Create a To-Do List for Your College Search

High school students need to stay on task from freshman year through senior year.

Using a checklist throughout high school will help students determine their strengths and build strong applications.
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Start building your list: Once you have a handle on your test scores, talk to a counselor and start your list of target schools, reaches and safeties. Explore college websites and online resources. 

Make some college visits: Spring break and summer vacation are ideal times to check out a few campuses. Also try to attend college fairs and talk with the folks behind the tables. 

Write: Procrastination doesn't make for a good college essay. Aim to have first drafts done by Labor Day. Share them with an English teacher or counselor. 

[Avoid making these common college application mistakes.] 

Senior Year 

You made it. Let's party! Well, not quite yet. This will also be a year of hard work and continued preparation. Colleges do consider senior-year transcripts. They can and will rescind offers to students who slack off. 

Check requirements: You're in the final stretch, so don't veer off track. Make sure you're completing all of the requirements for graduation as well as course requirements of the colleges on your list. 

Finish testing: Retake the SAT, ACT or subject tests if needed. The early fall test dates will give you time to apply early

Ask for recommendations: Early in the school year, ask two teachers who can offer different perspectives on your performance if they are willing to write a letter on your behalf. Choose teachers with whom you have a good relationship and who will effectively communicate your academic and personal qualities. 

Apply: Fill out each application carefully, and ask someone to look over your essays with a critical eye. Check that your colleges have received records and recs from your high school, and have your SAT or ACT scores officially sent in. A month from the date you submit your application, call the college and confirm that it is complete. 

Follow the money: Many colleges require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and CSS/Financial Aid Profile forms to be turned in by February. But the earlier the better. 

Make the choice: Explore the colleges where you've been accepted. Visit their campuses again, talk with alumni, attend an accepted student reception. Then confidently make your college choice official by sending in your deposit. 

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.