The Foundry Admissions College Guide - Everything You Need To Know From Freshman To Senior Year of High School
Each year the college admissions process becomes more complex, the acceptance rates at top colleges decline, and the cost of college increases.
Given these conditions, it's no wonder that so many of our high school students and their families are overwhelmed at the prospect of navigating the college admissions process!
Finding and applying to the right colleges should be exciting and enriching, not incredibly stressful.
This guide will walk you through the steps and actions needed to significantly increase your chances of gaining acceptance to the best colleges in the country.
It’ll share tips and strategies that you should be implementing each year of high school to impress college admissions counselors and earn admission to the college of your dreams.
Goal: As outlined in our graphic below, the ultimate goal of this guide (and Foundry Admissions) is to ensure a college admissions process that is organized, reduces stress, and results in admission to your best fit college.
This guide is interactive. Click on your current high school year to learn if you’re on track.
We have the keys to developing an admissions strategy that will maximize your ability to gain admission to your dream school.
And while the concepts are simple to grasp, mastering them is very difficult.
Want to maximize your SAT/ACT scores?
Want to have a comprehensive and impactful high school resume that college admissions teams will love?
Want to write compelling and engaging college application essays?
To be successful in your quest to attend the school of your dreams, you must start early, stay on track, and remain organized.
Before we dive in, we want you to keep two themes in mind while reading this guide and preparing for college:
The key to crafting an impactful college application is the ability to tell your story in a comprehensive manner through essays, recommendations, extracurriculars, and leadership experience so that admissions officers are left with a strong sense of your talents, experiences, goals, and values. As early as possible, you should be thinking about what kind of story you’d like to tell and how you plan to tell it.
When refining your college list in order to ultimately choose a college to attend, nothing is more important than fit. Although it’s discussed often, college fit is frequently ignored by students choosing a college. Don’t choose a college because it makes others - friends, family, parents - excited, choose the college that makes you excited to attend and meets your fit criteria, regardless of how others feel. Others don’t have to attend the college you choose, you do!
Let's get started!
Freshman Year: Establishing the Foundation
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." - Mark Twain
Your Freshman year is the time to establish a strong academic and extracurricular foundation while building the habits needed to succeed through high school and into college.
This year is centered around establishing the beginning of a strong high school resume and thinking through your future.
As you can see from the graphic on the right, your freshman year is going to be focused on high school academics and extracurriculars.
Not much time will be devoted to college admissions planning at this point.
Your Freshman year is about discovery and planning.
It’s a time to better understand who you are as a person and a student, refine and build upon interests, plan for a rigorous high school curriculum, and begin extracurricular involvement.
During your freshman year:
Excel in all classes. Establishing a base of academic success and the associated habits will be critical to your success throughout high school. Freshman year is the time to establish this foundation!
Research extracurricular activities available at your high school and think about activities or clubs in your local community where you could become involved.
What types of athletics are available for you to participate in? What clubs are offered? What interests outside of the classroom are you curious about pursuing?
Too frequently we talk with high school freshman who feel too intimidated to try out for sport teams or too unsure of their interests to join any clubs.
Freshman year is all about giving things a shot.
Sitting on the sidelines will only instill habits that carry over to later high school years. When we meet high school seniors with compelling leadership experiences and significant extracurricular participation, we almost always find that they began their efforts in Freshman year.
Want individual guidance, tips, and tricks from a college admissions expert?
Visit your guidance counselor to discuss what types of classes you’d like to take over the next three years.
Are you curious about AP classes? Do you know what classes you’ll need to take throughout high school? And when you’ll need to take them?
By visiting your guidance counselor, you’ll be able to sketch out a rough plan for your entire high school curriculum.
One of the most significant factors college admissions offices review when looking at an applicant is their “strength of curriculum.” In other words, did the student challenge themselves and take difficult classes as much as possible or did they load their schedule with lighter classes where they knew they would get better grades.
Remember, not all GPAs are equal! A student with a 3.8 GPA and a rigorous curriculum will fare better in the admissions process than a student with a 4.0 who took underwater basket weaving and 5 gym classes.
Think about where you might gain leadership experience.
College admissions counselors love students that take on leadership roles. You’re typically not expected to take on leadership roles during your Freshman year, but you should think about extracurriculars with a long-term mindset: In what areas of this activity or team might I play a future leadership role? It might be through sports.
It might be by starting a new club. It might be getting involved in activism and movements that you feel strongly about.
Establish the habit of reading for leisure on a daily basis.
Frequent reading improves vocabulary, enhances writing abilities, improves scores on standardized tests, and builds a habit critical to success in college
While the reading assignments prescribed in high school curriculums are a great start, we believe students should also be reading books of their choosing.
Engage early and frequently with parents.
We frequently find a lot of tension between students and parents about the college admissions process in the Junior and Senior years of high school.
One way to minimize this tension is to begin speaking with parents in the Freshman year about college interests. In doing so, expectations can be established and an agreed upon admissions timeline can be addressed up front.
Create your high school resume.
You’ll likely forget a lot of what you accomplished during your Freshman year when you’re a Junior focused more heavily on college admissions.
We recommend you download our high school resume template.
Set a calendar reminder on your phone every 3 months. That calendar reminder is there for you to pull up your high school resume and add everything you did in the last 3 months.
This will allow you, come the time when you’re filling out college applications, to have a complete list of all your high school accomplishments.
Summer After Freshman Year:
Summers are a critical time for you as a student. They provide lots of opportunity for you to grow and develop as a person.
Continue making your way through the high school leisure reading list. Read other books that you enjoy.
Spend time relaxing and enjoying your summer.
If you have the ability to get a part-time job at a coffee shop, pizza joint, or local business as an administrative helper, we recommend you do it.
College admissions counselors are impressed by real work experience. It’s not typically a deciding factor in the admissions calculation, but it shows a willingness to get involved, frequently provides leadership experience, and helps admissions officers better understand your motivations and ability to work with others.
Freshman Year Checklist:
Visit your guidance/career counselor.
Sophomore Year: Maintaining Momentum
“Like the elephant, we are unconscious of our own strength. When it comes to understanding the power we have to make a difference in our own lives, we might as well be asleep. If you want to make your dreams come true, wake up. Wake up to your own strength. Wake up to the role you play in your own destiny. Wake up to the power you have to choose what you think, do, and say.” - Keith Ellis
College planning begins to come into focus during Sophomore year.
This is the time to start pushing yourself academically. The momentum and positive study habits built in freshman year need to be maintained and enhanced.
More difficult courses, such as AP, IB, and honors courses will become more available. Additionally, you will likely take a practice SAT test through your high school.
Extracurricular activities, such as athletics and clubs, should be of continued focus and participation. Additionally, during Sophomore year, opportunities to gain leadership experience will become more available.
As challenging courses, extracurriculars, and leadership experiences are pursued, research into colleges of interest should begin.
During your Sophomore year:
Pursue more challenging courses (AP, IB, Honors) wherever possible. As mentioned previously, the difficulty level of the courses you choose to pursue will play a strong factor in the way college admissions officers assess your application.
Additionally, taking more advanced courses earlier might give you a leg up in taking earlier SAT or ACT tests in the Fall of your Junior year. For example, it’s recommended that students have taken Algebra 2 prior to taking the SAT. This course is typically taken in tenth or eleventh grade depending on skill level.
Continue to Participate in Extracurricular Activities and Look for Leadership Opportunities. Maybe you’re working hard on the basketball court to be the Team Captain of the JV squad. Or you’ve started a new club and you’re trying to promote it on campus. Whatever your outside-of-class pursuits might be, keep them up!
In addition to participating, more opportunities for leadership will arise in the Sophomore year. Whenever possible, take advantage of those opportunities!
College admissions counselors will be impressed if you show leadership capabilities as early as your Sophomore year.
Take the PSAT. Every 10th grader will take this test since it’s typically sponsored by high schools. We recommend that you do not study for this test. Go in “blind” and see how you fare. This will be a great opportunity to see how you do and what you need to work on.
Take the Pre-ACT Test. Most schools do not sponsor the Pre-ACT test. But we recommend that you take it during your 10th grade year.
Most students are geared toward one test more than the other. Some students perform well on the ACT while some perform well on the SAT.
By taking both the PSAT and Pre-ACT (without studying for either of them), you’ll be able to see which test is a better fit for your test-taking style.
From there, you can create a study plan geared towards the test, whether ACT or SAT, that you’re more likely to succeed with.
Create an initial college interest list. What types of colleges are of interest? How far do you think you’d be willing to travel from home? Are you looking for a large or small school? These basic questions can be used at this stage in the process to generate an initial college interest list. Nothing is written in stone.
With the initial interest list created, you can begin conducting further research into the schools, speaking and friends and family who might know of people who attended the colleges, and considering when you might want to visit the campuses.
Continue to develop your leisure reading habit. During Sophomore year, life begins to become a bit more busy. That said, you should still have 10-15 minutes each day to devote to leisure reading.
Summer After Sophomore Year:
Maintain (and increase!) your leisure reading. The goal should be reading for pleasure at least 15-20 minutes per day.
If possible, find a job. Working at a fast-food chain or any customer service position will not only put a little money in your pocket and expose you to leadership experience, but it will prove to admissions counselors that you’re willing to work hard.
Look for enriching opportunities to learn something new. This might involve learning a second language, attending class at a local college to learn about entrepreneurship, or taking a trip with your church to build homes in South America. The key is that you are doing something of personal interest and learning something new.
Register for the ACT and/or SAT during the Fall of your Junior year. We recommend students take one of their standardized tests during the Fall of their Junior year. Which test you sign up for should be dependent how your PSAT and Pre-ACT tests fared.
Additionally, some students who have not yet taken Algebra II should choose to wait until Spring of Junior year to take the SAT because some limited Algebra II concepts are tested in the SAT (they are not tested in the ACT, so Juniors should feel comfortable taking the ACT regardless of math level).
Sign up for SAT or ACT prep through a tutor or subscribe to free test prep courses, such as Khan Academy. Once the school year starts back up, it will be difficult to devote time to SAT or ACT study. If possible, spending time in the summer studying these materials should provide an advantage. We recommend at least 2-3 hours of study time per week.
Sophomore Year Checklist:
Junior Year: College Crunch Time
"Don’t follow your dreams. Chase them down with aggressive pursuit.” - Darren Hardy
This is crunch time.
This will likely be your most stressful year of high school.
This is the most important year when it comes to high school coursework. This is the year that you need to challenge yourself.
The work and sacrifices you put into your Junior year will pay dividends in your Senior year.
By front-loading a lot of the work during your Junior year, you’re setting yourself up to have a more fun, less stressful Senior year.
During your Junior year:
Determine whether you’d like to take the SAT or ACT. Most students find that they perform better on one of the two test formats.
The decision of which test to take should be largely based on scores from the PSAT and Pre-ACT. Additionally, consider the courses you’ve already taken heading into Junior year to help determine which test might be best.*
*Some students who have not yet taken Algebra II should choose to wait until Spring of Junior year to take the SAT because some limited Algebra II concepts are tested in the SAT (they are not tested in the ACT, so Juniors should feel comfortable taking the ACT regardless of math level).
Take the SAT and/or ACT in the Fall AND the Spring. Most students take the SAT and/or the ACT 2-3 times in total. We recommend taking at least one of your standardized tests during the Fall of your Junior year.
By taking the test in the Fall, you will have time to assess your scores and prepare to re-take the test in the Spring of your Junior year. By the end of Junior year you will have at least two tests under your belt.
From here, you can decide whether you need to take the test again. Either way, you will have built in enough time for additional study so that the test can be taken in the Fall of Senior year prior to early application deadlines.
Continue to pursue as rigorous a class load as possible. Junior year should be difficult! Without overdoing it, you should attempt to take as many AP, IB, and honors programs as possible and achieve solid grades in those courses. Your performance in these courses is a signal to college admissions officers about how you will likely perform once in college.
Establish yourself in leadership roles at the school and in the community. As a Junior, you’re continued participation in extracurriculars throughout high school should yield multiple opportunities for leadership. Take advantage of these opportunities.
Additionally, don’t forget leadership opportunities present within your local community. Whether through religious groups, jobs, boy/girl scouts, etc., there are a lot of activities in which to engage off the high school campus.
Refine your college list and take college visits. By January of your Junior year, you should have a pretty solid list of 10-20 colleges of interest (at a maximum!). If possible, visit as many college campuses as your schedule (and finances) permit.
As you refine and narrow your list, remember the various components of college fit.
Use the template to narrow down your college list. This process will refine your search and allow you to find a true fit.
Begin “expressing interest” in colleges. Many colleges, especially smaller ones, take note of high school students who express interest in their programs. This is because colleges ultimately want to send acceptance letters to students more likely to accept admission.
There are a number of ways to “express interest” in a college: “like” them on facebook and “like” or comment on their posts, follow them on Twitter and Instagram, meet with admissions officers while visiting the campus or call and speak with admissions officers over the phone.
While “expressing interest” will not gain you admission to a college on its own, it might end up being the small nudge needed if your application ends up on the bubble.
Continue to develop your leisure reading habit. During Junior year, life will be busy! That said, you should still have 10-15 minutes each day to devote to leisure reading.
Summer After Junior Year:
“All men [and women] are created equal, some work harder in preseason.” - Emmitt Smith
Just like the academic year, the Summer after Junior year should be rigorous (in addition to relaxing!)
Continue refining your list of colleges and visiting campuses. As you work to narrow your list of colleges (hopefully down to no more than 10-12 colleges by the end of Summer), pay close attention to the application requirements and deadlines for each.
Does the school use the Common Application? The Coalition Application? Do they accept both...or neither? This is very important information to know early.
In addition to a Common or Coalition Application, does the college require additional supplemental essays?
What type of early application options does the college provide? Early Acceptance (non-binding)? Early Decision (binding)?
What types of teacher recommendations are required for the college? (Some colleges no longer require any recommendations).
You’re still early in the process, but once your Senior year begins, you will have less time to devote to essay writing. The key to solid writing is allowing yourself enough time to continuously review and improve upon drafts.
Additionally, if you are able to complete your essays in the Summer, you will be in an excellent position to apply to college early, resulting in greater odds of acceptance to your top colleges and lowered stress during Senior year of high school.
Review the FAFSA and the paperwork requirements. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form everyone, regardless of financial background, needs to fill out and submit during October of their Senior year.
The form is relatively straightforward, but requires a lot of tax-related documents. Spend some time in the Summer reviewing the form with your parents and collecting the necessary paperwork so that you are able to submit the form as early as possible (typically October 1).
Officially decide whether you need to take the SAT or ACT again in the Fall of Senior year. This is often a difficult decision. We recommend looking at the average scores of students accepted to the colleges where you are interested in applying the previous year. From there, determine whether your scores fall into the middle range of averages or higher. If they do, you are likely fine. If they don’t, consider retaking. If you’re a bit late to the start and have yet to take one of the tests, you definitely need to sign up (unless you are only applying to colleges without SAT or ACT requirements).
If you do decide to retake one of the tests, use the summer to re-establish a study plan and timeline similar to the prior summer.
Junior Year Checklist:
Senior Year: The Final Sprint
“Greatness is a lot of small things done well everyday." - Lewis Howes
Senior year still requires a lot of work, but it should also be fun.
If you’ve taken advantage of the Summer before Senior year, you should be in great shape!
During your Senior year:
Officially decide which colleges you’d like to send an application. At this point, your list of colleges should be around 10 schools. We recommend applying to somewhere between 4 and 8 schools. Make sure the list includes a few schools that are nearly certain to accept you, a few where your credentials are a solid match to previously accepted students, and 1-2 colleges that might be a bit of a stretch for acceptance.
*It’s worth noting that some top colleges, especially Ivy League colleges, should be considered a stretch regardless of your accomplishments given the incredibly high number of applications these colleges receive each year.
Use Early Acceptance or Early Decision applications for the colleges at the top of your list. If you’ve already written the essays and taken your SATs and/or ACTs, you should be able to take advantage of the early applications. These applications offer higher odds of acceptance, so be sure to use them at your top choice colleges.
Early Decision is when you apply to a college early, and if you get accepted, you are obligated to attend that college (binding).
With Early Acceptance, on the other hand, you are not required to attend (non-binding) that college if you get accepted.
Early Acceptance and Early Admissions deadlines are usually around October 15th.
Should you use Early Acceptance or Early Decision? Read this to find out more.
If you choose to apply regular decision, you still have a lot of time (deadlines are typically between January and April) to pull the components of your application together.
Identify which teachers you’d like to write recommendations. As early as possible (preferably the first week of school), identify and talk with the teachers you’d like to write your recommendations. Be clear with the teachers what characteristics, values, and accomplishments you’d like the recommendations to address so that they fit into your larger application narrative (essays, extracurriculars, course work, leadership experiences, etc.)
Work with your parents to complete and submit the FAFSA. You will be able to submit the FAFSA on October 1st. It can be advantageous to your financial aid package to submit the FAFSA as early as possible, so prepare the paperwork ahead of time and submit the form on October 1.
If necessary, re-take the SAT and/or ACT in the Fall. As previously mentioned, determine whether you need to re-take (or take for the first time) one of these tests and complete the test as early into the semester as possible.
Submit your application. This is probably the most important item in this guide. Don’t forget this step!
Begin hunting for and submitting scholarships. Every extra bit of money helps. Speak with your career counselor about local scholarships, then use the internet to search for larger scholarships on the state and national level. Deadlines vary, but typically scholarship applications will be due sometime between January and April of your Senior year.
Have fun and enjoy yourself. You front-loaded all of the work - the standardized tests and the completion of the essays over the summer - in order to enjoy your Senior year. Make sure you spend time savoring the experiences with friends and family.
Compare and contrast acceptance packages. You will likely gain acceptance to multiple schools. Congrats! At this point, you need to spend time assessing the colleges and reviewing the financial aid packages offered with each college.