College Planning Guide for High School Students

High school students planning to attend college should start researching potential college options beginning in ninth grade, or even sooner if possible. Whether students plan to go out of state, stay closer to home, or even take advantage of an online Bachelor’s Degree program, finding the right school, area of study, and setting themselves up for success can take a lot of planning. Here is a comprehensive list of recommended actions to take each year that, in conjunction with guidance from their school counselor, can help students and parents feel more confident in the application process.

College Planning for Parents of High School Students

Perhaps the biggest pain point of sending children to college is the cost. Fortunately, there are financial aid resources to help both students and parents through the application process, step by step. As for general college savings, it’s never too early (or too late) to start: they’re known as 529 plan accounts—incidentally, Fastweb clears up some common misunderstandings and confusions about tax reporting and FAFSA filing that are worth researching.

The FAFSA website provides a convenient planning tool called FAFSA4caster that helps estimate how much financial aid students are likely to receive, as well as how much money to save. October 1st is the date after which students should be ready to submit their FAFSA applications—typically, it’s the October of senior year. At this time, students will also be eligible to apply for scholarships and grants.

Lastly, parents should be sure to attend college planning seminars and meet with their child’s guidance counselor to create a personalized academic roadmap and college checklist.

Freshman Year (9th Grade)

Ninth grade students should speak with their school counselor about recommended classes to take. Counselors usually have access to guides or handouts detailing which classes are recommended for students who plan to apply to college as a high school senior.

According to Federal Student Aid’s College Preparatory Checklist, “Most colleges require four years of English, at least three years of social studies (history, civics, geography, economics, etc.), three years of math, and three years of science. Many require two years of a foreign language.” They also recommend classes in the arts and computer science — as well as community-based activities, employment, or volunteering — to help demonstrate well-roundedness.

Students should be sure to ask their school guidance counselor about Advanced Placement (AP) classes that might be a good fit. Even if they don’t successfully place into a higher level (some schools don’t accept AP credit as college-level courses), they still strengthen college applications. More importantly, they help prepare students for college-level coursework.

Fall Checklist

  • Meet with your parents/guardian and high school guidance counselor.
  • Make an academic plan that incorporates prerequisites, as well as electives and extracurricular activities.

Winter Checklist

  • Look into college savings plans.
  • Be sure to keep your grades up.

Spring Checklist

  • Begin researching potential schools.
  • Start looking into different possible career paths.

Summer Checklist

  • Start a list of your credentials, extracurricular activities, electives, and interests.
  • Spend your summer productively: get a job, volunteer locally, or look into academic/professional education programs.

Sophomore Year (10th Grade)

Students should continue choosing courses in line with their areas of interest—making sure to include prerequisites and electives as well. Extracurricular activities are also important, since they sometimes contribute to the subject matter of a college essay—a major component of college applications.

Students may also consider taking practice exams like the PSAT to help prepare them for the SAT exam, and may want to look into the ACT as well to determine which test is the best fit for them. They should also continue conducting research on potential colleges of interest, as well as career possibilities.

One advantage of choosing a preferred field of study early is that students may apply for scholarships designed specifically for a specific academic program. For example, there are scholarships exclusively for students interested in studying computer science, agriculture, or humanities. Moreover, there are financial resources available for first-generation college students—defined as the first person in the family to attend college.

There are many resources available for students unsure of prospective careers and college majors for undergraduates. School counselors are also excellent resources for more information on these choices.

Fall Checklist

  • Take the PSAT to help prepare you to take the SAT, your junior year.
  • Learn about the college admissions process and meet with your guidance counselor again, to ensure you’re on the right track.

Winter Checklist

  • Develop your interests outside of class, including extracurricular activities, clubs, and volunteering.
  • Work on your reading and writing skills while paying attention to current events.

Spring/Summer Checklist

  • Begin researching colleges of interest and reach out to their admissions offices.
  • Get a job to develop your resume and earn funds for college applications.

Junior Year (11th Grade)

During junior year, students should continue to take classes that fulfill necessary prerequisites for anticipated majors or fields of study, as well being sure to keep their grades up. In addition to rounding out school schedules with electives and extracurricular activities, they should continue researching standardized tests; students often take the SAT during the spring semester of their junior year—though they may also retake it fall of their senior year.

In terms of preparation for college applications, students should begin calling and/or visiting college campuses of interest, as well as organizing their academic portfolios and making summer goals for beginning application essays, applying for scholarships or grants, and researching due dates for prospective colleges.

Fall Checklist

  • Take the PSAT again, if desired, to prepare for the SAT, and make a plan of when/if to take other tests (SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests).
  • Make a list of prospective colleges to research and apply to, and be sure you’re meeting their academic and application requirements.

Winter Checklist

  • Organize your college application materials and begin to evaluate and narrow down the schools on your list according to your most important criteria.
  • Research the financial aid resources provided by your prospective colleges.
  • Make arrangements to take the SAT during your spring semester; you may retake it the fall semester of senior year.

Spring/Summer Checklist

  • Begin looking for scholarships that match up with your skills, interests, and financial situation.
  • Contact mentors (teachers, coaches, activity leaders) about letters of recommendation and begin working on your personal essay.
  • Make appointments to visit colleges of interest over the next year.

Senior Year (12th Grade)

During their senior year, students will want to consider taking college-level courses—either online or in-person via their local state or community college. College-level courses are beneficial because they expose students to college academic life and expectations. Students may also want to take AP or IB courses offered at their high school, for the same reasons; oftentimes, they may have the opportunity to complete introductory courses ahead of time, before their first year of college.

One factor that should not be overlooked is the personal essay—a crucial component of any college application. It’s worth thinking about the subject of this essay as soon as possible—ideally, the summer before senior year. Students could try brainstorming about subjects that inspire them, or anecdotes that illustrate a key component of their personalities or interests.

Students should also complete the FAFSA after October 1st, as well as college applications. The application materials most often required include: official high school transcripts, SAT/ACT scores, personal information, a personal essay, high school activities and achievements, letters of recommendation, and application fees. It’s important to be mindful of due dates and to avoid procrastinating, since college applications are often very detailed and require a significant amount of paperwork.

After receiving acceptance letters, students should consider their goals and financial resources compared with what tuition costs at each respective school. Lastly, they should inform all accepted colleges of their decision.

Fall Checklist

  • Finish evaluating schools and finalize your list of prospective colleges.
  • Retake the SAT (if necessary) and take subject tests or the ACT, if desired. Be sure to request that the scores be sent to your chosen schools.
  • Finalize your applications, including letters of recommendation, and keep track of all college application deadlines. Submit all application materials in time!

Winter Checklist

  • Apply for scholarships and submit FAFSA financial aid forms and necessary paperwork.
  • Check with colleges to make sure they received all application materials, and follow up with early decision schools, if applicable.

Spring/Summer Checklist

  • Evaluate financial aid offers and packages and follow up on FAFSA acknowledgement paperwork.
  • Make your final decision and notify any colleges you decided against. Submit all enrollment paperwork for your college of choice.
  • Congratulations, you’re done with the college application process!

Career & College Resources

Students should consider doing some research into possible majors as early as possible. Both the Federal Student Aid’s Career Search tool and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Career One Stop Interest Assessment  offer lots of information on careers that may be a good fit. A student’s prospective career will likely be strongly connected to their choice of college major.

Those interested in doing research on their own, before applying to colleges, may consult online resources like Preparing Students for College and Know How 2 Go, which detail what steps can help ensure college readiness. There are many different program options available, and it can be challenging to know where to begin looking for the best academic fit.

For example, some students find that it’s better for them to attend community college for a couple years before transferring to a larger university or private liberal arts college. Others may find that online options work best for helping them balance academic and life-related responsibilities like family or employment.

Everyone is different. The good news is, there’s a solution and best fit for everyone who’s willing to invest the time needed to learn what’s available to them. Best of luck!

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