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The College Prep Checklist: January

This month can have a real impact on the college plans of students in all four grades of high school…

The month of January on the calendar may mean the start of a new year for some enterprises, but in the school business we are right in the big middle of a lot of action. This month can have a real impact on the college plans of students in all four grades of high school.

As always, this checklist builds on the ongoing activities of the previous checklists, but there are some important “January specials” for each of the grades. Here are some important ways for you to coach your college-bound kid this month:


Okay, you made it through your first semester. Now is the time for a freshman who plans to attend college to take an honest inventory.

  • Answer a few questions: Good “debriefing” questions help students decide what to maintain, change, or start. Your first-semester grade report provides a good chance to sit down and share your strategy for improving or repeating your performance with your parent, guidance counselor, or friend. Answer these questions:
    • Was I surprised by any of my grades?
    • If so, why?
    • What academic habits helped me achieve better grades?
    • What academic habits didn’t help?
    • What academic habits and other strategies will I use this semester?
  • Add an Activity: For those ninth-graders that started out slowly as you were getting the feel of high school, now is a good time to look for extracurricular activities. Spring sports are starting, and special clubs and interest groups may be looking for new members. Also, for kids looking for ways to serve, volunteer opportunities are endless.


Many students have recently gotten the results of a PSAT test (or other standardized test) you took in the fall. In December, a lot was going on – so you may have glanced at your scores, wondered how you did compared to other students, then moved on to more pressing matters like semester exams (or Christmas Break!).

  • Don’t ignore test results: I always remind students that some of the most beneficial information they get from standardized test results comes from analyzing the detailed score report provided. You can answer questions like, What aspect of writing needs the most work? Is it the Geometry or Algebra concepts that trip me up? Do I need to pick up my speed in the reading sections?
  • Build an action plan: Sophomores, you need to study your results and identify specific areas that you plan to work on. Also shown are the “benchmark” measurements that give an idea of where you stand in preparing to be successful in a college classroom. The good news is, you still have time to become even more college-ready.


January is a critical time in the life of a high school Junior, particularly in the area of preparing for (and taking) standardized tests.

  • First, take the above steps seriously. Everything I wrote about for Sophomores applies to tests you’ve taken as a Junior too – even more urgently.
  • Plan to take the SAT and/or ACT this spring (taking both is usually better!). Calendar now when you will take these tests this spring. (If you have not taken the test yet, waiting until the fall of your senior year to start testing is a bad idea.) If you’re deciding between tests, you’ll find my suggestion on the FAQ article here.
  • Don’t skip the preparation. Any student can increase their chances to succeed on these tests – and while there are expensive options, there are plenty of inexpensive and free helps as well. For instance, take advantage of your school’s test prep tutorials, classes, or workshops. And visit both the ACT website and the SAT website to use the free test prep material there – their free practice tests really do reflect the types of questions that you’ll see on the “real deal.”
  • Shoot for a score: As you visit college websites, pay attention to the published range of test scores in their current freshman class. Having a target score in mind will motivate you to perform well on the test.


The January checklist for college-bound Seniors can best be provided as key questions to answer – and College Prep Parents can help with each one:

  • What should come next?: Consult your guidance counselor with this question and any others you have. Wherever you are on the path to college, your counselor wants to help. Even conversations that start out with, “I know I should have done this last summer…,” are more useful in January than they are in April.
  • What needs to be finished?: If essays are lacking, a college application is stuck until they are submitted. Same with test scores that need to be sent from the testing agency. And so on. In other words, an application is not complete until the admission office says it is. So if you have not received a confirmation, check on a college’s online portal, email, or call. (If emailing or calling, make sure you do this yourself – not your parent or counselor.)
  • What needs to be started?: Some colleges’ deadlines for application are still a long way off, but the closer you get to a deadline, the more problems can arise in the application process. Now is the time to determine what is needed and to apply. Likewise, if you still need recommendations written by teachers or others, ask them now. (You’ll find more tips on getting these recommendations in the last College Prep Checklist.)
  • What needs to be started? (Part 2): Once you’ve been accepted to schools, pay close attention to each financial aid office’s special forms and applications. Often these are not open until you have been accepted. If that is true of your intended college, get going immediately. (There may be special parent sections to fill out, as well.)
  • What have I overlooked?: Confirm if applications have been completed and submitted. Once you have been accepted, look on admissions office sites for next steps (often with opening lines like, “Now that you have been accepted, be sure and…”) For applications still underway, establish a checklist for all the steps remaining. And don’t forget to celebrate the completion of each task!

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