How to Handle the Transition from High School to CollegeWritten by Alicia Betz, reviewed by the EducationCorner.com Team
You’re finally free from the rules and curfews imposed by your parents and you’re ready to spread your wings! This is an exciting and scary time in your life and for most people, the transition from high school to college is the biggest transition they make in their life up until this point. Before you leave the nest without looking back, think about what you’ll do to help yourself make it a smooth transition.
Even if you think you’re fully prepared and you've been dreaming of this for years, you’ll likely struggle at least a little bit with the college transition. One of the things that makes this so difficult for many people is that there is much more to this transition than school. You’re away from your parents for the first time, you suddenly have complete independence, you’re potentially away from all of your friends, you’re sharing a very small room with a stranger… the way you’ve lived your life for the past 18 years completely changes.
If you don’t have the proper support, you can struggle a lot with the transition. The dropout rate of college freshmen in the United States is a staggering 30%. Many colleges now have transition programs in place to help freshmen make a smooth transition and to try to lower that 30%. Whether your school has a program to help you or not, think about what you, personally, can do to help ease yourself into this new lifestyle.
General Transition Strategies & Tips
Go to class
This strategy seems obvious, but it can be very hard when your parents aren’t there to make you go anymore. If you haven’t scheduled your classes yet, you can make it easier for yourself by trying to avoid class times you know you’ll be tempted to skip. (8 a.m. lecture, anyone?) One of the best things about college is that you get to decide how you live your life, so if you are responsible regarding your decisions, you can set up your daily schedule to help you achieve success.
In a study from the University of California Santa Cruz, researchers found that (unsurprisingly) students who actually attended class did better on their final exam than students who did not attend class. If you do have to miss class, your professors won’t have materials ready for you when you return like your high school teachers did. It’s up to you to get the information you missed, and you’ll probably have to rely on notes from a classmate. When you were in high school, you had 180 different class sessions for one class throughout the year. In college, you could have as few as 30 or even 15 class sessions for one class. By just missing one class, you are missing a large amount of material.
Think about your courses in monetary terms, as well. Say, for example, your tuition is $7,000 for the semester. If you have five classes, each class is worth $1,400. If you have 15 weeks of classes and your class runs two times per week, that means each class is about $46. Every time you think about skipping class, imagine throwing $46 out the window. You (or your parents) are paying for your education; make sure you take advantage of it.
Be engaged in class
Actually going to class is important for academic success, but you need to pay attention once you’re there, too. Don’t give in to the temptation to zone out when you’re sitting in a huge lecture hall. Pay attention, take notes, and don’t be afraid to ask a classmate, TA, or professor for help if you’re confused.
The rigor of your college classes will be very different from what you experienced in high school. The pace is much faster and the material is more complex. If you don’t pay attention and stay on top of it, it won’t take long to get behind and be completely lost.
Usually in high school, there is a lot of downtime in class, but you won’t find this in college. Your professors will teach what they want to teach and that will be it. You may even find that your classes will end early at times because the professors don’t have to make sure they fill every minute of the class with content or activities like your teachers did in high school. If your professor finishes what they wanted to teach and there are still 15 minutes left of class time, they will often end class early. This just goes to show that every second and every piece of content in a college class matters.
Use your resources
College campuses are full of resources to help students succeed, but the trick is that you have to seek them out. Almost all campuses have writing centers and tutors available to students, and professors hold office hours for students to get extra help or ask questions.
Following is a list of facilities and resources most campuses have that can help make your academic life a success:
- Writing center
- Career counselor
- Academic adviser
- Teaching assistants
- Computer labs
- Information technology services (ITS)
- Free access to online journals
- Office hours
Have a study strategy
Avoid pulling an all-nighter and have the discipline to study and review your notes consistently. After being in school for 12 years, you should have a good idea of what type of studying works best for you- flash cards, rewriting your notes, finding a study group, etc.
College campuses also have great study spots, so find the perfect spot for you. Whether it’s the library, a quiet campus building, a nice bench, or a comfy seat in the student center between classes, a great study spot is a must! Try to find somewhere where you won’t be tempted by distractions and condition yourself to only study in this spot. After a while, it will become second nature to get right down to work when you go to this spot.
Treat your body well
You don’t have to gain the freshman 15! Beginning or continuing an unhealthy lifestyle while you’re going through so many other changes just makes the transition that much harder. According to success.com, you need good food, sleep, and exercise to be successful. When you treat your body well, you feel better and more motivated, so this creates a positive snowball effect for every other aspect of your life. Try to limit the number of times you take advantage of the all you can eat dessert in the dining commons.
There are a lot of things in the sleep, food, and exercise category that were likely in your life before, but will be missing when you get to college. You won’t have home cooked meals in your dorm room, you won’t have sports practice or gym class to keep your body moving, and you won’t have your big comfy bed in a dark and quiet bedroom. College makes it difficult to treat your body well, but do the best you can in these categories.
Work on your roommate relationship
Your roommate can be a great source of comfort and support when you’re going through this transition. Living right along with someone who is going through the same thing can be helpful; don’t be afraid to vent with your roommate and let them know if you’re struggling.
On the other hand, sometimes roommate relationships don’t come easy, and if this is the case for you, it’s probably best not to force it. If you try too hard to be best friends with your roommate if it’s clear the connection isn’t there, you may create a tense and awkward relationship. You also don’t want to retaliate against your roommate if you don’t get along; this will only make things worse. Do your best to live amicably with them.
Find your inner circle
One of the things that makes this transition hard is that it can be really lonely, especially if you’re far away from home. Try to find an inner circle that makes you feel comfortable; this could be a club, a group of friends on your dorm floor, or other students with the same major. If you are able to find a group where you fit in, you’ll have a great support system to help you when you’re struggling with the transition to college life.
If you’re struggling to fit in, reach out to those around you: your RA, your classmates, an acquaintance from your hometown, etc. You would probably be surprised at how many people would be willing to help you feel at home and help your transition to college. According to an article for U.S. News & World Report,
College success happens when the academics of an institution totally blow your mind, and the social aspect of college life helps you learn and grow into a new, amazing person. When one of these aspects is off and you feel like you just don't fit in, your entire college life suffers.
If you find yourself getting too caught up in the academic aspect and completely neglecting the social aspect, you may realize that you don’t have a support system in place when you need one.
Make it feel like home
When you first step into your dorm room, it might feel very uninviting. Even if you don’t have the eye of a decorator, take some time to give your room a few touches that feel like home. Try adding curtains to your window, hanging pictures of your family and pets, or adding an area rug. When you’re missing the comforts of home and are feeling a little homesick, these small touches can make a huge difference.
You can also make college feel more like home by finding places to go that remind you of your home or your family. For example, maybe you love going to the mall with your mom; find the closest mall and take some time to just relax there. Maybe you find yourself missing the comfort of your dog or cat. Find a local animal shelter and see if they are accepting volunteers.
It’s normal to feel lonely and homesick. Don’t be afraid to feel those feelings, but don’t just wallow in them either. Take practical steps to make yourself feel better. The more you keep yourself busy and integrate yourself into the community at your school, the less you will feel these feelings.
Know your coping strategies
When you start to struggle with something or get stressed out, what do you turn to? Maybe you like to exercise or you need a long chat with your mom. Make sure you know what your coping strategies are and find ways you can easily rely on them while on campus. One mistake a lot of students make when they suddenly have a lot of freedom is they turn to partying, drugs, and/or alcohol as a coping mechanism. This might be really tempting, but this strategy is not going to work long term, and can actually make college harder for you, rather than easier.
The Most Important Tip: Ask For Help
Don’t be afraid to get help, whether it’s from your parents, your professors, your friends, or the mental health center on campus. There is nothing wrong with admitting you’re struggling and you need help. According to Robin Pendoley Ed.M, every college freshman has mental health needs. More and more colleges are recognizing the need for mental health support for students, and almost all schools have mental health centers or counselors available to students.
If you are really struggling and are finding the transition too difficult, there is also no shame in re-evaluating your college choice. Maybe you chose a school too far away from home or you realized that you are struggling to keep up with your major. If the position you’re in isn’t a right fit, you may find that the transition is much easier once you change some of your circumstances.
College Preparation in 9th Grade
You're just starting high school. It's the beginning of a four-year adventure that you've been anticipating for years. The last thing you want to do is start thinking about college. But that's exactly what you should be doing. Real college preparation begins in the 9th grade.
You don't have to stress out too much. There is still plenty of time. But the 9th grade is when things start to count. It's important that you get yourself on a track for success now. Start thinking in terms of the big picture: where you want to go and what you want to do, both in college and beyond.
Use the 9th grade to figure out what kind of student you are and work to become a better one. Doing so will not only help you get into a good school, you will perform better once you're there. Follow these steps and you can ensure that the work you do now will pay off later.
Get Good Grades
The 9th grade is when your grades start to count for more than just an allowance bonus from your parents. Depending on the school, your high school transcript begins now. These grades will be reflected on your college applications. It's time to get serious as a student.
But don't panic. This is just the beginning of a long road, and there will be bumps along the way. Unless you're planning on attending an elite university, you can probably afford a few B's and C's in the 9th grade. Many colleges will overlook this if you show steady improvement throughout high school. And some colleges don't even look at freshman year grades.
Use this year to get better as a student. Improve your study habits. Read as much as you can outside of class work. And perhaps most importantly, learn how to manage your time. Figuring out how to juggle everything in high school life now will save you lots of stress down the road.
Getting good grades is the most important thing, but it won't mean much if you aren't challenging yourself. College admissions counselors don't just look at your GPA as a static number. They will dig deeper to see if you got your grades taking easy classes or hard ones.
If you only take the easiest classes, you may coast through high school with no problems, but you won't be preparing yourself for the rigors of college. Take honors, AP and IB classes, depending on what your school offers.
Utilize Your Guidance Counselor
Many high school students write off guidance counselors. But if you use them wisely, they can be an invaluable resource for your success in high school and your preparation for college.
Talk to your guidance counselor sooner than later and develop a general plan for high school. Find out what upper-level classes your school offers. If needed, check into tutoring, mentorships and other programs. They are there for more than just checking off your diploma requirements.
Your guidance counselor can also help you prepare for college. Ask what kind of college resources your school has, including literature, college recruiting fairs and college classes you can take while still in high school.
A big part of high school is exploring new activities and discovering things that you love and excel in. Start participating in extracurricular activities. Whether you go for sports, art or computer programming, invest your time and energy wisely and you will see great rewards.
Many high school students try to do too much and are overwhelmed. It's very easy to commit yourself to too many things and before you know it, your grades are suffering and you're stressed out. This is where time management becomes so important. Learn to prioritize the things in your life. Schoolwork should always come first.
Most successful students are involved in many different activities, but you want to have something that you pursue in depth. College admissions offices like to see students that are dedicated and see things through, rather than ones who constantly jump from one thing to another. The more you can get involved in something, the more you will learn and grow as a young adult.
Foreign language is a basic requirement for high school and college admissions, but it can also be used to strengthen your academic record. With some exceptions, most colleges have a high school foreign language requirement of two years. But it is always recommended to study more. A third or fourth year in one language will add a huge boost to your college application.
That's one language. If you study two or three different languages, your high school requirements will be fulfilled, but you will be hurting your chances to get into a good school. Admissions officers are looking for proficiency and commitment. Pick your language carefully and stick with it.
Don't be Afraid to Ask for Help
The 9th grade almost always has a greater workload than middle school. Some students adjust easily, while others struggle with the transition. If you find yourself feeling confused or falling behind in any classes, do something about it sooner than later. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness. It means that you're proactive as a student.
Start by talking to your teachers. In addition to clarifying a subject, this will help you develop personal relationships with them. Down the road you may have additional classes or extracurricular activities with some of them. You may even ask one to write your letter of recommendation in a couple of years.
Aside from teachers, you have a number of resources for support, such as parents, siblings and other family members. Your school provides tutoring and academic support services. You can also start a study group with classmates. Studying alone and isolated can be frustrating. A study group can make it more fun, and as you see how others study and learn, you'll have a better understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses as a student.
Work on Reading and Writing Skills
Many high school students don't realize their full potential due to a lack of reading and writing skills. This is something that will help you in every subject. Not only will you be a better student, you'll become a smarter, more articulate person.
The more you read, the smarter you will be. Read whatever you can. Fiction, non-fiction, news, history, poetry; whatever it is, it will improve your cognitive and analytical thinking. Go one step further and talk to others about what you read. Whether it's family, friends or the librarian, discussing a book or news article with someone else will expose you to new ideas and perspectives.
To develop stronger writing skills, sit down with teachers and get specific feedback on your papers and/or essays. You may also want to enroll in a writing course or workshop. Even if you think you are a good academic writer, there is always room for improvement in this realm.
AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests
If your school offers Advanced Placement (AP) classes, you may want to try some of them out in the 9th grade. AP classes are more rigorous, but more rewarding. You will develop better reading, writing and critical thinking skills, and your academic record will be much stronger for it. AP exams are taken in the spring, and a high score (4 or 5 out of 5) can earn you college credit.
SAT subject tests, also known as SAT II, are multiple-choice tests that are specific to a single subject. They are not required, but many high school students take them to pad their resumes. If you just took an advanced class and did well, that's the best time to do it. You have nothing to lose. A bad score can be withheld from your record.
Begin Thinking About Colleges
You've still got plenty of time so don't worry too much about where exactly you'll attend college. But the 9th grade is a good time to start what will be a long and complex process.
The internet makes it very easy to do basic research on schools that interest you. Most colleges offer online virtual tours of their campus and academic programs. If you're traveling in another city and have the time, visit the campus for an hour or two. Many campuses have a regional flavor. East coast schools tend to have a different feel than those in the South or on the West Coast.
Even if you have your heart set on attending college away from home, take a look at the options in your area. You may be surprised by what you find. At the very least, you'll have something to compare other schools to in the future.
The more exposure you have to different colleges, the better you can judge and compare them when your college search becomes more serious.
Use Your Summer Wisely
Now that you're in high school, your grades aren't the only thing contributing to your resume. You want to engage in extracurricular activities, and the next four summers will present opportunities you couldn't take advantage of during the busy school year.
Use your summers to do something worthwhile that builds character and adds to personal growth. It can be almost anything, such as travel abroad or a road trip to cultural or historic sites. You can get a job or volunteer in your community. Maybe you want to start a group, club or special project with friends. Whatever it is, think about how it will contribute to your experience as a young adult.
Think About the Big Picture
College is still a long way off, but the 9th grade is the beginning of that journey. Use this year to develop good study habits and improve yourself as a student. Start thinking about your future and where you want to go in life. Even if you have just the slightest hint, it will help you prepare for college.
College Preparation in 10th Grade
In the 10th grade you still have plenty of time until college, but you should always be thinking about the big picture. What you do now will have an impact on where you end up going to college. It's a good time to start thinking about high school in terms of what comes next and where you want to go.
There is a great deal you can do in the 10th grade to better prepare yourself for college. In the process, you will become a better student. You will not only build up your high school resume, but you'll be setting yourself up for success in higher education.
Keep Your Grades Up
There are so many different elements that go into your college application, such as extracurricular activities, that it can be easy to forget grades are the absolute most important thing. No matter what else you undertake, it should never come at the expense of your grades.
Many of your 10th grade classes will have a higher workload than you're used to. It's important to manage your time well and learn to prioritize the different activities in your life. Chances are, you will only get busier and busier as high school goes on.
Don't worry if you get the occasional bad grade. Unless you have your sights set on the Ivy League, you don't need to stress over some B's and C's. But what you should do is focus on improving in those classes/subjects. Get feedback from your teachers sooner than later, and talk to a parent, mentor or other adult about a class you're struggling with.
Take Challenging Classes
Not only do you want to get good grades, you want to get them in challenging classes. Straight A's in the most basic classes will only get you so far in higher education. Take some honors classes and, if you're school offers them, AP and IB classes. Good grades in these classes will really stand out on your college application.
In fact, many college admissions departments will ignore grades in certain elective and non-academic classes, such as physical education music, drama and woodshop. They will look beyond your GPA and evaluate how much you challenged yourself and how much you succeeded.
Explore Extracurricular Activities
Extracurricular activities are the best way to strengthen your college resume. But they can be even more than that. What begins as a semester of Drama can lead to a lifelong passion for theater. High school is all about finding out what you love and what you're good at, and extracurricular activities are a great way to explore that.
Some students have trouble finding something that clicks with them. If so, look beyond what's offered through your school. Search for clubs, organizations or volunteer opportunities in your community. Or create your own group, whether it be a rock band or a book club.
Other students take on too many extracurricular activities and get overwhelmed. There is such a tremendous variety of sports, clubs and other activities in high school these days. That is why time management is so crucial to your success.
Instead of dabbling in everything that sparks your interest, invest yourself in a few things. Even if you only have one major activity outside of school, colleges like to see that you have committed yourself to something and deepened your experience.
Every college admissions officer will be looking for foreign language proficiency. It demonstrates that you are capable of a high level of cognitive thinking and communication-not to mention that you can learn something that is difficult for anyone over the age of 6.
It is vitally important that you pick a language and stick with it. Colleges are looking for proficiency, and that usually takes two years or more. If you skip around from language to language, it will just look like you're non-committal.
Other than certain elite universities, most colleges only require two years of high school foreign language. But if you want to get into a good school, you should try to take more. Three years or more will demonstrate that you're dedicated and academically engaged.
If you're already fluent in a language, you may be able to demonstrate proficiency with an AP exam. Most colleges will recognize an AP score of 4 or 5. Studying a second foreign language for your high school requirement is also a good idea.
Take the PSAT or SAT II
Some students never take the PSAT, and most who do take it junior year, when it can qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship. But you have nothing to lose by taking a practice run in October of your sophomore year. It won't go on your academic record, but it will give you an idea of where you stand. As you begin researching colleges, you will know how you stack up to their average incoming freshmen.
If there is a subject or subjects you excel in, you may want to take the SAT II exams, also known as SAT subject tests. These are standardized multiple-choice exams that are specific to a single subject, such as literature, history, biology or a foreign language. These are not required bolster, but many students take them to bolster their college applications.
Begin Researching Colleges
Students who start their college search now, before the pressure begins mounting, are usually grateful they did so. You don't need to get too serious. Just do some online research about schools that intrigue you, for whatever reason.
As you do your research, keep a few things about yourself in mind. What types of subjects are you really interested in? Are you drawn to reading, writing and communication, or more technical fields involving math and science? Do you see yourself at a big research university or a small liberal arts college? Urban or rural? Home or away? You don't have to have the answers now, just begin asking the questions.
If possible, visit some college campuses. You can start with local universities, state colleges or even community colleges. If you're traveling, take the opportunity to spend an hour or two at a local campus. Most colleges also host online virtual tours that can give you a flavor of what they have to offer.
The Common Application is used by hundreds of colleges and universities, including many of the larger ones in the country. You can use the Common Application to get a better idea of what colleges are looking for in students.
Log onto www.commonapp.org to find the application. Look it over and learn what the requirements are. What does this application ask? How would you answer? Knowing what needs to eventually go into your college applications will help you plan ahead to make sure you're covering all your bases.
Make the Most of Your Summer
After a long and stressful school year, it is tempting to spend the summer kicking back. But ambitious students use the summer to do something worthwhile.
There's no prescription; you can pursue anything that will add to your experience as a young adult. It could be a job or a class, a recreation adventure or a trip abroad. You may want to volunteer in your community or start a project with friends. Whatever it is, think of it in terms of personal growth.
College Preparation in 11th Grade
Junior Year Grades
In terms of college applications, your junior year grades are vitally important. College admissions counselors will pay the most attention to your 11th grade academic performance. This is because it is the most recent data and it will signal if you're grades are trending upwards or downwards.
Many students struggle with the transition to high school, which coincides with volatile early teenage years. In the 9th and 10th grades, you may still be finding your way as a student. If you get some sub-par grades, don't worry. You'll still have time to improve your GPA in the years ahead.
College admissions counselors are looking to see that you've figured this out by your junior year. By now you're a little older and you should have learned some valuable study skills to become a better student. You also have the goal of college to motivate you to excel.
It's important that you use this year to take challenging classes and demonstrate that you're striving for success as a student. Admissions counselors will be looking for an upward trend in your grades, and when you submit your college applications next year, your junior year grades will come under the most scrutiny.
PSAT scores are not included in your college application, so you really have nothing to lose with this practice test. But there are plenty of good reasons to take the PSAT in October of your junior year.
The SAT and ACT are very challenging exams and you will be thankful that you had the practice. Doing so will cut down on the stress of studying for your senior year exams, and stress makes it harder to retain information and perform well on tests.
If you do well on the PSAT, you may want to register for the SAT or ACT in the spring of junior year. This will give you time to retake either exam in your senior year if you feel the need.
You can use your PSAT score to gauge which colleges are in your range and which are not. All colleges post profiles, which list the GPA and test scores of the previous incoming freshman class. Use this to determine if a college will be a “match” for you, meaning your grades and test scores line up with theirs. If you're below the bar, this will be one of your “reach” schools. If you're above the bar, then this school might be a good “safety” for you.
A good score on the PSAT can translate into real dollars. National Merit Scholarships are awarded to students who perform well on the PSAT. This can save you thousands of dollars on tuition and expand the field of schools you can afford.
Take Challenging Classes
Keeping your grades up is important, but don't just go for the easy classes. You also want to demonstrate that you're challenging yourself. Take some honors, AP (Advanced Placement) and other upper-level courses.
These days more and more students are earning college credit while still in high school. A good score on AP exams will translate to college credit. Many schools also have programs with local colleges allowing students to take actual college courses.
If you can take these courses during junior year, you have the bonus of including them on your college application. This is especially valuable if you scored high on the AP exams. It shows that you already have the reading, writing and critical thinking skills required for the college level.
Extracurricular activities are important, but shouldn't come at the expense of grades. It's important to build a balanced schedule that you can handle. Hopefully you've figured out how to strike this balance in your freshman and sophomore years.
Junior year is a great time to expand on your extracurricular involvement and explore leadership opportunities. College admissions will be impressed by leadership roles.
You don't have to be the best at something to be a leader. Maybe you're not good enough to be the captain of the basketball team. There are plenty of other leadership opportunities out there.
Look into student clubs, community volunteering or student government. You may even want to start your own academic, athletic or cultural club, or organize a fundraising project for a local cause. The important thing is to be creative and take the initiative.
Junior year is your best opportunity to show that you've grown from an adolescent student to a young adult leader.
Foreign language holds a unique position in academics. It is a basic requirement for high school, but in terms of college admissions it can mean so much more. It indicates that you can master a difficult subject and that you have an interest in and understanding of a different culture.
Learning a foreign language can be very frustrating, especially in a classroom setting. But stick with it. You'll be happy you did. Mastery of a language will stand out on a college application and will serve you later in life, opening up employment opportunities in a globalized world.
Many high schools and colleges only require 2 or 3 years foreign language. While this is the minimum, it is always a good idea to study more. Students who are really ambitious about college will see this as an easy opportunity to improve your academic record. And you'll have to keep studying a foreign language once you get to college, so you might as well stay practiced.
It's also better to stick with one language and go as deep as possible. Don't jump around from language to language. The experience will likely be frustrating and you won't remember any of it years later. Colleges want to see that you've advanced in your studies on a linear path. Even if the language isn't as popular as Spanish or Mandarin, getting to your third or fourth year will show that you have achieved a level of mastery in that subject.
SAT and ACT
People often associate the SAT and ACT with senior year, but the truth is that many students take these exams in the spring of junior year. Doing so will give you many advantages.
Just like your PSAT score, knowing how you performed on the exams will give you a better idea of where you stand and what colleges are within your range. As you begin researching schools, you will know how you stack up to the rest of the incoming freshman class.
If you don't score well in your junior year, you can use the spring and summer to study. There is a whole industry surrounding the SAT and ACT, including dozens of preparation books and classes. Some students spend months studying specifically for these exams. Also, if you take the test early you're likely to have less anxiety about the whole process.
Begin Searching for Colleges
It might feel like you have all the time in the world, but searching for the right college is a long and complex process. In order to give yourself ample time, start the search in your junior year, if not sooner.
Do some online research. It's a quick and easy way to learn the basics about each school. If your interest is piqued you can request more literature that the school will happily mail to you.
As you research different schools, focus on developing your own criteria. Do you want to go to a large or small college? What subjects interest you? Even if you really want to travel away from home, check out what's available in your state.
If you've done your research during junior year, you'll be ready to visit some campuses the following summer. A campus visit shouldn't be used to see if you like a school. You should already know that. Do your research so you're prepared to ask detailed questions when you're there on the ground. If the opportunity comes to make the trip earlier, go for it.
Beginning your college search sooner than later will save you an enormous amount of stress down the road. Start a list of schools you like, no more than 25 or 30. Try to keep the list within this range. Eventually you will narrow it down to a dozen, but for now it's okay to keep your search broad.
Sit down with your guidance counselor sometime during the spring semester. First make sure you are fulfilling all the requirements for your high school diploma. If there's anything you're missing, you'll still have time in your senior year.
Your guidance counselor can be an invaluable asset to help you search for the right college. If you've already done some research and started a list of schools, bring this to your meeting. It always helps to have specifics to go over. Your counselor will help you judge the merits of different schools and make sure you're approaching the process in a constructive way.
If you haven't already done so, you may want to ask your counselor about AP and pre-college classes. This can be a great way to earn college credit early and your counselor will have all the necessary information readily available.
Use the summer after junior year wisely. Plan some trips to visit campuses. Maybe get a job or volunteer. Attend a workshop, summer camp or travel somewhere. Whatever it is, think about how it will contribute to your experience as a young, capable student of the world.
You will want to use this time to study for the SAT and/or ACT, as well as continue your research on different colleges. When your senior year starts, you will be inundated with schoolwork and various activities. And by that point the college application process accelerates considerably. By the time senior year starts, you're going to want to be prepared. College is just around the corner!