In your sophomore year, you may start to feel anxiety about college, or you may believe that you don't have to think about college yet. While I'm not a proponent of intense worrying and don't think stress is healthy, you should start planning for college in 10th grade.
In this article, I'll walk you through the steps you should be taking in 10th grade to maximize your college options and reach your college goals. Also, I'll let you know which aspects of the college process you don't have to worry about yet.
#1: Start Thinking About College — It’s Not Too Early
It's definitely not too early to start planning for college in 10th grade. Much of what you do in 10th grade will impact your college applications and influence admissions decisions. Also, if you make attending college a goal while you're a 10th grader, you’ll be more likely to stay on the right track and eventually enroll.
#2: Take the Right Classes
Developing a solid academic track record is the most important part of 10th grade college planning. The classes you take will greatly influence your college options. Talk to your counselor to ensure that you’re on a college prep track. Also, you can look at various college websites to see the course requirements for admission. Colleges will evaluate you based on the classes you’ve taken.
Selective colleges want to see that you’re challenging yourself and taking some of the hardest classes that are offered at your school. You don’t have to take every single honors or AP class, but, to get into elite schools, you should demonstrate that you can do well in the most difficult classes.
Also, you should be taking prerequisites for classes you're considering taking later. For example, you may need to take regular or honors chemistry if you want to take AP Chemistry in your junior year.
I advise taking honors or AP classes in the subjects you're best at and the subjects you're considering studying in college. Some high schools offer AP classes to sophomores and some don't. If possible, you may want to consider taking an AP class in 10th grade to strengthen your schedule and get a feel for AP classes.
Here's an example of a good sophomore year schedule for a student who wants to be competitive for admission to selective colleges. Note that this is just a rough guide, and you can take a more or less challenging schedule depending on your skill level and the courses offered at your high school:
- Honors Chemistry
- Algebra II
- Honors English
- World History
- Honors Spanish II
#3: Focus on Your Grades
Your sophomore year grades do matter for college admissions. Most colleges will focus on your sophomore and junior year grades when making admissions decisions. To colleges, your grades are a reflection of your work ethic and ability to succeed in college. Also, your grades in your sophomore year will influence your high school GPA and class rank.
Furthermore, if you get good grades in your sophomore year, you’ll be more likely to get good grades in your junior and senior years. You’ll have developed the skills and habits that will allow you to continue to be successful academically. Learn more about how to get a 4.0 and better grades.
If you don’t do as well as you’d like in your sophomore year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your college dreams are shattered, though. Colleges do like to see continued improvement, and if you do better in your junior year, that will strengthen your college applications.
#4: Stay (or Get) Involved in Extracurriculars
Other than your grades and test scores, your extracurricular activities probably have the biggest influence on the quality of your college applications. Colleges, especially top colleges, want their students to have exceptional achievements outside of the classroom, and they’re looking for individuals who use their leisure time to pursue their passions.
Some students believe they need to be well-rounded and do many extracurriculars; however, for college admissions, it may be more advantageous for you to develop a “spike” and exhibit excellence in a particular activity or field.
If you play a sport, you can focus your energies on reaching the highest level in your sport and becoming a recruited athlete. If you excel in science, you can use your time outside of school to prepare for and compete in science fairs and competitions. Additionally, you can take extra science classes at a community college or volunteer to help a professor with research.
You should be participating in extracurricular activities during your sophomore year of high school. In 10th grade, you should choose activities that you'll try to stay with for the rest of high school, or you should attempt to advance and gain leadership positions in activities you've already started. Colleges prefer to see a sustained commitment to your activities. It's more impressive to show growth and achievement in the same activities than it is to start doing a bunch of activities in your junior year.
If you're musically inclined, you can join the orchestra. Image source: Mark--/Flickr
#5: Start Preparing for the SAT/ACT
Starting to prepare for the SAT/ACT in your sophomore year will give you ample time to master the concepts and strategies that will allow you to reach your target score. Learn how to study for the SAT/ACT as a 10th grader.
We recommend that you take the SAT/ACT for the first time by the fall of your junior year. If you familiarize yourself with key concepts and take a few practice tests during your sophomore year, you'll have a good head start on your studying. Then, if you do thorough preparation in the summer before your junior year, you should feel confident and prepared when you take the test.
Giving yourself a full year of studying will enable you to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Once you know where you’re struggling, you can focus on improving your weaknesses and track your progress.
Additionally, studying for the SAT/ACT can help you with your schoolwork. In the Math sections, the SAT and ACT test you on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Depending on the level of math you’re taking, studying for the SAT/ACT can help you with your current math class or a math class you’ll be taking in the future. Furthermore, practicing for the other sections will improve your reading comprehension, knowledge of grammar, and essay writing skills.
Finally, you should take the PSAT or PreACT during your sophomore year. These tests are designed to prepare you for the actual SAT and ACT. You’ll be able to simulate real testing conditions and effectively assess your current skill level. You’ll get a detailed score report that will enable you to identify and hone your weak points. Also, you’ll get more customized SAT instruction from Khan Academy if you take the PSAT.
#6: Research Colleges
When you’re a sophomore in high school, you don’t need to know which college you want to go to. You don’t even need to have much of an idea of which colleges you want to apply to. However, you should be learning about colleges.
You can get a better idea of what you need to do to get admitted. Google "PrepScholar (name of school) admissions" to get the acceptance rates, average GPAs, and average standardized test scores for different schools. If you know the grades and test scores you'll need to get into different colleges, that can help motivate you to stay on track.
Additionally, you should start thinking about what you’re looking for in a college. What do you want to study? Would you be more comfortable at a large school or a small liberal arts college? What geographic region do you want to be in? You can play around with college finders to get an idea of different schools that may be good for you.
Furthermore, you can look at college search websites, guidebooks, and ranking lists to get a better idea of your college options. Visit local college campuses to see what they're like and get a small taste of college life. It's fine if you're unsure at this point what you want in a college, especially because it's very possible that you'll change your mind before you graduate from high school.
However, it's a good idea to start thinking about college, educating yourself about your college options, and learning what you have to do to be a competitive applicant.
Read up on colleges.
#7: Learn About How to Pay for College
Many students (and their parents) stress that they’ll be unable to afford college and won’t be able to pursue a college education. It’s important to know that there are scholarships and financial aid available that can substantially ease the financial burden of attending college. If your parents are worried that they won’t be able to send you to school, you can have them read about the different types of financial aid and how to save for college.
If you don’t think you can count on your parents to contribute financially to help to pay for college, then you can inform yourself about how you can pay for college on your own. Also, you can look for scholarships that will help cover college costs. At this point in the college planning process, you should proceed with the thought that your financial situation won’t get in the way of your college dreams.Furthermore, the better you do in school and on your standardized tests, the more likely you’ll be to receive merit scholarships to help pay for school.
What Not to Worry About
While you should be thinking about how to plan for college in the 10th grade, know that you still have time to prepare yourself for college. Try to avoid stressing too much about college now. Do your best to enjoy your sophomore year, have fun, and cultivate meaningful friendships.
Here are some specific aspects of planning for college that you don’t have to be too concerned about in the 10th grade.
The Best College for You
While it’s great to have goals and dreams, you don’t need to know where you want to go to college in the 10th grade. You don’t even need to figure out where you’re applying until the start of your senior year.
Furthermore, as you mature and learn more about different colleges, you may very well change your dream school. You could decide to pursue a different career path or change what you’re looking for in a college. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting your goals or priorities.
At this point in your high school career, you should spend the majority of your time developing the skills and qualifications to give yourself as many college options as possible.
Perhaps you’re assuming now that you’ll go to your local state college that may not be overly selective. Maybe its incoming students have an average GPA of 3.2. However, if in the summer before your senior year, you decide that you want to go to a more selective college, you’ll have many more options if you have a 3.8 GPA.
Or maybe now you’re dreaming of going to Harvard. If you make yourself a qualified Harvard applicant, but you end up deciding you’d rather pursue a BS/MD program, you’ll likely still be in a good position to reach your college goals.
If you follow an effective plan, you can reach your college goals.
Getting a Top SAT/ACT Score
Even though it’s good to start your SAT/ACT studying in your sophomore year, you don’t need to reach your target score in the 10th grade. Generally, you have up until December of your senior year to take these tests.
Even if you’re trying to get a National Merit Scholarship, you don’t have to get a qualifying score on your PSAT/NMSQT until your junior year. Try not to get too frustrated if you’re not getting the scores you want on your practice tests. At this point, it’s most important to keep improving and learn what you need to do to get better.
Do you want to learn more about how to apply for college? Check out our expert guide.
Are you thinking about staying close to home for college? Read our article about how to determine if you should go to a school near you.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.