Spring showers bring May college decisions? That’s not quite the saying we’re used to; however, May 1 is National College Signing Day—the deadline for many students to declare the college in which they intend to enroll. For some students, this decision may be a no-brainer; for others it can be a grueling task. The point when a student makes this important decision is the culmination of 12 years of education and roughly 24 months of intense activity and preparation.

Here are a few of the critical steps students will take on their journey to college:

  • Explore colleges and careers of interest.
  • Prepare for and take college entrance exam(s).
  • Build a list of colleges.
  • Visit or take a virtual tour of colleges.
  • Apply to college.
  • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Apply for scholarships.

Each of these seven steps is multifaceted and has its own set of deadlines and cost implications for students and families to consider. The journey to college can be a complicated and overwhelming experience, especially while simultaneously balancing academics, extracurriculars, jobs, family responsibilities, etc. The path to college can be even more daunting for students who will be the first in their family to attend college. In a 2018 College Board survey of nearly 100,000 graduating students, 70 percent of students reported feeling stressed during the college application process and wished they had sought more advice than they did.

What can school leaders do to support students and families as they embark on the college path? Let’s explore a few tactical strategies that school leaders can adopt and implement to help students and families as they progress along the journey to college.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Encourage underclassmen to reflect on their high school coursework. Encourage students, particularly low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students to participate in college access programs or initiatives that inspire and foster college-going aspirations. Influencers can come in many forms and are not restricted to principals, counselors, or teachers—peer influence can be a powerful instrument. Host a college and career day that includes advanced course options offered at your school or within your district, and invite participating students to share their experiences with their peers. Help students understand the short- and long-term benefits that advanced courses offer. Align career and postsecondary aspirations with academic and cocurricular opportunities early on for students, and help monitor and track them as they progress along the way. Consider creative school-level recognition or incentive programs that are highly valued by students to promote engagement. Ask yourself: What other ways can your school magnify the visibility of the advanced academic opportunities offered so that more students can envision themselves in the learning environment?

Till the Soil

A little practice goes a long way. Did you know that students who spent 20 hours on Official SAT Practice saw an average gain of 115 points from the PSAT/NMSQT to the SAT? A study of 250,000 students from the class of 2017 showed that practice pays off—regardless of gender, race, income, or high school GPA.

Help students feel confident as they prepare to take a college entrance exam by incorporating productive practice into classroom instruction and other interventions (tutoring, after-school programs, peer ambassadors, study groups, etc.). If possible, consider creating grade-level or classroom challenges to encourage student practice. Most students take their first college entrance exam in spring of their junior year, and some students take a second test in fall of their senior year. Provide opportunities for students to familiarize themselves with timed tests in formats similar to a college entrance exam. Maximize resources, tools, and opportunities that support students and educators. There are free and easily accessible resources available to teachers, students, and their families that support student achievement, such as Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy, which offers free, personalized practice for students, as well as new coaching tools to help educators support students’ practice plans.

Behind every story of a student succeeding is a teacher, counselor, adviser, coach, parent, or other caring adult. Educators can also take advantage of Khan Academy’s SAT coaching tools, which make it easier than ever to support students. Teachers and other educators can view progress and track activity on Official SAT Practice for both their classes and individual students. Free Official SAT Practice coaching tools provide:

  • Recommended skills for teachers to work on with their students, based on the needs of their class.
  • Recommended lesson plans, created by teachers, for teachers, along with links to additional practice content that can be assigned based on a class or students’ needs. There are 16 math lessons, 16 evidence-based reading and writing lessons, and four essay lessons.
  • Information on students’ progress, including their upcoming SAT test dates, problems completed, time spent practicing, practice tests scheduled, questions attempted, answer choices, correct answers, and practice test scores.
  • Weekly emails with teachers’ class reports and student activity and progress, and notifications when students link College Board and Khan Academy accounts.

Plant the Seeds

Build systems and structure around tasks and activities that align with the college-going actions that students must complete to enroll in a postsecondary institution. Create a college-access collaborative at your school, bringing together administrators, counselors, teachers, parents, and community-based organizations to develop a common set of goals and strategies aimed at increasing postsecondary enrollment. Display your goals and progress toward achievement in prominent places within your school—in newsletters to parents, updates at faculty meetings, and professional development. Infuse college-themed assignments into core classes, such as essay writing prompts to prepare students to write a personal statement or scholarship essay.

Then, encourage all students (not just juniors and seniors) and their families to attend college nights, financial aid events, and college campus visits. Involve parents and guardians early and often, as they remain the No. 1 influencer of a student’s college choice. Facilitate conversations that connect parents and guardians with families who have enrolled their children in college to share their experiences.

To support students and families, The College Board has introduced The College Board Opportunity Scholarships—a first-of-its-kind national scholarship program. It’s unique because it serves as a simple college planning guide for all students. The College Board Opportunity Scholarships lay out six simple steps that all students can take to get into college. Completing each step earns a student a chance for a scholarship; completing all six steps will earn students a chance to win $40,000 for their college education.

The six steps in this program help students plan by making a good starter college list. Help them prepare so they can take their best shot and get help paying for college:

  1. Build your college list. Get started by exploring colleges you’re interested in.
  2. Practice for the SAT. Use Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy to get ready for test day.
  3. Improve your score. Show how practice pays off by improving your SAT score.
  4. Strengthen your college list. Make sure your college list is a mix of academic safety, fit, and reach schools.
  5. Complete the FAFSA. Fill out the free government form to apply for financial aid.
  6. Apply to colleges. Apply to the schools you want to attend.

The College Board Opportunity Scholarships are different from other scholarship programs because they’re about how much students grow—not how high they score. The College Board Opportunity Scholarships don’t require an essay or an application and don’t have a minimum GPA or SAT score requirement. Instead, the program rewards all students’ efforts and actions on their way to college. The more effort that students put in and actions they complete, the more chances to earn a college scholarship. The College Board is investing $25 million over five years into this program. A total of $5 million is available for each graduating class, beginning with the class of 2020. All students are invited. Learn more at www.cb.org/opportunity.

Celebrate Growth

Remember to celebrate the victories. Whether a student earns an A on a test or submits a college application, acknowledging wins along the pathway to college is important. One way to celebrate with your school is in recognizing national College Signing Day—it’s a chance to celebrate students for making a commitment to higher education. Each May, thousands of schools and communities across the nation rally around their students to show them support as they commit to the college or university that they will attend the following academic year. Keep in mind that College Signing Day events not only celebrate and encourage those heading to college, but they can also inspire and encourage underclassmen, siblings, parents, and others, too. There are some great toolkits created by the Reach Higher and Better Make Room initiatives for reference. Here are a few ideas for your College Signing Day:

  • Get students involved in the planning process—they know how to best inspire and engage their peers.
  • Invite parents and families to join the fun.
  • Expand an existing school celebration that honors graduates.
  • Bring in outside speakers, such as local celebrities, influential community members, or prominent alumni.
  • Celebrate with a citywide picnic, party, or carnival.
  • Encourage sharing on social media with hashtags prominently displayed at the event. Invite students and family to wear their college T-shirt and share photos via social media.

Prepare for Flight

Did you know that one-third of students who graduate from high school never make it to a college campus? Educators and student supporters can help keep students on track and ensure their college plans aren’t derailed. Help students stay motivated by providing them with a checklist of tasks, similar to the BigFuture “You Made Your College Choice: What’s Next?” list available on www.collegeboard.org. This list outlines some of the tasks that students need to complete over the summer, including registering for orientation, meeting with an academic adviser to select courses, confirming housing for the year, selecting a meal plan, paying deposits, etc. Supporters can send text messages or email reminders to their students to check in on their summer preparations. That one simple action might be the inspiration a student needs to take the next step.

You’ll also find some great tools available to help students decipher and compare aid packages received from colleges. Share the Compare Your Aid Awards tool from The College Board website with students and their families.

There are many strategies school leaders and student supporters can employ to empower students to ask questions, seek help, take risks, and become self-advocates for their educational and career goals. Students can explore career options and college majors on BigFuture at https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org. Inspire your students to start their path to college today.

Jennifer Tywater is senior director of advising capabilities at The College Board.