High school freshman: Getting ready for college

(MoneyWatch) It can be intimidating just thinking about starting high school. Once a child leaves middle school, grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities begin to count as students look ahead to college.

It's easier to make the transition if students have a game plan for what they need to do to make sure they are ready for college. Here are six things that high school freshmen need to keep in mind:

1. Enroll in strong college prep courses. These classes can prepare you for the workload likely to await students in college. College admissions officers want to see that they've taken challenging courses. In fact, colleges routinely put more weight on grades and the strength of a high school's curriculum than they do on standardized test scores.

2. Evaluate your academic abilities. Sometimes rising freshmen are tested in various subjects, such as math and English, for placement in high school. If students don't test into accelerated classes and feel they can handle the challenge, ask teachers if they can move to more advanced courses.

3. Meet with high school counselor. Find out what classes are required during the next four years to satisfy the minimum admission requirements for local state universities. Also ask about academic coursework that private schools might require.

4. Get extra help. If necessary, find a tutor to help a student with difficult subjects and/or attend summer school. Kahn Academy is a great (and free) resource for students needing help or desiring enrichment that focuses primarily in math and the sciences. (Here is a post that I wrote about Kahn.)

5. Consider creating a dedicated study time. When studying, students should turn off their phone so they won't be tempted to text or talk. The should also stay off the Web except to use it to complete homework.

6. Volunteer and join. It's easy to become cynical when contemplating what extracurricular and volunteer activities are best. A teenager should not get involved in something simply because it might grab an admissions officer's attention.

Colleges aren't necessarily going to be impressed if a teenager simply joins a bunch of high school clubs. But they often are excited about kids who show initiative and leadership abilities. This definitely doesn't mean that a child must get, for instance, involved in student government. Far from it.

Rather, students should link their extracurricular activities to their passions. For example, my daughter had played soccer since third grade, so it was a natural fit for her to become a soccer coach for a kids' recreational league. She also earned money as a soccer referee for several years. In addition, she turned her love of arts and crafts into a volunteering opportunity by creating scrapbooks for assisted living facilities.

(Some of the suggestions in this post were adapted from my book, "The College Solution, 2nd edition," which was released this month.)