While college years may feel like they pass too quickly, planning for college beforehand is time consuming, which is why high schools, colleges and universities recommend starting early.

The good news is that counselors at many local high schools are doing this.

“We start them off right,” says Ann Meyer, junior and senior counselor at Fort Thomas School system’s Highlands High School. The school hosts informational sessions for parents and students. For the Fort Thomas school system, discussion begins in eighth grade.

She says that many students are focused on college from the very beginning. “Many own it from the start,” she says, remarking that many students are eager to get their schedule as soon as possible.

While she assists students in scheduling classes, she gets students to push themselves. She says, “My goal is to get the student to sweat a bit, to be a little uncomfortable, reach and stretch in academics.”

Meyer wants students to take AP courses and do well in them. Some Highlands High students are taking up to seven AP classes during a school day. Fort Thomas Schools offer 22 AP classes to students, and more than 1,300 AP tests are being taken by students this year alone.

Alicia Kornowa, director of admissions for recruitment at the University of Cincinnati, says, “Students should focus on course work. Not only studying, but also taking the most rigorous and challenging courses available to them and that they will do well in.” She says that students need to take a college-prep curriculum, study, and get the best grades of which they are capable.

“Many schools also offer more rigorous courses. If these courses are offered, students should take them. While we don’t expect a student to take every AP course offered at their school or for every course on their schedule to be AP, taking challenging courses and doing well in them further indicates that a student has prepared themselves to be academically successful in college,” she adds.

Seniors should “consider senior year of high school boot camp for freshman year of college,” says Melissa Gorbandt, director of admissions at Northern Kentucky University. She says that there is a correlation between a high GPA during senior year and a high GPA during freshman year of college.

Go the Extra Mile

Students are also advised to add extracurricular activities to their schedule. Colleges see this as a sign of a well-rounded student and individual.

“We like to see how [students] spend their time outside of the classroom,” says Kornowa. She says that there is great diversity of good options in students’ extracurricular activities, like community service, work, taking care of family members, sports and more.

All of these activities are important because they allow the school to understand the student beyond their GPA. “We want to get to know them better through this holistic process,” says Kornowa.

Ask Questions

While colleges and universities are getting to know the student, the student should also get to know these higher institutions. Though students can look on the Internet and gain a lot of information just from websites, speaking with colleges and universities in person can be beneficial, too.

Kornowa says that what a student does in their freshman year (and beyond) influences a school’s admission decision. An example she gives is a student’s GPA: it starts their freshman year, and if a student doesn’t start with a college-prep curriculum, they won’t be able to complete the level of coursework that colleges are looking for. To better understand what they should be doing, students can research a handful of schools and learn what they consider during the admission decision process.

Questions about college location, environment, size, housing, financial aid, admission requirements, academics, facilities, campus visits, college expenses and facilities are all topics that college representatives, college websites and even school counselors can answer.

High schools often invite college representatives to speak with students. For example, Highlands High holds a college fair in the fall. Meyer says that roughly 40 college representatives from local schools like Cincinnati State and Gateway Community and Technical College attend.

“Students are driven to go,” says Meyer. “Colleges will email them and say, ‘I’ll be at your school,’ ahead of time.”

If having college representatives come to your school isn’t possible, NKU hosts the Northern Kentucky Regional College Fair every other year that brings over 100 colleges and universities in for a one-day event.

Experience Life on Campus

The next step is to plan to visit the campuses of the colleges and universities.

“Nothing can replace a campus tour and putting their feet on the ground,” Kornowa says.

Gorbandt agrees and advises that students should plan an initial visit and then maybe even a second visit to the top schools they want to attend, even after receiving an acceptance letter.

“Students can go on visitations to specific departments on campus, academic camps and orientations,” says Gorbandt. “There are many opportunities.”

Students will call these institutions home for a few years, so a bit of legwork and paperwork can make a difference.

Parents are Part of the Process

Meyer, Kornowa and Gorbandt all agree that parents are also an important part of the college process, though they warn that parents should take a back seat and allow the students to chart their own course.

“Parents want to protect their child, but the students have to do that for themselves,” says Meyer, adding that one of the important things students should learn to do in college is persevere.

“Going to college and being away is hard,” she says. “They are being thrown into an environment they are not used to.” And while a parent’s first instinct might be to rush in and save the day, it’s not advisable.

Kornowa believes that students need to take the lead when it comes to college. “The parent needs to be involved on a different level,” she says. “They need to be in a supportive role, but not the driver’s seat. This is a good opportunity to begin the transition from a child-parent relationship to more of an adult-adult relationship.

“Parents and students approach the college search process differently and bring different pieces of information to a discussion. Each piece of information can be important to the ultimate college selection and students and their parents should share their perspectives.”

This means talking to the students about financial aid, scholarships and safety, which Gorbandt says isn’t always first on the students’ minds.

She says, “Students are more interested in their experience at college,” such as housing, dining and social life.

Don’t Make a Last-Minute Decision

One of the worst things that a student can do is wait until the last minute to plan for college.

Thankfully, Meyer doesn’t receive too many “I wish I would have” statements from students during senior year.

Some Highlands High students choose to take a gap year between high school and college, enter the military or start working right off the bat, but Meyer says that 94 to 96 percent of Highlands High students attend a four-year college and 2 to 5 percent attend a two-year college.

“We tell them that they will be prepared [for college],” says Meyer.

“Parents should help the student navigate the college process, but it’s the student’s responsibility to apply,” Gorbandt says.

One of the ways parents can assist is by helping the student organize the contents of their admissions packet with important dates, keeping their student on track. Gorbandt adds that parents should be supportive and be patient.

Meyer likes to remind parents to think about what their personal journey has been in education. “They are 18 years old,” says Meyer. “The process has to evolve.”