How to Start Planning for College
Last updated October 30, 2023
Ready to start exploring your college options? We’re here to help! Here’s how to start planning for college in high school.
Do your research
An important first step of beginning your college planning is online research. Set aside some time to research colleges that have majors, academic programs, sports, or extracurricular activities that interest you. Not sure where to start your search? We recommend using BigFuture’s College Search tool, which allows you to research colleges by academics, location, campus life and more. Here are some other important things to consider when beginning the process of researching colleges:
- Do I want to attend a small or large school?
- Do I want to attend school close to or far away from home?
- What do I want the campus culture to be like? Do I want to attend a school with lots of events always happening around campus, or one that’s a bit more low-key?
- Does this school have the major I’m interested in? Will I be able to change my major down the road if needed?
- Could I realistically afford to attend this school?
- What are the housing options like at this school?
- Can I see myself thriving and being happy while attending this school?
By taking some time to research schools, you’ll have a better idea of which ones you want to actually apply to when it’s time. Learn here about more things to consider before applying to a college.
Stay organized during your search
Staying organized is key to making sure you submit all of your applications and any supplemental materials on time! Use our free college application requirements tracker to help.
Talk to school advisors and mentors
Now that you have an idea of what kinds of schools you’re interested in, the next step is to meet with your school guidance counselor or staff at the college and career office. They are there to support you throughout your college application journey - from researching schools to enrolling in one! When you meet with them, be sure to talk about the schools and majors you’re interested in and anything else that came up during your research that you’d like to know more about. They can also connect you to college fairs, campus tours, and give you some information about colleges they think you might be a good fit at.
We recommend meeting with your guidance counselor or advisor at least once during your junior year, and then multiple times throughout your senior year to check in with them about your progress on college applications, essays, transcripts, and more. They’re there to help you stay on track and get all of your necessary materials in to finalize your applications, so don't forget to check in with them!
Note: If your school doesn’t have a guidance counselor, we recommend talking to a trusted educator or parent/guardian about your college goals and choices. You can always talk to us, too! Text #Hello to 33-55-77 if you have any questions about getting to college.
Attend a college fair
College fairs give prospective students a chance to meet with admissions counselors and learn more about a specific school. These free fairs, usually held by school districts or local cities, invite a mix of local and regional schools, small private schools and large state schools, and everything in between! Be sure to come prepared with a few questions to ask each of the college representatives. This is a great way to make a connection with someone from the school in case you have any further questions during the application process!
Register for the PSAT, SAT or ACT and start studying
If you are a junior, you need to take the PSAT your junior year to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. It is also a great way to start practicing for the SAT. Only a few schools have dropped the ACT or SAT as a requirement for admissions in response to COVID, so we recommend preparing to take either (or both) of the tests. While these tests are not a measure of your intelligence or your capabilities as a student or a person, they are in many cases an important addition to your college application. Learn more here about sending SAT and ACT scores to colleges. Check with your school to see if they offer any test prep classes you can take. If not, try looking for resources at your local library or community center, download study apps on your phone, or check out other free resources to help you prepare and study for the SAT and/or ACT. You can take both the SAT and ACT multiple times, so if you don’t get the score you wanted on the first try, don’t panic!
Build your college application
Academics are an important element of your college application, but they’re not everything! The colleges you’re applying to want to see you demonstrate that you are a well-rounded person who has other interests outside of school - aka any extracurricular activities you participate in. Here are some things you can add to your applications to help colleges get to know you better:
- Student government
- Volunteer work, both virtually and for political organizations
- Part-time or Summer jobs
- Side hustles
- Instruments or reading
- The languages you speak
- Family responsibilities
Want to make your college application stand out? Check out our 10 activities to boost your college application!
Start drafting your essay
A student’s college application essay is one of the most important components of their application. It’s their time to share a significant moment, event, or story from their life that not only gives schools better insight into who they are, but helps them display personal growth and dedication to their futures.
Your essays don’t need to be finalized or submitted until you’re a senior, so your junior year is the perfect time to start brainstorming and drafting them! Check out the most common essay prompts that you’ll find on college applications - you can choose a few that you think would best help you tell your story and start writing. When you have your first draft, send it to us for free review! We’ll have it back to you within a week with actionable feedback and advice.
Finalize your college list
Now that you have gathered information about the colleges and universities to choose from, it’s time to finalize your list of schools you plan to apply to. You can organize your list into categories:
- Reach schools are the ones you dream of going to, but are a bit more competitive to get into, due to things like small acceptance rates, minimum GPAs or test scores, or even high costs of tuition.
- Solid schools are schools you feel confident about getting accepted to, even if they’re not necessarily at the very top of your list.
- Target schools are schools you have a strong chance of getting admitted to. Your test scores, GPA, or coursework typically match those of other incoming students at these schools.
You can evaluate this list based on the kind of experience you want to have in college, the size and location of your school, and of course, the academic programs available at each school. Applying to multiple schools can be expensive, but fee waivers are available.
Ask for letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are another important addition to your college application. They show that you are a hardworking and dedicated student, worker, teammate, and friend, and that you would continue to work hard at the schools you’re applying to. Ask an educator, coach, boss, or another important adult in your life if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. Be sure to give them enough time to write your letter - at least a few weeks - and provide them with a list of your leadership roles, community service, and extracurricular activities, etc. (aka a brag sheet) to make the writing process smoother and faster. Not sure how to ask for a letter of recommendation? Read our tips here!
Research different financial aid options
One of the most important things you will need to take into consideration when you begin to research and apply to school is financial aid. Because most colleges are expensive, most students who attend typically receive some (or multiple) forms of financial aid. Spend some time researching different financial aid options, like scholarships, loans, grants, and more, to familiarize yourself with them before you begin applying to colleges.
The most important thing you can do to receive financial aid is to file the FAFSA. This form, which is free to complete, must be submitted each year you plan to attend college in order to qualify for federal financial aid. It is also used to help award state and institution grants, as well as scholarships.
It’s important to note that since the FAFSA requires a social security number, undocumented students are not eligible to apply for it. If you cannot file your FAFSA for this or other reasons, many states have state-specific financial aid forms that you can fill out to receive grants, scholarships, and other financial aid.
You don’t have to prepare for college alone! We are always here to answer any questions and help you along the way. Leave us a comment on Instagram @GetSchooled or text #Hello to 33-55-77!