overwhelmed, you can chip away at your college to-do list and stay ahead of the game by starting these seven tasks now. Create a Course Plan The first step in preparing for college should include a solid course plan for all four years of high school. Say “hi” to your guidance counselor, and while you’re there, ask about class options you should consider, like Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) programs. And, even if you’re not into overachieving, don’t forget to check that you’re on track for the minimum core classes required by most colleges and what’s needed for graduation. It’s good to check in with your guidance counselors at least once a year to review your progress and tweak your plan, if needed. (Also, it’s nice to say “hi” once in a while.) Develop Good Study Habits Even if you’re the student that just “gets it” the moment something is taught in your high school class, chances are it’s not always going to be so easy in college. What really makes a great student is knowing how you learn and how to study. Once you figure out what type of learner you are (visual, verbal, etc.), you can determine which study aids will work best for you. For example, visual learners may benefit from note cards, whereas audio learners may have more success listening to taped sessions of classes or lectures. Figure out what works for you and set aside time to work on your study skills now. By the time that college comes around, you’ll have habits in place that will make studying come much more easily. (Less all-nighters means more sleep. Win-win.) Explore Extracurricular Activities Colleges are interested in finding well-rounded students who can add some diversity to their campuses. When you start searching for activities to enhance your transcripts, be sure you they also highlight your passions and talents, too. Sports, academic clubs, drama, music and other organized activities are all good ideas, but keep in mind that quality is much more important than quantity. Colleges will be more impressed with you if you participate in one or two activities over an extended period of time than if you participate in several clubs and organizations that you didn’t truly commit to. Colleges are wise on this by now, so don’t think that by joining every club you’re going to get one past them. Another way to really stand out is by stepping up and taking on a leadership role in your activities, such as running for an officer position or being captain of a sports team. Just know that with great power comes great responsibility. Search for Volunteer Opportunities Help your community, and help your college transcripts. As if being a better person wasn’t already a pretty good trade-off, college admissions look for applicants who have volunteer or community service experience, too. Many high schools now require students to complete 50, 75 or more hours before graduation, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find opportunities on campus and in your community. You can often gain hours through organizing donation drives, holding fundraisers, and helping out with events. Some good resources for locating volunteer opportunities include guidance counselors, local non-profits, city websites, and national databases, such as the HandsOn Network. Also, you have an advantage starting early. It often looks better to commit time to a few organizations over several years, instead of cramming in all your hours during senior year. (See, I’ve always been an awesome, helping, generous human being!). Prepare for College Entrance Exams Even though colleges are getting better at trying to learn more about the “real” student, test scores are still an important aspect of the college admissions process. You can start preparing for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and ACT by using several free resources and taking the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) and/or PLAN® as soon as possible. If you do well on the PSAT, you may also receive special recognition through the National Achievement Scholarship Program or the National Hispanic Recognition Program, as well as scholarships (free money!) through the National Merit Scholarship Program. Even though you can take the PSAT during your freshman and sophomore years, you won’t be eligible for the recognition programs or scholarships until your junior year. Similar to the PSAT, the PLAN® is a warm-up for the ACT and is taken during sophomore year. Visit College Fairs and Campuses If you really want to know what it’s like to go to college, explore nearby college campuses and attend area college fairs. If you take the time now to research different options, look into available degree programs, and dip your feet into the college experience, you can be more focused and can quickly narrow down your choices before senior year. When attending college fairs, make an effort to meet with representatives, especially if you’re unable to visit the campuses in person. Also, don’t rule out some lesser-known colleges. Each campus has something to offer, so give it a chance. Don’t forget, you can always read real student reviews when you search for colleges on Unigo.com. Apply for Scholarships Believe it or not, you don’t have to be a high school senior to start applying for scholarships. In fact, there are some awards out there for students as young as elementary school! If you start looking and applying now, you’ll have the chance to really stack up some college savings. Start setting aside a few hours each month to search for available opportunities and complete scholarship applications. You can find scholarships through a variety of resources, including your guidance counselor (we told you to say “hi” for a reason), local organizations, and online scholarship search tools. Before you get swamped and overwhelmed with all the demands of high school, do yourself a favor and start planning for college now. Not only will you be able to make a better decision about where you want to go, but you’ll also be able to truly enjoy your senior year.