Countdown to College – Steps to Consider Each Year of High School

As a parent, you of course want to give your child the best opportunity for success, and for many, attending the “right” university or college is that opportunity. Additionally, the earlier you consider how you expect to pay for college costs, the better.

Today, the average college graduate owes $28,950 in debt, while the average salary for a recent graduate is $55,360.

Preparing for college means setting goals, staying focused, and tackling a few key milestones along the way—starting in the first year of high school.

Before we take a look at steps to consider during each year of high school for a traditional university path, it’s important to note that there are so many paths our children can take to their future. Some may be interested in technical schools, skills-based training and certification or other paths to a career. Others may delay college by selecting a gap year or working year. All of these paths can make a difference on your budget and timing for further education, so take those factors into account as well!

Freshman Year

Before the school year begins, you and your child may have at least a handful of colleges picked out. A lot can change during high school, so remaining flexible but focused on your shared goals is crucial. It may be helpful to meet with your child’s guidance counselor or homeroom teacher for any advice they may have. Some parents choose to hire an outside resource for academic guidance, resume development, college interview prep, college application submission, ACT/SAT guidance, etc.

Depending on the schools you have your eyes on, you may want to encourage your child to choose challenging classes as they navigate high school. Many universities look for students who push themselves when it comes to learning. However, a balance between difficult coursework and excellent grades is important. It may be better to get an A in a less challenging class than a B in an honors course since some universities look at unweighted grade point averages. Keeping an eye on grades should be a priority for you and your child as well.

Sophomore Year

During their sophomore year, some students may have the opportunity to take a practice SAT. Even though they won’t be required to take the actual SAT for roughly a year, a practice exam is a good way to get a feel for what the test entails.

Sophomore year is also a good time to explore extracurricular activities. Colleges are looking for the well-rounded student, so encouraging your child to explore their passions now may help their application later. Summer may also be a good time for sophomores to get a part-time job, secure an internship, do volunteer work, or travel abroad to help bolster their experiences. Keep good records of all experiences so that they can build out a resume with dates, hours, activities, and accomplishments.

Junior Year

Your child’s junior year is all about standardized testing. Every October, third-year high-school students are able to take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). Even if they won’t need to take the SAT for college, taking the PSAT/NMSQT is required for many scholarships, such as the National Merit Scholarship.

Top colleges look for applicants who are future leaders. Encourage your child to take a leadership role in an extracurricular activity. This doesn’t mean they have to be a drum major or captain of the football team. Leading may involve helping an organization with fundraising, marketing, or community outreach.

In the spring of their junior year, your child will want to take the SAT or ACT. An early test date may allow time for repeating tests during their senior year, if necessary. No matter how many times your child takes the test, most colleges will only look at the best score.

Senior Year

For many students, senior year is the most exciting time of high school. Seniors will finally begin to reap the benefits of their efforts during the last three years. Once you and your child have firmly decided on which schools to apply to, make sure you keep on top of deadlines. Applying early can increase your student’s chance of acceptance.

Now is also the time to apply for scholarships. Consulting your child’s guidance counselor can help you continue to identify scholarships within reach. Billions in free federal grant money go unclaimed each year, simply because students fail to fill out the free application. If you are interested, make sure your child has submitted their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to avoid missing out on any financial assistance available.

Many students turn 18 during their senior year. This is a good time to get a Power of Attorney for your child so that you can assist them with “adult” decision-making and medical concerns as needed. Often 18 year olds aren’t quite ready to fly solo on these issues but mom/dad can’t help without the legal authority to do so. Learn more in, “Parental Rights Change When Children Turn 18.”

Finally, talk to your child about living away from home. Help make sure they know how to manage money wisely and pay bills on time. You may also want to talk to them about the social pressures some college freshmen face for the first time when they move away from home. An honest conversation about drugs/alcohol is part of the equation but teaching them about good life-study-work harmony is important, as is honoring their body’s need for adequate rest and nutrition.

For many people, college sets the stage for life. Making sure your children have options when it comes to choosing a university or future path can help shape their future. Work with them today to make goals and develop habits that will help ensure their success.

If you would like an introduction to a professional who assists with any of the topics mentioned in this article, please let us know.

Sources:, February 22, 2023, June 28, 2022, 2023, February 5, 2023

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Published for the blog on May 25, 2023 by Searcy Financial Services, your Overland Park, Kansas Fee-Only Financial Planner and Investment Manager.