Only a quarter of the 1.8 million graduates who took the ACT college entrance exam in 2013 met readiness benchmarks in all four core subjects - English, math, science and reading. That figure dropped from 31 percent in 2012, according to annual reports by ACT, Inc.
Students who hit the mark on the test have a 75 percent chance of passing a first-year college course in that subject. Those who fall short are more likely to struggle in college and many will waste time and tuition dollars on remedial courses.
To put teens on a trajectory for success, college prep needs to start early, says Ruth Lohmeyer, a counselor at Lincoln Northeast High School in Nebraska.
"We start already in eighth grade," she says, noting that students start building their college plan when they select classes for ninth grade.
Lohmeyer runs down how students should use each year of high school to prepare for college.
Freshmen: Starting high school means mapping out a plan to get from freshman to senior year and eventually to a two- or four-year college.
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Students should push themselves to take hard classes early on, instead of waiting until their junior or senior years, Lohmeyer says.
"It will be too late by that time," she says.
It may seem early in the game, but now is also the time to really think about scholarships.
"You want to have that scholarship resume look the way you want it to, and you want to start right now, your ninth-grade year," Lohmeyer says.
Sophomores: With the first year of high school behind them, students should start thinking about colleges and careers that might be a good fit and start exploring those areas.
Career and college fairs are good places to start, but it's never too soon to set foot on a college campus.
"All of a sudden they can picture themselves there," she says. "It helps them want to make sure the transcript looks the way they want it to look when they graduate."
Teens also want to continue building up a scholarship resume. The more extracurricular, leadership and volunteer opportunities, the better, she notes.
Juniors: Old enough to legally both drive and work in most states, high school juniors should seek out internships, job shadows and summer jobs that align with the careers they're interest in, Lohmeyer says.
"Maybe someone's interested, for example, in the legal field - well, just apply to be a janitor at a law office," she says. "The more people you talk to who are doing what you think you want to do, the more confident you're going to be."
College entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT should also be on the agenda for junior year, Lohmeyer says.
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Seniors: Most students spend the start of senior year visiting campuses, narrowing their list and then applying to college.
When that is out of the way, teens are tempted to take the foot off the gas and coast through their final semester. They should resist the urge, Lohmeyer says.
Instead of filling their schedules with physical education courses, teens should use ACT and SAT scores from the previous year to identify areas to work on, she advises.
"When a student comes in and they say, 'Oh, I want to take two PE classes and I don't need math anymore,' I can look at their college readiness scores and say, 'You know what, according to this, you'll be taking some remedial classes,'" she says.
Lohmeyer says focusing on those subjects before graduation will set students up to succeed after.