Get Your Teen Weekly Newsletter in your inbox! Sign Up
YourTeenMag Logo

The Road to College, Grade By Grade: From Middle To High School

Middle school. Ninth grade. Junior Year. When it comes to traveling the road to college, it can be confusing to know what to do—or not do—when. Here’s what the experts have shared with Your Teen over the years.

Preparing For College Checklist: An Grade By Grade Guide

Middle School

For many of us, thinking about college in middle school feels, well, over the top. But, say the experts, there’s important groundwork to be laid during these years:

1. Academics.

Academics are the single most important factor when it comes to college admissions, so make sure your middle schooler develops the study and homework skills she’ll need to do her best in high school.

2. Read, read, read.

Avid readers have a distinct advantage in the admissions process. Not only do these students do better on standardized tests—the SAT in particular, which is “vocabulary rich”—but they’re often better writers (think: admissions essay).

3.  Step back.

By middle school, it’s important to let your adolescent take the lead when it comes to school and other aspects of her life (like friends). There’s ample evidence that students whose parents are overly involved in managing their teenagers’ lives can struggle when they get to college.

4. Think about costs.

If you’re worried about paying for college—and most of us are—take the time to calculate the amount you’ll likely be expected to pay (google “EFC calculator” to get started); next, consider setting up a savings account to help cover some of those costs (even small amounts will help).


9th Grade

Welcome to high school, where everything counts. Here’s what to think about this year:

1. Transition to high school.

It can be hard for some students to make the transition to high school. If your student stumbles, don’t worry too much. Colleges like to see students who “catch fire.”

2. Academics.

Understand how colleges will scrutinize your teenager’s academic record (in the form of his transcript). Encourage your teenager to take courses that are challenging, but in which he can also do well. Keep reading!

3. Extracurriculars.

Let your teenager pick one or two extracurriculars she’s passionate about. Packing a resume full of extracurriculars to impress an admission’s office is not necessary (and not effective).


10th Grade

By sophomore year, colleges want to see that your student has gained her footing in high school. Things to focus on this year:

1. Maintain a solid academic record.

Or get on track academically.

2. Continue with extracurriculars (or find ones to start).

Remember one or two activities that your teenager enjoys is plenty. Colleges like to see a couple or more years of commitment to an activity.

3. Expect admissions testing to officially begin.

Your student will take the PSAT (a pre-SAT) or the Aspire (a pre-ACT) or both.


11th Grade

Welcome to junior year, ground-zero of the admission’s process. This is the most important —and stressful—year of your teenager’s high school career.  Here’s what to expect:

1. Test scores on record.

While tests taken during sophomore year are for you and your teenager’s eyes only, in junior year they count. Most juniors sit for the PSAT in the fall (when it counts for the National Merit program), then the SAT or the ACT or both in winter or spring. Oftentimes, students will take either the ACT or SAT—pick the one your teenager does best at—a second time senior year.

2. Academics.

Junior year is in many ways the most important year on your teenager’s transcript. Especially if your teenager applies to college early—deadlines are November of senior year—these grades will be a major focus of the admissions staff.

3. Start to build a college list.

This is the year to start to determine which colleges are going to be the right fit for your teenager. It’s worth devoting some time here. Carefully selecting schools that match your teenager’s academic, social and financial needs will be well worth the effort when he gets to campus. Part of this process should include campus visits.

4. The essay.

At many high schools, students write their essays in English class. If that’s the case at your teenager’s school, lucky you. If not, your teen should wait no later than the summer before senior year to get started. Don’t rush this part of the application.

5. Talk finances.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to talk to your teenager about the costs of college. Start by calculating your family’s “expected family contribution” with an online EFC calculator. This will tell you how much financial aid your family may be eligible for. If it’s high, then your teenager should apply to colleges that are generous with financial aid (money awarded for financial need). If it’s low (e.g. you will be required to pay a lot), then your teenager will need to find colleges that are generous with merit aid (money awarded for student accomplishment, typically academics). Now’s the time to also talk about the importance of limiting student loan debt.



12th Grade

The road to college is almost finished. It’s time to fill out applications! Help your teenager put his best foot forward (no spelling or grammatical errors please), but do not do the application for him. Trust us when we say the admissions staff can tell. Encourage your teenager to submit all his materials on time—and fill out the FAFSA and other required financial aid forms as soon as they become available (delaying can hurt your award because some money is given out on a first come, first serve basis). Once your teenager clicks submit, it’s time to kick back and wait.

Good luck!

Related Articles