The College Train

Advice on how to get to college.


Game Plan

Plans and what do to in high school careers and college searching events.

The Importance of Starting the College Search Early

Before I even started this blog, people have asked me questions about getting scholarships and the college search process in general. I have no problem answering their questions and giving them any advice. My only problem is when they ask me. Parents and students will ask me questions at the beginning or in the middle of the student’s senior year in high school. And though that is when I started the college application and scholarship process, it is much easier if you start earlier than that. I suggest students start searching for colleges his or her junior year. But why start early when everyone else doesn’t?


Whether you are a high school student that knows exactly what college they want to attend or a student that has no idea if they want to go to college starting the college search early will give you more time to research. Research colleges. Research possible careers. Research scholarships. You have options and you need to know what they are.


Deciding where to attend college is the first major decision most students will make. Once you know all your options you can make a better decision. You will make a decision (hopefully) understanding all the benefits and drawbacks to you.


Senior year is filled with so many celebrations, traditions, and parties. No mention your regular school load, any extracurricular activities, and/ or any job you may have. You will be busy. Thus, your college search will take a backseat to more pressing thing like your English paper due tomorrow morning. Starting early will require less work from you your senior year. Your college search your senior year should be a to-do list not a research project.

You want your college search to be marathon not a sprint. Doing a little work here and there, so you is not rushing at the end filling out applications, writing essays, and trying to make a decision.

When to look for scholarships?

In early February, I got call about scholarship search advice. The parent of a high school senior asked me how could they find scholarships and was it too late to apply for scholarship. I told that parent it’s getting close and advise them on all the things I mentioned in my “Scholarship Hunting” and “Using Google to Find Scholarships” articles.

I have noticed that students and parents wait until the last minute to look for scholarships. I think it is because they are so worried about getting into the college they want (or that will give them the best price) that they forget about scholarship searching. So as always I am here to help.

When is the best time to look and apply for scholarships?

Beginning of the school and winter break. Students (and parents) have more free time during the periods to search and plan. Also few scholarship due dates occur during these times. So if you find one you qualify for, you don’t have to worry about rushing to apply for it.

When is it too late to look and apply for scholarships?

March. After March, there are much less scholarships available. Strangely, there is another surge in scholarships in June. However, most people’s determination for scholarships wavers in the summer.

When is the busiest time for scholarship packet due dates?

From February to Mid-March. During this time, there are a large number of scholarship packets due. This is why I recommend looking during winter break.


Campus Tour Like A Boss

It’s very important to tour a college. Every college looks good in their brochures. The earlier you tour a college the better. To get a tour, you can sign up online or just drop by the campus.

There is a standard flow to tours given by all universities. Students will give the tour. You will go on a path around the campus. They will point out the major places on campus like the library and the place where all the students gather. You will get a tour of one dorm room. [Warning: the dorm room you will tour will probably be the most spacious and expensive dorm.] Then the tour will end. Here are some additional things you should do while you’re there.

  • Talk to someone in the department/college of your major. There are advisors, professors, and staff members who job is to talk to prospective students. You can usually set up an appointment to talk to them ahead of time or ask the tour guide.
  • Eat at the cafeteria. If you are thinking about having a meal plan or you can’t cook, eat at the cafeteria. You need to know if you like the food they serve. “Not bad” is fine for one meal, but three meals a day every day “not bad” becomes “disgusting”. Also ask students do they enjoy eating there.
  • Visit financial aid and admission office. This is your time to ask all the questions you want. You may also learn something you couldn’t learn online.
  • Visit program offices for scholarship programs and athlete departments. Again, this is the time to ask questions you’ve wanted to ask. You can set up a meeting beforehand.

In addition, the best time to tour a college is on a “senior day” or “junior day”. It’s usually on a Saturday morning. All the departments/colleges, scholarship programs, financial aid office, admissions, residence life (on campus living), etc. will be there with tables. You can get all the information you want with less running around.

College Fairs

Attending a college fair should be a priority on your college search list. You get to meet with recruiters from colleges near and far. You can also get information you may not find be able to find online.

When I’ve gone to career fairs I’ve seen students make one major mistake. They go into the career fair and become a deer in the headlights. They don’t know what to do or what to ask, so they go from table to table. Listening to everyone’s recruiting speech and getting the brochures and free swag. They may ask one or two questions. However, when the fair is over they can’t remember who said what and have a lot of reading to do.

The best way to ensure you don’t make this mistake is to be prepared. The list of colleges at the fair will be posted online. Look the list beforehand and pick the colleges you want to talk to. Also come up with a list of questions to ask each college. The questions should not be about things you could easily look online like cost of tuition or does the school offers your major. (Those things should be looked up earlier.) The questions should be able characteristics of the school you care about?

Here are some examples of questions you should be asking.

  • I’m interested in shadowing a student. Who do I need to get in contact with to set that up?
  • How big is the average class size?
  • How long does it take to walk across campus?
  • How many students attend the college?
  • Are there jobs on campus available to students?
  • How successful is career services at connecting students with internships and jobs?
  • Can freshmen have cars at the school?
  • Do freshman have to live on campus?

Your 4-year plan

You’re a freshman or sophomore or junior in high school. (Or you’re the parent/guardian of a freshman, sophomore, or junior in high school.) And you want to go to college. What should you be doing to prepare for applying college and scholarships?

  • Freshman year
    • Keep your GPA up. Colleges and most scholarship committees care about grades. If your GPA is high, you can get into any college you want. Also it’s harder to bring up your GPA from one bad grade than to maintain a good grade.
    • Participate in extracurricular activities. They look good on a college and scholarship application. Plus, they make high school more enjoyable.
    • Have a financial talk with your parent(s)/guardian. Talk with your parents or guardian about how you’re going to pay for college. Do you have a college fund set up? Will they be able to help you pay for college? Is their credit good enough to cosign a loan? Look up the average costs of colleges in your state and colleges around you. Also go to and go to the FAFSA4caster. [FAFSA stands for Free Application for Student Aid. It is the application every college student is required to fill out and it applies you for all the loans and grants you qualify for.] This will tell you how much financial aid you qualify for. Now keep in mind these numbers are estimates and the cost of tuition is always on the rise.
  • Sophomore year
    • Keep your GPA high.
    • Participate in extracurricular activities.
    • Think about and research possible majors and colleges. What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you have to major in to get that career? What colleges offer that major? What colleges offer that major and that you would enjoy attending?
  • Junior year
    • Keep your GPA high.
    • Participate in extracurricular activities.
    • Start touring colleges. Make a list of your top college choices and go visit them (with your parents/guardian). Colleges offer tours everyday of the week and certain Saturdays. It’s important to walk around campus and see if you’re going to like or not.
    • Take the ACT/SAT. With standardize test, practice usually results in a higher grade. The more you take it, the more comfortable you are with it. It may be pricey, but $50 now can save hundreds even thousands of dollars in the future.
    • Start researching scholarship you can apply for next year. Go to my “Scholarship Hunting” article to see how you do this. Also there are some national scholarship competitions that offer juniors scholarships. If you see one you qualify for and are interested in, apply for it.
    • Start thinking of teachers, coaches, community leaders, family friends, neighbors, etc. that can write letters of recommendation. Scholarships (and some colleges) require at least one letter of recommendation. Make a list of people who you could ask and who would write a GOOD recommendation letter for you. Ask them at the beginning of your senior year and give them a resume or a list of your accomplishments.
  • Senior year
    • Keep your GPA high.
    • Participate in extracurricular activities.
    • Have the financial talk again. Prices of college change. The amount of money in your college fund has changed. Your guardian’s job situation may have changed, which will affect the amount of financial aid you qualify for.
    • Apply for college(s). Well the time has come you to apply for college. Make sure you are keeping up with deadlines.
    • Apply for scholarships. You have found scholarships. Time to fill out applications, get letters of recommendations, and write essays. It may be a lot of work, but you could get money for it.
    • Retake the ACT/SAT if necessary. You can retake and send your ACT/SAT scores until the financial aid deadlines (which this is usually mid February). If you are can get a higher score, keep taking it until the deadline.
  • Other tips
    • Starting your freshman year, you and your parents/guardian save $5-$15 per month. This money will go towards college application fees, scholarship application postage, ACT/SAT fees, and other expenses.
    • If you get a job, try to work at places that offer scholarships to workers.

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