As a college advisor, I’m often asked when students should begin preparing for college.

My stock answer is that it’s really never too early, and preparation begins before parents even really call it by that name. When you read to your children, when you sign them up for soccer league or piano lessons, when you help them establish good study skills in elementary school – all of these help build the talents, interests and habits they’ll need to succeed in higher education.

But on a more practical level, there really is a time that is ideal for students to begin preparing for college in earnest, and that is sophomore year.

With the freshman-year adjustment period over, the second year is the time to start laying the groundwork for life after high school. Now, I don’t expect sophomores to choose a major, or even a college. But the priorities and goals they set now, and the information they gather, will serve them well as they begin that process.

First, by sophomore year, students should begin to see themselves as a future college student. That means they need to not just do well in their courses, but they should be taking a rigorous schedule that matches their abilities and challenges them to grow.

As they begin to see where their interests lie, they should also be looking ahead to the curriculum for junior and senior year, making sure they’ll be prepared for the upper-level classes they’ll need.

Next, it’s time to get more deeply involved in extracurricular activities. By now, students shouldn’t be dabbling; they should be concentrating on a few activities, clubs or sports that they’re passionate about. They should begin taking on a leadership role, perhaps by running for an office. And if the school doesn’t offer what a student truly loves? Consider starting that Spanish club or chess group. That kind of initiative, and passion, is exactly the sort of thing that admission officers admire.

Sophomore year is not too early to start thinking about standardized tests. Students who did not take the PSAT as a sophomore should definitely plan on taking it in the fall of junior year. Some may even wish to take the SAT or ACT in the late spring of sophomore year, just to get used to the feel of these tests and learn where they might need tutoring or prep classes.

Finally, students should begin picturing themselves on a college campus. Go to college nights at school or in the community. If a recruiter visits school, sign up for a session. Start investigating academic camps for the coming summer. Spending a week in an intensive program of study can not only give a student an idea of what a certain major might be like, but it can give them a sense of what it might be like to attend that college.

Students who have older siblings or close friends going on college tours should think about tagging along – and paying attention. By listening to the tour guide, visiting departments of interest, attending events such as concerts or plays, students can start to build a mental list of the factors that they find appealing about various campuses.

Remember, this shouldn’t be a pressure-filled process. No sophomore should expect to definitively choose a major or college right now. But if they begin thinking about the process now, they’ll be building the foundation to make a solid decision in the next 12 to 18 months.

Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college advisor for 12 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career exploration and the college application process.

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