The process of getting into college actually starts long before you fill out your first application. In fact, soon after you start high school, it can be a good idea to start laying the groundwork for college, from choosing the right classes to thinking about where you might like to go to figuring out how you’re going to cover the cost.
What follows is a simple five-step, pre-college plan that can help you find, get into, and pay for your dream school.
Preparing For College: A 5-Part Checklist
For many things in life, preparation is the key to success. And this is certainly true when it comes to getting into college. Here are five steps that can help you set yourself up for a successful college experience.
1. Research Your Dream School
One of the first parts of preparing for college is deciding which college or university is right for you. The good news is that there is a school out there for just about everyone. The bad news is that you have so many options that you might be overwhelmed with choices.
Some students know right away that they want to go to the same school their parents went to, while others may be limited to choosing between a few in-state campuses. Regardless of your position, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help narrow down your college search:
What Type of Career Do You Want to Pursue?
One of the first things you might consider is what you hope to do with your degree. If you already know that you want to be an urban planner, then you may want to focus your college search on schools with stellar urban planning programs. Think your dream is too niche?
Whether you want to study auctioneering or Egyptology, there’s likely a program for you. If, on the other hand, you aren’t sure what you want to major in, you may want to look at bigger schools with many different programs where you will be able to take a wide variety of classes.
💡 Quick Tip: When shopping for a private student loan lender, look for benefits that help lower your monthly payment.
Where Do You Want to be Located?
You may also want to consider what type of location you’re looking for in a college experience. Maybe you want to get as far away from home as possible, or maybe you would be more comfortable on a campus within driving distance of your family. Some students choose to live at home and attend a local college in order to save money on living costs. Once you narrow down a location, you can start searching for schools in that area.
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How Many Schools Will You Apply To?
It’s not a bad idea to apply to multiple schools even if you have your heart set on just one. Your dreams and goals can change through the college application process, and a different school may be a better match when it comes time to make a final decision. Plus, the application process can be competitive, and applying to more schools may give you more chance of success in your application.
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2. Plan For the SAT and ACT
Once you know where you want to apply, it is time to get down to business and start preparing for college entrance exams. Some schools require the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT, and some schools require American College Testing, known as the ACT. Many schools will accept either one.
The key to working towards a killer score on either test is preparation, preparation, preparation. Whether you’re taking an after-school prep class or studying by yourself, there are lots of resources available online to help you succeed. Both the SAT and the ACT offer free practice tests, and Khan Academy offers a free SAT practice program .
Taking practice tests can help you not only learn the material but can help you get comfortable with the format of the test. This can help you stay calm and confident when test day rolls around.
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3. Get Involved In Extracurriculars
In between all that studying, you may want to consider taking some time to get to work in your community. One thing many colleges look for are multi-faceted students who are interested in more than just academics.
That means that getting involved in the community could potentially help you write a strong college application, and it may also help you decide what you want to do with your life. Sports obsessed? You might consider taking up a new sport to round out your classes or volunteering to coach a local youth team.
More into classic literature than shooting hoops? Many schools have programs where you can volunteer to tutor younger students, which can not only help sharpen your skills, but may look great on an application. Whatever you’re into, don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new — you might discover you have a passion for marine biology after organizing a beach clean up day with your classmates.
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4. Consider Taking AP Courses
Many schools offer Advanced Placement or “AP” courses. Taking these classes may help you get one step ahead when it comes to college. AP courses allow you to tackle college-level material while you’re still in high school, and at the end of the class (if you pass the AP exam), you could be rewarded with college credits. Why try to rack up college credits in high school?
The more credits you earn from AP classes in high school, the more intro classes you may be able to skip in college. So if you take AP English in high school, you may qualify to skip out on the freshman level English class once you’re at school.
Depending on the school, that may mean that you have more opportunity to take specialized classes in your major, or it could even lead to the opportunity to graduate early.
5. Figure Out Your Finances
There’s no denying that college can be expensive. For the 2022-2023 academic year, the average tuition at a public college was $11,744 for state residents and $21,928 for out-of-state students. The average tuition and fees for a private college was $27,796. Keep in mind: These numbers don’t include the cost of housing, food, text books and supplies.
According to the Sallie Mae How America Pays for College 2023 , parent income and savings covered 50% of college costs. So, even if you’ll get some help from your family, you may need more funding to cover some of the cost of college. Fortunately, there are many ways to finance your education.
A good place to start is by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will let you know if you are eligible for financial aid, including grants, scholarships, work study, and federal student loans. If those do not cover your costs, you may also consider private student loans.
Private student loans are available through private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates and terms vary, depending on the lender. Generally, borrowers (or cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates.
Keep in mind, though, that private loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-based repayment plans and deferment or forbearance — that automatically come with federal student loans. But if you are looking for supplemental funding for your education, private student loans are an option.
💡 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.
The college application process can be overwhelming. Breaking it down into smaller steps and goals can make it feel a little bit easier. Consider researching schools, making a plan for standardized testing, expanding your involvement in extracurriculars, and taking AP level courses. Getting into college is half the equation, however — the other half is paying for it.
When federal financial aid, scholarships, grants, and savings aren’t enough -– student loans may be one option to consider to help fill in the gaps.
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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