The spring of junior (11th Grade) year can be one of the most exciting and productive periods in the college search and admissions process. Your counselor can play a key role in helping you navigate the college process, providing the tools and information you’ll need not only to build a list of target schools but also to understand everything from application requirements to financial aid options.

Research & Create a List

There are more than 4,000 colleges, and universities in the U.S. Keep this in mind when you are developing your initial list of prospective schools. When deciding where to apply to college, it’s important to consider three factors: academic fit (where you can get in), personal fit (where you will be happy) and financial fit (what you can afford). Cast a wide net and include the right mix of reach, target and safety schools. Most counselors recommend a list of six to ten schools. Check out each college’s website, course descriptions and student newspaper to get a good sense of the school. Also, chat with your counselor and look at ACT Profile and The College Board’s Big Future.

Schedule College Tours

College tours are one of the best ways to learn about a college’s community and determine if it’s the right fit for you. Talk to current students and alumni. In addition to exploring the campus, arrange a meeting with the admissions office to build a relationship early on and get a checklist of the requirements you’ll need to meet if you decide to apply. And if you’re shopping with a cost-conscious eye, make sure you’re asking questions like: “What kinds of work-study jobs are available?” and “Does career services help students find paid summer work and internships?”

Consider Early Admission Options

Another reason why you should begin your college research during your junior year is so that you can take advantage of early admission options. This can help you settle your college plans before Senior Spring. Understand that there are two types of early admission – Early Decision and Early Action. Applicants who choose Early Decision apply to a single college and, if accepted, are committed to enrolling. Early Action is non-binding and gives you the opportunity to compare multiple financial aid packages. If you’ll be relying heavily on financial aid, Early Action is a better option than Early Decision.

Compare College Tuition Costs & Financial Aid

If you think you’re going to need financial aid, make it a central part of your college search from the beginning. Know what level of tuition you can afford, and how much financial aid you might need, by listing out income sources and estimated college expenses for each month. Importantly, you should never assume a school is beyond your financial reach. Financial aid can vary widely at similar schools and elite schools can be more affordable than you might think. Most families assume their FAFSA-calculated EFC’s (Estimated Family Contributions) are the final word on what they’ll pay for college. But this is almost never the case. Every school uses its formula to allocate financial aid, and those net prices are often lower – much lower – than a family’s EFC. Net Price Calculators, now posted on every college website, are the only way to uncover your actual bottom line before admission.

Budget for College Application & Standardized Test Fees

Most experts recommend applying to anywhere between five and eight different schools and, with application fees running as high as $90 a piece, students can end up spending hundreds of dollars on admissions costs alone. Even if you use a single application, such as The Common App, you will need to pay the application fee for each school to which you apply. Registration fees for the SAT and ACT can also add up, and there are additional fees for changing test dates or locations, retesting and late registration. Some students may qualify for test and college application fee waivers. If you’re eligible, talk to your high school counselor and be prepared to provide documentation.