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American colleges are growing more competitive and costly every year, and the pressure is rising for students who hope to continue their educations beyond high school.

Getting into college is rarely as easy as turning in an application to one or two schools. Shrewd students begin preparing for college years before it’s time to apply — sometimes as early as middle school. The application process can be intimidating, but with proper preparation and support from family, students will find themselves ripping open acceptance letters in no time. This guide outlines some great online resources that can help you navigate this process.

I. Setting a Firm Foundation

Construction site

Having a firm foundation of good grades, diverse coursework, volunteer projects, and extracurricular activities will help a student stand out from the crowd. Following are a few things to think about:

  • How early is too early to start planning for college? This comprehensive guide from the U.S. Department of Education suggests starting as early as elementary school to instill a love of learning in children — and to start a college fund.
  • While early planning is critical, there are options available if you get a late start. This article outlines what you can do even if you haven’t thought about college until your senior year of high school.
  • You don’t have to be an insider to know what admissions counselors are looking for in applicants. This CollegeData article shares what matters most to colleges. 
  • The classes a student takes in high school will be factored into their college application. Choosing advanced and honors classes, accelerated sequences, and challenging electives clearly show that a student is serious about their education and prepared for the challenges of a college course load. For example, here’s what Harvard University expects of its applicants.
  • Whether a student plays sports, performs in the marching band, writes for the school newspaper, or all of the above, extracurricular activities show that they’re well-rounded and motivated, with the ability to manage their time — a very attractive quality for potential college students. USA Today illustrates the power of extracurricular activities.
  • High schoolers may think social media sites are simply a place to interact with friends, but an increasing number of colleges are factoring students’ social media activity into their decisions. Read this article for a few cautionary tales. Remember, what you post matters — the internet is forever!

II. Standardized Test Prep

Hand with pencil and scantron test

Standardized tests are often one of the most dreaded parts of the college application process — trying to keep the PSATs, ACTs, PLANs, SATs and AP exams straight is enough to give anyone a headache. However, with the right preparation, students can pass these hurdles without breaking a sweat. Some useful tools include:

  • Understanding if you should take the SAT or ACT is an important step. Different students test better on different tests and virtually all schools accept either. Review this information to decide which is optimal for you.
  • Knowing exactly when students will be taking each test — and planning accordingly — is a powerful way to stay calm and have plenty of time to prepare. Here’s a basic outline of when most standardized tests are given. This also allows students the ability to re-test prior to applications being due, if needed.
  • Standardized tests require a high level of preparation. Here are some basic tips for being ready.
  • Many students experience test anxiety. Here’s an article with some simple ideas for coping.

III. Finding Your Dream School

College campus with student

Many factors come into play when choosing colleges, including location, price, academics, and culture. There’s often a debate over public or private and big versus small schools. It’s important to target a range of safety schools, reach schools, and “good match” schools to increase acceptance chances. Applying to just one “dream school” is never a good idea. Some ways to jumpstart your search include:

IV. The Application Process

Hand filling out enrollment form.

College applications require a serious time commitment, so it’s a good idea to start early. Following are a few of the steps for you to look into as you begin the application process:

V. Financial Aid

Money with a mortarbord.  

College is more expensive than ever before. According to The College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013–2014 school year was $30,094 for private colleges and between $8,893 and $22,203 for public colleges (depending on residency). And it’s still going up — studies show that college costs are rising at the average rate of 5 to 8 percent each year.

Still, college isn’t just a luxury for the lucky one percent. Scholarships, grants, and financial aid are available to make college a reality for anyone; you just have to understand how to work the system. Links below offer you some useful information on the financial aid and scholarship process:

VI. The Acceptance Letter and Beyond

Students gathered.

Congratulations! You’ve received your long-awaited college acceptance letter. Now what? Get ready for the next few months — and in fact the next four years — to be a blur. Here’s some information about what to do next:

As stressful as the college application process can be, take heart in knowing that you’re embarking on a new and exciting adventure — and this is just the beginning!