As a single parent of three young adults, I look back on the advice I gave them about getting into college and my children think I did a pretty good job of steering them in the right direction. Today, however, in the wake of the global financial crisis, I would counsel them a bit differently.

I’d begin that conversation by reflecting on my current role as president of the National Society of High School Scholars that represents over 700,000 scholars in 160 countries. I meet with thousands of our members each year and talk to them about how a college education increases the quality of life more than ever before and that higher earnings are one of the important outcomes of higher education, especially in today’s economic environment.

From a broader perspective, I explain how critical it is that the United States continues to be the leader of the world economy. This week, I studied President Obama’s ‘Pay as Your Earn’ plan calling for measures to ease the burden of student debt. These actions are steps in the right direction, but in order to stay competitive, we must look carefully at our current spending in areas of education. Accordingly, a greater focus on a culture of learning will help achieve economic growth, not only on a global scale, but in our own communities.

So, this brings me to my list of the top 5 tips high school students should know when applying to college:

1. Academics

Studying hard for your course work in high school sounds logical—and it is, but you have to think and act more strategic than just getting the grades. Start by taking an inventory of the things you’re good at and like to do, and the things you struggle with and try to avoid doing. If you’re having a hard time making a list, there are plenty of career assessment tests you can take and your school guidance counselor can help with that.

2. Finding the Best Fit

Finding the right school is crucial not only for the time you spend in college, but also for your plans following graduation. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
    A) What am I interested in studying as a major?
    B) What schools offer strong programs in my major?
    C) How important is cost, and will scholarships be available at this school?
    D) Do I want to be close to home or further away on my own?
    E) Will I be more comfortable at a large university or a small private college?
    F) Are my grades and test scores sufficient for acceptance?

3. Scholarships

It’s no surprise that Increases in college costs for the 2011-12 academic year are reflecting the influence of a fragile economy and state funding that has not kept up with the growth in college enrollments. One way to offset the cost of college expenses is through scholarships. Unlike student loans, these do not have to be repaid. At NSHSS for example, we offer a wide range of exclusive and diverse scholarship opportunities to our members. For more information, you can visit our website at www.nshss.org.

4. FAFSA

The first step in applying for available federal financial aid is completing the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. To apply for federal student financial aid, and to apply for many state student aid programs, students must complete this form. The information provided on the FAFSA determines if a student is eligible for financial aid. Additionally, you must renew your FAFSA application each year in college that you apply for financial aid. The form is available January 1 of each year.

5. Enrichment Activities

Your involvement in pre-college summer programs, community service, study abroad and leadership development will help you stand out on your college application. College admission counselors are looking for students who have diverse experiences beyond the classroom like the types of programs NSHSS offers its members. Not only do these activities cultivate a talent or interest in a particular area, but they help develop life skills that prepare you for a bright academic future and a successful professional career.  

James W. Lewis is President of the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), established in 2002 along with friend and co-founder, Claes Nobel, senior member of the Nobel family that established the Nobel Prizes. NSHSS represents over 700,000 high school scholars from 160 countries around the world that are active in high school, university, or professionally working. 

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