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College Planning Guide for High School Students

This guide walks high school students through the process of planning and preparing for college. It focuses on the steps that high schoolers need to take to prepare themselves to submit competitive applications for admittance to college.

How do you prepare for college? Planning for college can be an overwhelming task. For many high school students, college may seem exceptionally far off in the future. This is especially true when engaged in with all of the exciting aspects of your high school years, such as extracurricular activities, homecoming events, and senior trips. In addition, day-to-day schoolwork obligations can preoccupy even the most focused student.

One of the best ways to overcome these challenges is to follow a college planning timeline. This way, you'll be reminded to complete specific tasks at specific times so that you don't fall behind in the process of planning for college. Below, you will find a general timeline that you can use to prepare yourself for going to college.

Freshman Year: Lay the Groundwork for College

Freshman year is not only the beginning of your high school career but also a critical moment in planning your college career. You should use this time to reflect on both your academic and extracurricular interests and your dreams and hopes for the future. Freshman year is also the time when you learn which courses you'll have to take in your sophomore year. The courses and electives you take in your sophomore year will, in many ways, forge a path that you will continue throughout high school.


Determine Academic and Career Interests

Freshman year is a time to reflect on your general interests. Don't worry if you don't have any preferred academic or career interests at this point. Many first-year high school students are still in the process of self-discovery and self-exploration. To determine your interests, you can:

  • Read books, which is one of the best ways to explore new interests. Many libraries can offer recommendations for teenagers who are trying to determine career interests.
  • Seek career advice from guidance counselors and teachers. Your high school teachers may be some of the best people to talk to about your academic or professional future.
  • Speak with your parents about your future. Your parents can be your greatest resource when it comes to planning your future. After all, who knows you better than they do? They'll also likely play an active role in college planning as you transition into your sophomore and junior years.
  • Visit helpful websites like youth.gov that have tools designed to help you explore careers.

Choose Relevant Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are activities you participate in outside of the academic portion of the school day. Extracurricular activities are essential because they not only provide you with hands-on experience and leadership opportunities but also help you meet new people. Becoming involved in extracurricular activities early in high school is essential, as you'll likely discover some activities you like and some activities that you don't like. This allows you to rethink what extracurricular activities you want to participate in your sophomore, junior, and senior years.

Some common extracurricular activities you might consider include:

  • Athletic and sports-related activities, like baseball, basketball, soccer, and track teams
  • Chorus, school band or orchestra, or other arts-related activities and clubs
  • Intellectual activities such as the chess club, debate club, or the school newspaper
  • Leadership-related activities such as student government or a Model United Nations

You may also want to consider:

  • Afterschool jobs or summer internships that can put money in your pocket or provide you with professional work experience to enhance your college application.
  • Community-service-oriented church or youth groups

Your first-choice extracurricular activities should be the ones that interest you the most--you may also want to choose those that you're not too familiar with but that seem potentially enjoyable. However, don't feel pressured to overburden yourself during your first year of high school.

Finalize Your Sophomore Schedule

During your freshman year, you'll have the opportunity to contribute to the finalizing of your sophomore schedule. Depending on your school, this may include simply selecting electives; in other schools, it might mean choosing specific class times or sections.

However, even before you get to work finalizing your schedule, remember that your freshman academic performance will influence which classes you'll be eligible for your sophomore year. So make sure you work as hard as possible and perform up to your full potential!

In addition to your academic performance, you'll need to consider a variety of other factors when determining your schedule. They include:

  • Deciding if you want to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses if they're available at your school. You may need to earn a specific grade or perform at a particular standard to be placed in an Advanced Placement course. Some schools require teacher recommendations for AP courses, too. These courses can put you on track to potentially earn college credit; however, while potentially open to high school freshmen and sophomores, they may be a better fit for juniors and seniors.

  • Determining if you want to take honors classes. Honors classes are often seen as a 'middle ground' between regular courses and AP courses. They may be less rigorous than AP classes; however, they do not count for college credit. The benefit of honors classes is that they may prepare you for future AP classes or college classes.

  • Focusing on math, which can help you become proficient in foundational problem-solving skills like PEMDAS. If you think you may want to pursue a degree program in math or science, you'll need to focus on those subjects early on in your high school career. Sign up for Algebra or something higher your sophomore year.

  • Prioritizing science, especially if you want to pursue a degree program or a professional career in math or science. You may take biology or chemistry your sophomore year.

  • Considering social science course options, such as United States history. Your school may also have a state or local history offering.

  • Taking a foreign language. In a high school foreign language class, you may learn how to count in French, or learn about adverbs in Spanish. Most high schools will offer French, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL).

  • Completing English or literature courses, which will prepare you for the rigors of college. These classes will prepare you to write informative essays like those you may craft for college applications.


Focus on College-Friendly Classes

When reviewing your transcripts, colleges generally look for specific classes. They want to see how you've attained a high level of academic achievement while challenging yourself in high school, for example, by pursuing honors and AP courses.

When creating a master list of courses that will make you more competitive as an applicant, include:

Taking challenging high-level classes can help you stand out during the admissions process, place you in more advanced courses in college, and possibly even earn you college credit.

Sophomore Year: Continue Freshman Year Tasks

College planning will start to get real during your sophomore year. At this point, you'll no longer be 'new' to high school, and your guidance counselors, teachers, and parents will expect you to have started focusing on your goals. Most importantly, you'll need to continue to reflect on your future college major and professional career path. You'll also need to spend some time gaining an understanding of the different types of higher education institutions.

Perhaps most stressful of all, you'll need to start preparing for standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT. You'll also have to put some thought into the courses you're going to take in your junior year.

Remember that extracurricular activities will probably require more of your time than they did during your freshman year. If you're not happy with or interested in your current extracurricular activities, consider pursuing some different ones.


Consider Your College Major or Future Career Path

By the middle of your sophomore year, you'll have had the opportunity to experience classes in a variety of subjects and explore different extracurricular activities. This year you should use all of the experiences you've had in high school so far to make more informed decisions about your college major and future career path.

For example, are you interested in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-based college major and occupation? Or, are you more interested in English, literature, and social studies? Extracurricular activities may have also given you the chance to explore your leadership potential, too. When reflecting on all of your experiences, consider some of these popular 4-year college majors:

  • Business and business management
  • Health and related fields
  • The liberal arts and social sciences
  • Biomedical science
  • Engineering

The above 4-year degree subjects are provided in the order of their popularity in the 2016-2017 academic year. And remember, while these degree programs are popular, they may not provide you with the compensation you expect after graduation. To help you determine whether a potential college major will pay well after graduation, you can do a quick search online to learn about the different economic values of college majors.

Explore Different Types of Colleges

Planning for college includes becoming familiar with the different types of schools, such as community, public, and private colleges and vocational schools. Keep in mind that different types of schools offer different types of degree programs. Also, different colleges of the same type may offer a variety of programs. For example, while the University of Arkansas has a decent engineering program, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has a top ten rated engineering program.

When considering the different types of colleges you can choose from, remember:

  • Technical and vocational schools are institutions that offer certificate, degree, or diploma programs that take less than two years to complete. They specialize in training students for specific trades such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) repair or welding. For more information, see our guide on trade and vocational schools.
  • Community colleges and small state colleges often specialize in the first two years of higher education, or the 'core curriculum.' This can include survey courses such as American History or English Composition.
  • Many four-year public and private colleges specialize in undergraduate programs rather than researching and developing graduate programs.
  • Universities are public and private institutions that offer 4-year undergraduate degree and some graduate degree programs (master's and doctoral programs).
  • Research universities are public and private universities that specialize in research and graduate programs. Examples of research universities include Ivy League schools such as Harvard and public universities like the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  • Department rankings and quality of faculty vary from university to university. Focus on researching institutions that have distinguished programs in the field you want to study.

Ultimately, the type of institution you attend will depend on your academic interests, your future career path, and your qualifications.

Prepare for Standardized Tests

One of the most stressful elements associated with college planning is preparing for standardized tests. Standardized tests are critical because test scores are an essential part of many institutions' admissions criteria. The most popular standardized tests are the ACT and the SAT. In general, most high school sophomores take the Practice SAT (PSAT) or Practice ACT (PACT) around October, but times may vary. Students typically take the ACT and SAT in their junior year.

Plan to spend substantial time preparing for the practice tests. Then, after you receive your practice test results, you can invest more time studying those areas where you didn't perform as well.

To prepare for standardized tests, you can:

  • Enroll in in-person test preparation courses
  • Purchase test preparation books
  • Use online ACT resources such as those offered by Study.com
  • Schedule standardized test group study sessions with friends.
  • Create a test-prep study schedule. Aim to devote a designated number of hours each week preparing for your exams.

The most successful students use a mix of the above tactics. Ultimately, though, you'll likely have to spend many hours preparing for standardized tests during your sophomore and junior years.

Choose Your Junior Year Courses

When it comes time to choosing high school classes for your junior year, you'll need to reflect on your experiences in your freshman and sophomore classes. When doing this, ask yourself which ones you've done well in. Have you been successful in your honors and AP courses? If so, you should continue taking those types of classes; if not, are you up for a challenge?

There are some specific courses you should consider in your junior year. They include:

  • American History, where you will learn about different periods of time.
  • Chemistry or Physics, where you will learn about things like the laws of inertia or protons.
  • English, honors, or AP
  • Foreign language, typically the same one you took in your freshman and sophomore years
  • Macroeconomics or microeconomics
  • Electives such as AP courses in art history, music theory, or psychology

Junior Year: Accelerate the College Prep Process

Junior year is critical in your planning and preparation for college. Most importantly, your junior year will be the last full year you have in high school before applying to college; this is because many college applications are due in the fall of your senior year. Reassess your extracurricular activities and finalize your senior year schedule. You'll also need to start figuring out how you and your family will pay for college, reflecting on your planned major, and visiting colleges.


Reassess Your Extracurricular Activities

By this point, you should have several extracurricular activities to list on your college applications. If you think your list of extracurricular activities could benefit from an additional activity or a certain emphasis, consider making some changes.

Remember that:

  • The 'best' extracurricular activities are often those that provide you with the opportunity to develop some leadership experience or serve the community.
  • Community service and outreach are some of the most desirable extracurricular activities you can add to your high school resume. Intellectual activities such as the debate team or Model United Nations are also very desirable.
  • High school sports and travel teams can contribute to a well-rounded profile and/or help you win scholarships.
  • Part-time jobs can help you earn money for college, gain real-life experience, hone your time-management skills, and possibly acquire some leadership experience.

While extracurricular activities are critical, remember that your grade point average and standardized test scores often weigh more heavily when it comes to college admissions decisions. So don't overwhelm yourself with too many extracurricular activities--your academic performance should come first.

Review Your College-Related Finances

Depending on the institution you attend, college tuition can cost tens of thousands of dollars. In addition to tuition, you'll also need to take into consideration on-campus or off-campus housing, books and supplies, meals and other related costs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of attending college in the 2017-2018 academic year was $23,835. Most students cannot afford such a steep price on their own; as such, you'll need to put some serious thought into how you're going to pay for college.

When considering the cost of college, be sure to:

Begin by talking to your parents. They may have already saved for, or thought about some ways to finance your college education.

Consider beginning your higher education at a public 2-year community college or state college. Whereas attendance at public universities cost an average of $20,050 in 2017-2018, the average cost of attending a public 2-year school was only $10,281.

Consider attending public institutions. Whereas the average cost of attending private institutions in 2017-2018 was $42,681, the average cost of attending public institutions was just $17,797.

Apply for federal financial aid. Whether you plan on applying for student loans, or not, you may want to familiarize yourself with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which may also be required if you plan to apply for scholarships.

Apply for scholarships. There are many discipline-specific, institution-specific, and specialty scholarships you can apply for; your high school guidance counselor should be your first stop when researching them.

For more help understanding the FAFSA or financial aid, review our FAFSA and financial aid guide. Ultimately, the challenge of financing college may be the deciding factor when it comes to which college you attend. As such, you'll need to prepare in advance of your senior year and take steps to secure financial aid and scholarships as soon as possible.

Choose Your Senior Year Courses

Your senior year is your last opportunity to raise your grade point average (GPA) and potentially earn college credits by taking AP courses. So choose those classes that are not only challenging but enjoyable. For example, your schedule may include a mix of AP courses and easier electives. Some options you may want to consider include:

  • English and literature courses like AP British Literature, AP World Literature, or even a creative writing class
  • Pre-calculus or calculus; if you've completed calculus, take statistics
  • AP Physics or another AP science course
  • AP U.S. Government or AP Psychology; if you've taken them, consider another AP social science or social studies course
  • Third or fourth year of a foreign language
  • Other AP or honors electives

Reassess Your College Major or Career Path

Your junior year is another opportunity for you to reassess potential majors and professional career paths. By this point, you should have substantial academic and extracurricular experience. You may also have competed an internship or held one or more art-time jobs. All of these experiences can help inform your decision about your future academic life.

While you may have already thought about the economic viability of your college major, you may also want to consider whether the major will help you secure a job that makes you happy. It is worth noting that different people find their jobs satisfying for different reasons. What one individual may consider a 'happy job,' another may find unsatisfying. To help assess your choices and for a comprehensive review of how to choose a college major, view our Guide to Choosing Your College Major.

Develop a List of Potential Colleges

One of the most difficult aspects of planning for college is choosing the ones you may want to attend. There are several steps you can take to narrow down your list of potential colleges. Since you've spent a fair bit of time considering your future major and occupation, you may already have a good idea of what type of academic programs you should focus on. To build on this, be sure to:

  • Make a list of schools you want to attend, including those family members have attended or friends are planning on attending, or those located in your region.
  • Research schools with top-ranked programs in your major.
  • Visit the admissions page of potential colleges and make notes about their admissions requirements, including GPA, standardized test scores, extracurricular, and essay expectations. Eliminate any colleges for which you may not meet the requirements.

Also, avoid eliminating schools based solely on cost. If you have good grades and test scores, you may win financial aid or a scholarship.

Tour College Campuses

Toward the end of your junior year, you'll need to arrange for college campus tours. Tours generally take place during the summer before your senior year or during the fall of your senior year. The first step in scheduling campus tours is to make a list of the colleges you want to visit. Then, reduce your list to a manageable number of visits; this is important, as you probably won't be able to visit all of the schools to which you're applying.

A good strategy is to choose your top one or two colleges and your 'safety' school to visit.

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Check college websites for information about how to set up a campus visit, including available dates. This information may be listed on the admissions department page.
  • Set aside enough time to visit each school. While your official campus visit might only take a day, you should set aside 2-3 days--that way, you can also tour the campus on your own and explore the surrounding city or town in which it is located.
  • Time your visit properly. You may want to visit in early fall when class is in session; this way, you can get a better idea of how the campus feels with students around.
  • Ask questions during your campus tour. As student-workers give many campus tours, use them as a resource by asking important questions, like which dorms may be the best fit for you, what social life is like on campus, or any other issues that may concern you.

If you can't visit a college campus in person, attend a virtual open house or go on your own virtual campus tour. More-and-more colleges are offering virtual open houses and tours online; these events often include college administrators, faculty, and current students.

Complete Senior Year Courses and Tasks

Your senior year is the last opportunity you'll have to boost your high school resume, grade point average, and extracurricular activities. As a result, you'll need to stay on your game and avoid a debilitating case of 'senioritis' and ruin your chances of getting into your dream college by performing poorly during your senior year. That said, you'll have two important tasks related to college planning your senior year:

  • First, you'll need to submit your college applications.

  • Second, you'll need to make your final decision after you hear back from the schools.


Submit College Applications

Submitting applications can be an overwhelming process. As top-choice colleges become more competitive, high schoolers are applying to more institutions than ever before. The College Board recommends that high school students apply to between five and eight colleges. Completing so many applications can be time consuming, especially as you are starting your senior year in high school.

Applications generally include:

  • Fillable forms that can be submitted online or printed off and mailed in.
  • Transcripts listing classes and grades for grades 9-12. Many high schools will provide partial transcripts for you to send to colleges in November or December. You may need to submit final transcripts after graduation.
  • Standardized test scores, such as your ACT and SAT scores. To send ACT scores to a college, see the ACT website. To send SAT scores to a college, visit the College Board website.
  • Letters of recommendation or references from teachers, friends of your family, or other adults who know you. Letters from teachers and supervisors of extracurricular activities are sometimes the most desirable and effective.
  • Essays, the length and subject of which can vary from institution to institution but typically run about 1,000 words. Some institutions (900 in 2021) may accept a general essay you have written for the Common Application. When writing your essays, make sure to follow formal writing rules.
  • Portfolios or auditions for art or culture programs. Make sure you familiarize yourself with portfolio requirements for any college to which you're applying.
  • Application fees--don't forget application fees! In general, you'll pay between $25 and $50 to apply to each institution.

Most 4-year comprehensive and research universities require applications to be submitted by November or December of the year before you'll first attend college. Some institutions have January due dates. Many state colleges with 4-year programs require applications to be submitted by the late spring or early summer. Community colleges and technical schools often extend application deadlines far into the summer, right before the fall semester. For comprehensive information about applying to college, check out our How to Apply to College: The Ultimate Guide.

Review and Weigh Post-College Acceptance/Rejection Choices

After you've submitted your applications, you'll finally be able to take a breather from college planning. However, don't forget that you'll need to keep your grades up for your final transcripts, available after graduation.

In general, many comprehensive and research universities begin releasing acceptance decisions in late winter or spring. This means that many of your application decisions will arrive in the mail in March or April of your senior year.

Some colleges have expanded their early decision or early acceptance decisions and send out their decisions as early as November. Some schools may continue to send these decisions out into February before releasing general application decisions.

After you've heard back from the majority of the schools you've applied to, you should:

  • List any financial aid or scholarships that you've qualified for or won. Financial aid should be a significant part of your decision process, so if financing college is a concern, then the packages that a specific institution offers should help to move them to the top of your list.

  • Consider both college and program rankings. Higher-ranked colleges and programs may better prepare you for the workforce and help to make you a more competitive candidate when you hit the job market.

  • Reflect upon your campus tour experiences. If you didn't get to visit all of your top choices and safety schools, you may want to schedule a visit now before making a final decision.

  • Create a college pros-and-cons list and discuss it with your parents, guidance counselor, or teachers.

  • Consider the location of the college. If visiting with your family is important to you, you may want to choose a college close by or conveniently accessible by way of air or car.

  • Avoid making a decision based on which colleges your friends are going to attend. What is best for your friends might not be best for you.

Your final decision about which college to attend will most likely be a difficult one. This difficulty may be compounded by the fact that you won't have a lot of time to decide. In general, you should have about a month to respond to an acceptance letter. Many large state universities and research universities expect to hear back from students by May 1; however, this date varies based on the institution.

We hope you found this college guide helpful. Good luck!