One of the most common requests I get from families is to give them a clear and definitive college roadmap to the middle school and high school years. After all, many families feel overwhelmed by the college admissions and financial aid landscape and worry they will be left behind or lose out on opportunities in these areas.

No doubt there are to-do items, best practices, and activities to complete sequentially while your child makes his or her way through the educational system. This will be the first of four blog posts outlining the most important college planning considerations for each of the four years of high school. Make sure to stick with me through the end of the blog to download your free copy of the Gradmetrics college planning checklist for high school.

What are the top college planning concerns for a high school freshman?

Freshman in high school need to focus on defining an academic and extracurricular pathway. Although many elective offerings come later in the high school experience, working with a counselor to chart out all four years of academic and extracurricular involvement can be extremely helpful when planning for college admissions and scholarship applications. Preparation at this stage and lead to big rewards senior year.

I also encourage families to complete two exercises at this point in the process. The first is an activities resume, which is a written document outlining a student’s awards, involvements, work experience, volunteerism, and other activities to begin creating a compelling and cohesive student profile. Here is an example of structure to use. The second is creating a high school plan of study, which generally consists of a challenging course of study across the disciplines of: math (Algebra I/II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus), science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Earth Science, Space Science), social sciences (U.S. History, World History, Geography, and electives), foreign languages, and the arts.

What college planning topics should parents focus on during the freshman year of high school?

Without a doubt, parents should focus on getting a general understanding of the cost and financial aid landscape of college today. Too often I work with families who do not have a realistic understanding of how much college costs in today’s dollars (…that even state schools are no longer affordable, easily exceeding a total cost of $100,000 when living on campus for four years). College costs easily exceed the growth rate of inflation and are constantly being pushed upward due to various factors such as tuition discounting, luxurious on-campus accommodations, administrative bloat, and easy access to federal dollars.

Even less have a understanding of the basics of financial aid: how much the government will expect them to pay for college year-over-year, the categories of assistance offered through the FAFSA and CSS Profile, and how to set a college funding strategy. All families – across all income spectrums – need to do engage in the planning process (and common FAFSA myth-busting) here. These are all easily remediated (a good place is to attend one of my workshops), but the earlier a family starts, the better.

Looking for more guidance? Download our college planning checklist for high school.