Preparing to go to college starts long before your senior year in high school. In fact, soon after starting your freshman year in high school, you may want to begin thinking about what you can do to put your best foot forward on your college applications.
With the right college preparedness plan, choosing where to apply, filling out your applications, and (yes) getting in to your top choices can be significantly easier. Here’s a smart 10-step plan that can help ensure you are ready for college when the time comes.
Ways to Get Prepared for College
1. Take the Required Courses
It’s a good idea to consult with your high school guidance counselor about what classes you should take for college preparation. Generally, high school students will take courses like English (American and English literature), Math (Algebra I and II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus), Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Earth Science), Social Studies (U.S. History, U.S. Government, World History, and Geography), a Foreign Language, and the Arts.
💡 Quick Tip: You’ll make no payments on some private student loans for six months after graduation.
2. Enroll in AP, IB, and College Courses
Your high school may offer you the opportunity to take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, which are college-level and will allow you to earn college credit. Then, you can skip these courses when you get to college and ensure you have a head start. Both require that you take exams, and you can send your scores into colleges. Keep in mind that IB classes would be more useful if you plan on going to college outside the U.S., since only U.S.-based schools recognize AP coursework.
3. Do Test Prep
A key step in preparing for college is studying for the SAT or ACT. Taking one of these tests is required for many college applications in the U.S. You can study by forming study groups with friends, taking the PSATs/pre-ACTs and practice tests, getting an SAT/ACT tutor, and enrolling in SAT/ACT practice classes. You may want to look at the average SAT/ACT score of students who have been admitted to your top choice schools and aim to get those scores — or higher — to ensure your application impresses the admissions officers.
If standardized tests aren’t your strong suit, there are some colleges that do not require them as a part of the application process.
Recommended: ACT vs. SAT: Which Do Colleges Prefer?
4. Hone Your Study Skills
In college, you’re going to take a rigorous set of courses. Your academics are likely to be a lot more challenging than they were in high school. This means you should hone your study skills now to prepare for college. Find a quiet place to study, turn off all distractions, organize your lecture notes, join study groups, and take breaks when you need them in order to effectively study.
5. Go to College Fairs
Whenever there is a local college fair happening, try to attend it. That way, you can learn about different colleges you may want to apply to. Typically, a college fair will consist of college representatives who set up booths, give presentations, talk to prospective students, and hand out pamphlets about their schools. College fairs can be a great opportunity to learn about a number of colleges in a short time period.
They also offer the opportunity for you to connect with representatives at the colleges. As an attendee, you’ll have the opportunity to ask the representatives specific questions and take the handouts so you can continue your research at home.
6. Take College Tours
Before applying to a school, try to go on a campus tour to see what it’s all about. A college that has a great website or looks good on paper may not end up being the right fit once you actually visit it. While on the tour, ask your student tour guide and other students around about the pros and cons of the school to get a real feel for whether or not you’d like it there.
Some colleges may do interviews as a part of the application process. If you’re heading to campus for a college interview, make time for a tour too.
7. Meet With Your High School Guidance Counselor
Your high school guidance counselor can help you with preparing for college in a number of different ways. They can advise you on what classes to take and extracurricular activities you can enroll in to ensure you have a competitive college application when the time comes.
Your counselor can also help you determine what you want to major in and the kind of career you might enjoy by steering you towards career fairs and giving you a test that will show your strengths and reveal your talents. If you’re worried about paying for college, they can let you know your options and ensure you fill out all the right forms in time.
8. Fill Out a FAFSA Form
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the form you need to fill out to apply for federal financial aid. This includes federal grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans. Some schools also use the information provided on the FAFSA to determine scholarship awards.
If you anticipate needing support to cover the cost of attendance in college, this is usually the place to start. The Department of Education is rolling out a new simplified FAFSA for the 2024-2025 academic year. It will be available in December 2023, a delay from the usual October 1.
9. Look Into Student Loans
Filling out the FAFSA isn’t the only thing on your financial to-do list when you’re prepping for college. You could also weigh your student loan options. As mentioned, the FAFSA puts you in contention for federal student loans — among other tuition subsidies like work-study or grants. Federal student loans have fixed interest rates, which means the rate will not change for the duration of the loan.
Each year, Congress determines what the fixed interest rate on federal loans will be — and interest rates vary across federal undergraduate loans, including PLUS loans for parents and grad students. While these loans can be an important resource when it comes to funding your education, there are limits to the amount you can take out each year. For example, first-year undergraduates currently have a federal loan limit of $5,500.
If federal aid and other sources of funding aren’t enough to cover the cost of tuition, you may consider looking into private student loans to fund the rest of your education. Private student loans don’t always offer the same benefits as federal student loans — like the option to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness — so they are generally considered only after all other options have been reviewed and exhausted.
💡 Quick Tip: Parents and sponsors with strong credit and income may find much lower rates on no-fee private parent student loans than federal parent PLUS loans. Federal PLUS loans also come with an origination fee.
10. Apply for Scholarships
Once you start applying to colleges, you may also want to search out and apply for private scholarships. Your school may offer specific scholarships you can apply to that will help you pay for your education. Online databases are another resource to check out. One option, Fastweb , a free national scholarship database that has a scholarship algorithm; it will match you to scholarships, internships, and grants you could potentially qualify for.
There are many things you can do to prepare for college. Above all else, you’ll want to focus on your academics and make your college application as competitive as possible so that you can get into the school of your dreams. You’ll also want to think about what your education will potentially cost and work with your parents to come up with a plan for how you will pay for college. Your options include savings, grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal or private student loans.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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