That's the advice from guidance counselors who lead students through the arduous process of applying for colleges each year - don't wait until the last minute to start your research, planning for tests or getting applications together.
"It's not an all-consuming thing, but you're going to need to have a plan," said Michel Young, counselor for the junior class at Greenbrier High School. "It's about a two-year process. By the fall of your senior year, hopefully you've already narrowed your choices down and have application materials on hand."
Involving parents is a good idea, particularly in the search for financial aid, she added.
"It's very complicated," she said. "I wish I could say there was a really easy way to do it. ... It's kind of a joint effort between the parents and the student."
Creating a time line (like the one on Page 2) and sticking to it will help you get things done on time, said Charlene Wilkerson, a guidance counselor at the Academy of Richmond County.
"They really need to set a schedule for themselves and get the time frames correct so they can get the stuff done," she said. "It's very, very important now, with some of the state college requirements, that they plan ahead. In the ninth grade, students should already know if they're tracking for college or if they're tracking for a vocational school."
Juniors begin practicing for PSAT, SAT and ACT and registering for test dates. Numerous study guides are available in book or computer form. The College Board, which administers the PSAT and SAT, has a Web site with guides and test schedules. The site also offers resources to help you choose a college and search for scholarships.
Juniors visit college fairs, talk to recruiters and begin to collect materials on schools. Begin discussing financial resources with parents.
Seniors take make-up portions of the high school exit exam, if necessary.
Seniors make sure they've got all parts of their college applications prepared: fill out applications, get in requests and fees to high schools for transcripts to be sent, make sure you have SAT scores or plan when to retake the test, ask people to write any recommendation letters you need.
Seniors who plan to play NCAA Division I or II sports need to check with coaches and recruiters about submitting their eligibility application to the sports organization.
Juniors take PSAT. While most will have taken the test during their sophomore year, it must be taken again during the junior year to qualify for National Merit Scholarships. Some corporate scholarships also require it.
Juniors take writing portion of high school exit exam.
Seniors begin retaking SAT, if necessary. While a repeat test may push your scores higher, some colleges say it's better not to take the test more than twice - so check with admission offices to see how much emphasis a particular school places on the SAT and how many times you should take it.
Seniors begin sending out applications. Check the application deadlines for the schools you're applying to. Some may have early fall deadlines. Some also may require early application for scholarships along with the admission application.
Seniors should check all financial aid applications to make sure they don't have early fall deadlines.
Seniors pick up FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms. These are submitted for any form of federal financial aid, including loans, grants or work-study programs. They also will qualify students for Georgia HOPE scholarships. Hang on to these forms and send them in after your parents have completed their tax return for the year - you'll need to put in information from the current year's tax forms.
Seniors should check as they begin to receive acceptance letters from colleges to make sure there are no additional requirements or forms to fill out. Check for fee deadlines.
Juniors should begin to research available financial aid, such as loans, work-study programs and scholarships, although they probably won't be able to apply until senior year. Don't spend a lot of money on scholarship search programs, guidance counselors warn - there are free search programs online, including the College Board's scholarship finder. Check with schools you plan to apply to, as well as churches and civic organizations that you or your parents participate in. Also ask parents to find out if employers give scholarships.
Juniors take SAT for the first time. This will give you an idea of whether your scores meet the requirements of your chosen schools and give you time to retake the test, if necessary, before sending in applications in the fall. The SAT can be taken earlier, but waiting until the spring gives you time to prepare properly.
Juniors take remaining portions of high school exit exam.
Juniors begin visiting colleges. Guidance counselors recommend visiting schools you're interested in if they're outside the Augusta area. Many people visit during high school spring break or on weekends, but the trips can be scheduled at almost any time. To get a good feel of the campus, arrange the visit through the school. Don't just show up.
Seniors make sure FAFSA forms are in, qualifying them for federal financial aid and the Georgia HOPE scholarship. Check forms carefully and make sure all information is correct, including Social Security numbers, or you may lose eligibility. The Social Security number should be the student's, not a parent's - military families sometimes have students listed under a parent's number at school. Check to make sure this isn't the case with you. Also, make a copy of the form before you mail it.
Seniors should check financial aid award letters as they come in to see if there are any additional forms to fill out or sign, especially for loans, grants and work-study programs.
Seniors must sign a form allowing their high schools to send their files and transcripts to the colleges they'll be attending. These files will be sent out a couple of weeks after graduation - they show the colleges that students have fulfilled all requirements and graduated. If colleges don't receive them, they'll call you, and you may have to go back to the high school to have another copy sent.
Juniors make sure that courses are on track. They should have a schedule that allows them to complete all college requirements except for their fourth year of English and math.
Seniors make sure they're taking concentrated courses that will help on applications, advanced-placement courses and joint enrollment for college credit. Check with colleges you're interested in to see which courses they recommend you take.
Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.