When it comes to college planning, the oldest child in the family is usually the guinea pig.
Parents learn about the college admissions process through trial and error and frequently declare, "I'll do it completely differently with the next child."
So, in an effort to minimize mistakes, here is a September to-do list for high school seniors:
. Testing: Review your testing history and examine the middle 50 percent scores of the colleges where you plan to apply. Spread your preparation time out over several weeks and plan to dedicate at least a few hours a week to prep. The ACT is offered Oct. 27 and Dec. 8. The SAT is offered Oct. 6, Nov. 3 and Dec. 1.
. Review admissions requirements: Every school publishes required and recommended academic units in each subject area. More selective colleges require greater depth in core subject areas such as lab sciences and foreign language. Some colleges require a course in the arts and computer applications. Also review your school's graduation requirements.
. Letters of recommendation: First, check to see if colleges you are applying to request letters of recommendation, and if so, how many. Think about which teachers know you best. These may not be the teachers who gave you the easy A. Ask early in the year if they can write you a recommendation. Follow with a reminder, but give them plenty of time before the deadline. Check with your high school to see if recommendations can be sent electronically.
. Visit college campuses: Take a look at your school's fall calendar for long weekends and teacher workdays. Also check colleges for their fall visitor days for high school seniors.
. Research colleges: If you haven't finalized your college list, buy a guidebook, study college websites, read student reviews and make sure you have a solid balance of reach, target and safety schools, as well as a financial safety school.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.