College may feel like a lifetime away, but many of the choices you make throughout high school will impact your college options. Wondering if you are ahead of the curve, behind it, or right on track? Watch the video above to learn more about the standardized testing landscape, the college application timeline, and what colleges value in an applicant to ensure that you become the best possible candidate.

Below are some other matters to consider, year by year:

Freshman Year (9th)

* Meet with your school counselor. Establish a relationship with your counselor – you want them to know who you are. Discuss your goals and interests along with the academic opportunities at your high school to pursue both. Find out what “tracks” are necessary to take certain classes in the coming years…hoping to take AP Physics senior year? Many schools require students to complete Pre-Calculus by the end of their junior year to even be considered. Don’t miss out on an exciting class or a great opportunity because you didn’t know what was required.

* Care about your grades. There is an unfortunate piece of misinformation floating around out there that freshman grades don’t matter. For the vast majority of colleges, THEY DO (one major exception is the UC system). Your GPA, class rank, and high school transcript will help colleges better understand your strengths and abilities – so start out strong!

* Enter contests and competitions. Love poetry? Enter poetry contests, whether local or national, or read at local coffee house Poetry Slams. Fascinated by robots? Join the robotics club and enter competitions. Love learning in general? Join an Academic Decathlon team. Not only will you meet new friends and pursue your interests, but you are showing colleges a level of commitment and interest that counts. And winning anything never hurts!

* Visit college campuses. Try to visit colleges anytime you’re in a new city, but even easier, visit nearby colleges. If you live in Los Angeles, you can visit UCLA, USC, Pepperdine, LMU, Occidental, the Claremont Colleges, and a dozen more without driving more than an hour. It doesn’t matter if you think you’d apply to these schools…just get a feel for what different schools offer, the pros and cons of urban vs rural campuses, large vs small, religiously-affiliated, et cetera. What do you really want, and what could you live without? What environment will best encourage you to challenge yourself and try new things?

* Get involved in your school and community. Join teams, clubs, community service leagues. Meet new people, represent your school proudly, donate your time and energy to charitable causes that inspire you, and make a difference. Colleges don’t want bookworms who will spend every waking hour in the library – they want real people who will make their community a better place. Check out some of our favorite extracurriculars HERE.

* Make sure your classes, activities, and eventual college plans align. Of course you want to have fun and experiment — that’s what this time in your life is for! But if you plan on pursuing a degree in medicine and spend all your time in musical theater, it prompts Admissions officers to wonder how committed to medicine you really are. If you’ve never volunteered at a hospital or you opted to take the History of WWII instead of Anatomy, is this truly where your passion lies? The more specific college programs typically have firm expectations for high school applicants; for instance, most engineering programs want to see Calculus senior year (at a minimum), medical programs want to see AP Chemistry and AP Biology, and journalism programs want to see extensive involvement in school and local newspapers.

Sophomore Year (10th)

* Pick the right classes. This is likely the first year you’ve had much say in the courses you take. In addition to taking the core requirements, be sure to challenge yourself whenever possible. But remember, the idea is to challenge yourself, not break yourself! Don’t take Honors and AP classes just to take them…do it in classes that truly interest you, or it will potentially backfire. That being said, if you don’t get on the higher math track early on, it’s tough to jump ahead — which could present an obstacle when applying to competitive universities. Consider the pros and cons to more challenging coursework carefully.

* Start exploring college majors. Did you know that UC Berkeley offers a major in Rhetoric, which basically a program focused on arguing efficiently and effectively? Or that Tufts offers a major in Music Engineering, which combines music theory and composition, recording and production, and computer programming? Check out some of the options online, but even better, learn about the options in Information Sessions or by talking to professors when you visit campuses.

* Take the College Board’s PSAT or the ACT’s PreACT. These tests don’t count for anything this year, but taking them will give you a sense of how you compare to sophomores nationwide and alert you to any weaknesses you should be addressing in the coming months.

* Seek out leadership opportunities. You don’t have to be President of Student Council or Captain of your sports team to be a leader (although these are clearly great opportunities!) – you can start a club or organize a fundraiser.

* Consider finding paid work. The obvious pay-off here is the actual cash – clearly, spending money or a growing savings account is never a bad thing. But it also shows colleges that you are responsible and independent – not only did someone hire you (and not fire you!), but you aren’t relying on Mom and Dad to pay for your nights out with friends. Try to avoid working at a family member’s office – “cushy” jobs don’t have the same impact as those that require humility, patience, and some physical discomfort (Subway Sandwich Artist, anyone?).

* Explore summer enrichment programs. There are a lot of opportunities to pursue your interests, explore new ones, and learn skills most high schoolers won’t have. Many programs are held on college campuses, but there are certainly quite a few notable exceptions. You can learn more about some of the programs we recommend HERE.

* Discuss the idea of semester schools. More and more students are taking a semester off from their usual high school to attend school elsewhere, typically during their junior year – whether in the mountains of Colorado, on the east coast, or even in Europe. Check with your high school to see which programs they recommend, as you want to be sure your credits will transfer back. If they will, it can be a wonderful, worthwhile experience!

* Determine what role, if any, athletic recruitment will play. A lot of college coaches select their recruits as early as sophomore year and commit in junior year, so start preparing your highlight reels, contacting coaches, and being proactive. Consider the differences between Division I, II, and III for student-athletes. How all-consuming do you want sports to be?

* Remain open to change. While colleges love applicants who have a passion, pursue it doggedly, and never waver, they are equally impressed with one who explores an interest and has the maturity to admit it may not be right. So if you volunteer at a hospital and quickly realize you can’t stand sight of blood, own it – and be glad you figured it out now, rather than eight years from now in the middle of medical school! Ruling out various career paths is a crucial part of discovering what you really want to do, and colleges recognize that.

Junior Year (11th)

* Make school your top priority! This is most important academic year for your college applications. Colleges will pay close attention to which courses you are taking and how well you are doing in them.

* Narrow down your list of colleges. Barring any terrible surprises, you should have a fairly good sense of your GPA and test scores by now, and therefore of which schools are within reach. Start visiting colleges that you’re serious about and weigh your options. If any school is far and away your top choice, consider applying Early Decision (binding) next fall – but be sure you’re sure!

* Take the College Board’s PSAT. Not only is it good practice for the real SAT, it also makes you eligible for National Merit Scholarships and awards.

* Put together a standardized testing schedule. If at all possible, you want to be done with standardized testing by the end of junior year. Senior year is busy enough with the challenging academics, let alone the college applications, essays, and interviews you’ll be juggling! Before anything else, though, determine whether the SAT or ACT is a better fit for you — a lot of students focus all their time and energy on the “wrong” test and never reach their potential. They play to different sets of strengths and weaknesses, so consider them carefully. Plan to take the SAT or ACT (or both) at least twice this year: typically, shortly after the winter holidays and then again in late spring (with time in between to learn from the mistakes made on the first test). If need be, you can always retake in the fall, but that should be a last resort. AP exams should be taken in May, but take diagnostic tests in March to assess your preparedness. If there are gaps, this allows you ample time to fill them. (Note: If you think you might be eligible for extended time, submit paperwork documenting your learning differences to College Board and/or ACT as soon as possible. The approval process can drag out if there is insufficient evidence, and you don’t want this to impact your testing schedule, or worst of all, your scores.)

* Stay involved in your extracurriculars. Show consistency – stick with at least one or two primary activities and aim to get more involved as time goes on, not less. If your school has a community service requirement, don’t stop just because you meet it – continue your involvement throughout the next couple years.

* Request letters of recommendation. Most colleges require at least one (often two or three) letters of recommendation from an applicant’s teachers. Don’t wait until the last minute senior year to ask your teachers for this favor – they only have time to write so many letters, so be sure that you are among the first to ask. Colleges will often accept letters from coaches, bosses, and/or other adults who know you outside the classroom.

* Spend your summer doing something productive. A lot of colleges will ask how you spent this summer, and you want to be prepared with a solid answer. Whether you held down a job, landed an internship, got involved in community service, took a class at the local community college, or competed in the Junior Olympics, they’ll be impressed. Just don’t sit around playing video games and lounging at the beach 24/7!

* Start brainstorming for your application essays. Talk to you friends and family about events/moments that changed or inspired you, anecdotes that exemplify you, or idiosyncrasies that make you you. An outside perspective will help you avoid the typical “I have nothing to say” reaction to these prompts and see yourself in a new light. Additionally, there are typically far more essays than you expect, so an idea bank will be a welcome aid when it’s crunch time!

Senior Year (12th)

* Challenge yourself in school – and rise to the challenge. This is your last chance to impress colleges academically. Prove to them that you’re not falling prey to Senioritis by taking easy classes or letting your grades slip.

* Finalize your list of colleges. Your final list should have a couple schools that are extremely likely to admit you, several schools that are 50/50, and a couple schools that are a definite reach. You want to be realistic but you also want to shoot for the stars.

* Understand the difference between financial aid and merit scholarships. Financial aid is need-based, which is determined with a mathematical formula. Colleges will calculate your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and will supplement the difference. Merit scholarships, on the other hand, are based solely on academic and testing prowess. If a school is desperate to have you, they will offer you scholarships to encourage your enrollment. There are also countless outside (not school-specific) scholarships available through various groups, companies, and non-profits, so start investigating!

* Consider Early Decision and Early Action options. Early Action simply means that your application is already as strong as it can be – you don’t need first semester senior year grades or new test scores to strengthen it – and that because you’ll apply sooner, they’ll give you an answer sooner. Early Decision is the same except binding – so if they accept you, you’re going. Most schools ED and EA deadlines are around November 1, and most decisions are given by the holidays.

* Retake the SAT or ACT if necessary. If your scores still aren’t where you want them, you can retake these tests in the fall. If you are apply Early Action or Early Decision, the September/October test dates are your best bet, but some schools will accept November scores if they are rushed. If you are applying Regular decision, most schools will take scores from sittings as late as December, sometimes even January – but the cutoffs vary by school.

* Get a head start on your essays and applications. Start working on them the summer before senior year – don’t wait until right before the deadline to start writing or filling out. Give yourself time for a lot of rewrites without stressing about looming deadlines.

* Submit your applications early. There are plenty of application sites that crash the night before an application deadline because so many students are logged on. Don’t be one of these unlucky souls…submit your application weeks, if not months, in advance. It also shows colleges that you’re not waiting until the last minute and are well organized!

* Manage your deadlines. Don’t lose track of the supplemental materials some schools and programs will request, and be sure that your school teachers and counselors are on top of things, as well.

* Schedule interviews. The majority of private schools offer some sort of interview process, although it’s typically optional. Be proactive and find out 1) if a particular school even offers interviews 2) how to sign up and 3) by when. A lot of candidates who would be great in an in-person interview miss the opportunity to shine because the cutoff date quietly slipped by. (Note: Most public universities don’t offer interview because of the sheer volume of applicants, but there ARE exceptions.) If you interview, don’t forget to write thank you notes!

* Don’t slack off just because the application has been submitted. Did you get a confirmation email that the university received your application? If you haven’t received one within a week, call – you want to be certain nothing fell through the cracks. Also, be sure to create accounts with each college to log on and check the application status, whether any materials are missing, etc. A lot of schools communicate with applicants through these portals rather than via email.

* If you don’t get the answer you want, don’t give up. If you are waitlisted or worse, rejected, it doesn’t mean it’s over for you. You can appeal decisions and send persuasive, enthusiastic letters (with updated transcripts and awards, if possible) to the Office of Admissions explaining why you’re such a strong candidate. The odds of an eventual acceptance are not as low as you might think!