"Don't put that off until junior year, which is what a lot of students do," advises consultant Ann Garber. "You don't want to be the 11th grader who gasps, 'I have no idea what I want.'"
Martha Merrill, dean of admissions and financial aid at Connecticut College, a test-optional school, said that only a general idea of the types of schools that appeal is necessary sophomore year. "Their interests, needs and wants will change over the next few years," she said.
Montoya cautioned that the application process "should not be driven solely by the student's intended academic major." He added: "The vast majority of college undergraduates will change their major at least once or twice."
CollegeConfidential.com is a trove of information. It includes a college search tool and heavy message traffic from young people if you're looking to network.
Melanie Reed, the director of college advising at a private prep school in Seattle, the Seattle Academy, said the focus in 10th grade should be building a sound high school transcript and a foundation in extracurricular activities. Summer should also be used to that end.
"Your greatest advantage and healthiest approach is to develop plenty of positive application material and continue to love what you do," she said.
It's crunch time.
There are nearly 4,500 degree-granting, two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States. A high school junior should have a list of anywhere from five to 20 they wish to tour formally, including information sessions with college officials.
Scheduling tours during the summer between 10th and 11th grades may come in handy, but note that campus life can look sparse without many students around.
No way to visit every campus on your list? Check YOUniveristyTV.com to see if your choice is among more than 3,000 virtual tours available. CampusTours.com offers a more limited selection.
Request information packets from chosen schools but keep in mind that glossy brochures and sweeping mission statements don't tell the whole story. Dig deep into department pages on school websites and check out faculty profiles, Merrill said.
Seek out students or alumni either online or through friends, family and recruiter visits scheduled nearby or at your high school.
By 11th grade, a high schooler should have paid a call on the guidance counselor, though public school counselors are stretched to the limit. They'll meet with you junior year, but the number of visits might be restricted to just a couple, so be well prepared to review your transcript and talk about specific college and financial aid options.
Junior year is also the time to schedule the SAT or ACT.
The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school, according to the website of the American College Testing Programs Inc., which administers it. The SAT is more of an aptitude test, covering reasoning and verbal abilities.
The SAT is administered seven times a year — in October, November, December, January, March, May and June, always on Saturday mornings. The ACT is given six times a year — in September, October, December, February, April and June.
Special arrangements can be made. Test sites fill up so book early. Both tests cost money but need-based waivers are available. You can take them more than once. Some colleges allow you to send them your best scores but others require the results of all attempts.
This is also the year that students consider which teachers, coaches and other grownups they will hit up for letters of recommendation, so make nice.
Garber said juniors should begin thinking about the dreaded application essay by keeping a journal or diary.
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