Fall is often a busy time for high school seniors, filled with college applications and admissions tests.

But did you know those preparations can begin as early as their freshman or sophomore year?

Sarah Gaffney, the vice president of enrollment management at Onondaga Community College, shares some tips for navigating the college timeline – and how students can make their application stand out.

The College Timeline

Freshman and Sophomore Year

Students don’t have to wait until their final year of high school to begin preparing for the admissions process.

During their freshman or sophomore year, families can begin talking about the path students may want to take, whether it’s a four-year school, a two-year school or a trade school. That will help determine the courses they should sign up for.

“If they want to go into a medical field that requires a high level of science and math, they will need to know that for the end of their high school career, so they’re taking the science and math that sets them up to be able to enter those programs,” said Gaffney. “It’s also an opportunity to start getting involved, because that’s one of the things that some institutions look for…Some of the four years that are more selective do look at participation in activities both in the community and in school.”

Junior Year

Students can further narrow their focus during their junior year, deciding on a potential major. They should also take practice exams for the SAT or ACT (if a school they want to attend requires them) and meet with their counselor about their schedule for senior year, “which is important, depending on which program they want to go into,” said Gaffney.

Senior Year

Senior year is usually the one with the most college activity.

Students can start by visiting the schools they want to apply to – and find out what each application requires (some schools, for example, require an essay or a SAT or ACT score, while others do not).

“I always encourage individuals to apply to more than one school, especially those coming right out of high school,” said Gaffney.

This is also when families should explore the financial aspects: how much it would cost to attend a school and what kind of financial aid is available. They can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the application for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to see what they are eligible for.

“You can determine which schools you want that information sent to and it helps create their financial package for you,” said Gaffney.

How to Stand Out

There are a few things students can do to set themselves apart.

“The more engaged you can be in the community, that stands out for institutions,” said Gaffney. “But also try to differentiate yourself by doing things that are different or express your true self. A number of individuals that I talk to that read admission essays are looking for something other than what they’ve read 100 times over. Sometimes, we as humans tend to write what we think the person reading it wants to read. But it would behoove the student to write about who they are and why they’re passionate about certain things, why they want to attend that institution and what they’re going to do as alum of that institution to try to help further the cause.”

Choosing a School

Filling out an application is just one part of the admissions process. Once they’re accepted to a school (or schools), students must decide which one they want to attend.

These days, finances are often the first consideration, but the fit of the school is also important.

“We’ve talked to a number of students who have gone other places and then have come back to OCC, and the conversation is usually around, ‘Well, I thought I would be okay in a lecture hall with 200 people, and I wasn’t. I felt like a number instead of a name and it just wasn’t for me,’” said Gaffney. “So, try to reflect on whether or not you think you can thrive in that environment.”

Along with the size of the school, Gaffney said students should look at:

  • Location – is the school in a city or the country?
  • Clubs and athletics – do you want to participate (and what does the school offer)?
  • Physical aspects – are labs and other facilities up to date?
  • Academic support – what types of resources are available for students?

“I would encourage students to physically go to the campus if they can prior to deciding,” said Gaffney. “You can get a sense for what life is like on that campus. It does make a difference. Fit is huge.”


Courtney Kless is the Editor in Chief of Family Times. Courtney is originally from Maryland. She earned her Master’s degree in Magazine, Newspaper and Online Journalism from Syracuse University. Courtney began her career as a sports journalist, then spent several years working in higher education, before joining the company in August 2019. She enjoys traveling, reading and hiking, and recently adopted a Labrador Retriever, Bailey.

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