The Student’s Guide to College Planning

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Updated on July 21, 2022
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  • When planning for college, students should consider their interests and goals.
  • Students can choose from many types of institutions, such as four-year colleges and trade schools.
  • Keep in mind tuition costs and other key factors when deciding which schools to apply to.
  • College planning should start early — ideally as soon as you enter high school.

College planning involves much more than just filling out forms, taking standardized tests, and asking for recommendation letters. The process requires self-reflection and consideration of both your budget and the pros and cons of different types of institutions.

In this guide, we go over some college planning fundamentals to help you craft a custom college plan. We've also put together a handy college planning checklist you can use throughout high school.

Download our free resource, the College Planning Checklist

How to Start Planning for College: A 4-Step Guide

Your college planning should roughly follow the four steps outlined below.

1. Consider Your Interests and Goals

You may or may not have some idea of what you want to major in. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What fields am I most interested in, and what am I good at?
  • What are my academic and professional goals?
  • What career path do I wish to pursue?
  • Will I need to earn an advanced degree to achieve my goals?
  • Do I want to attend college away from home?
  • Will I need to earn money while in school?
  • Could an alternative to a traditional four-year university, such as an online college or community college, work for me and my goals?

It's important to start this process of self-reflection sooner rather than later. You can turn to trusted adults for advice when necessary.

Starting to think about college early gives you two main advantages. First, you have time to change your mind and adjust your plans accordingly. Second, you can select high school courses and extracurricular activities that help make you a more competitive applicant for your target colleges.

2. Research Different Types of Institutions

While all accredited colleges award degrees and offer similar student support services, the type of school you attend can impact how much you pay for your education, which fields of study you can choose from, and your overall college experience.

Here are seven of the most common types of higher education institutions. We recommend consulting your high school guidance counselor for help figuring out which type of school may suit you best.

4-Year Public College or University

All states are home to public colleges and universities. These schools receive state funding to provide residents with a quality education — typically at a lower cost than private schools.

Out-of-state students may apply, but public schools often cap the number of out-of-state learners they admit each year. What's more, out-of-state students typically pay a significantly higher tuition rate than in-state students.

If one of your main goals is to save money, strongly consider your city and state colleges and universities when researching schools. Lower tuition rates can help you avoid incurring large amounts of student debt.

4-Year Private College or University

Though they usually cost a lot more than public schools, private colleges and universities may offer a host of additional benefits. Depending on the institution, learners may have access to more undergraduate research opportunities, world-renowned professors, and valuable networking opportunities. Networking is often key when applying for entry-level jobs and graduate programs.

Private schools encompass an array of institutions, from small liberal arts colleges specializing in more niche fields of study to large research universities. Additionally, many top private schools have big endowments, resulting in better institutional financial aid opportunities for students.

2-Year Community College

A typical community college awards mainly associate degrees and certificates. Full-time students usually earn an associate degree in two years. Many students attend community college to complete their general education requirements at a lower price before transferring to a four-year university to earn their bachelor's degree.

Community college may also appeal to those who are undecided about their career or major. Classes often cost less than they do at four-year schools, giving you the chance to explore different subjects without breaking the bank.

For-Profit School

For-profit colleges don't have the best reputation or track record in the higher education space, but for some career-minded students they can be a solid choice. Whereas nonprofit schools' main goals are to educate students, for-profit schools aim to generate money.

The biggest pros of for-profit institutions are higher acceptance rates, flexible class offerings, and a focus on skills-based training. Cons include high tuition costs, unrecognized or disputed credentials, and even the risk of lawsuits.

Online College or University

Recent high school graduates and nontraditional students may prefer to earn an online degree.

One of the main advantages of online colleges is the option of asynchronous learning, which allows students to complete their coursework largely on their own schedule without having to meet at specific times. This flexibility may allow degree-seekers to work full time and more easily balance other obligations like childcare.

In addition to flexibility, online learning can offer financial benefits. For example, out-of-state online students may qualify for in-state tuition rates. Distance learners can also sometimes download free textbooks. Online students can access many resources available to their on-campus counterparts, such as library databases and career services.

Trade School or Technical College

Trade schools — also known as vocational schools — and technical colleges offer a more direct pathway for students to enter the workforce. Some of the biggest benefits of trade schools include lower tuition costs, faster graduation timelines, and the opportunity to acquire and hone real-world experience.

What's more, many trades are in high demand, meaning trade school graduates may find it easier to get a job right out of school.

Special Focus Institution

Special focus institutions refer to colleges that award degrees in a limited number of academic areas.

Most of these schools are affiliated with a larger institution, such as Harvard University's Harvard Medical School and Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Many students who earn a master's or doctoral degree enroll in a special focus institution.

Special focus institutions may also accept undergraduates in fields such as engineering and the arts.

Though some schools offer additional majors, they typically appeal to prospective learners with clear academic and career paths in mind. If you want to explore a variety of majors your first year of college, a special focus institution may not be the best fit.

3. Understand the True Cost of College

Tuition is by far the biggest college expense. Other costs, however, such as housing, meal plans, and textbooks, can add up quickly.

Many students pay out of pocket for things like extracurricular activities and clubs, study abroad programs, and car insurance. Altogether, these expenses make researching and applying for financial aid a necessity for most degree-seekers.

School Type Average Annual Tuition and Fees (2021-22)
Public 2-Year (In-District) $3,800
Public 4-Year (In-State) $10,740
Public 4-Year (Out-of-State) $27,560
Private 4-Year $38,070

Source: College Board

Financial aid comes in many forms. You should start by looking for scholarships. Many colleges award merit-based scholarships to incoming students with high GPAs and strong test scores.

You should also consider ways you can save money in college. Depending on the school you attend, you may find that living off campus and buying groceries costs less than living in a dorm and purchasing a meal plan.

Another cost-saving option is to opt for an online degree. Online programs often charge lower tuition rates than campus-based programs and may exempt students from certain fees.

Finally, students may choose to appeal their financial aid packages to try to get more money if the awards they receive aren't enough to cover the cost of college.

4. Plan Ahead to Meet Important Deadlines

Applying to college entails keeping track of many important dates and deadlines. These deadlines are associated with college applications, SAT and ACT prep, scholarship applications, and the FAFSA.

When you start college planning, use a calendar or planner to help you stay on top of every deadline.

If you need help, visit your high school's college planning center or make an appointment to speak with your guidance counselor. Your counselor can walk you through key deadlines and offer valuable advice about what you can start doing now to prepare for college application season.

When Should You Start Planning for College?

College may seem like a lifetime away on your first day of high school. However, it's important to start your college planning early — ideally in ninth grade. Doing this gives you the chance to consider the advice of college planning experts and set long-term goals, all while earning good grades and staying involved with extracurriculars.

Many students get help from their parents or guardians during the college planning process. Your parents or guardians can help hold you accountable to your academic and extracurricular obligations. They may even help you open a college savings account.

Just as importantly, your parents or guardians can provide you with valuable encouragement and advice.

A Complete College Planning Checklist

Below is a college planning checklist high school students can use to keep track of key milestones and goals. You can also download the checklist here.

9th Grade

Students entering high school often find themselves inundated with opportunities to learn about higher ed. Even though college typically remains a full four years away, ninth grade is a crucial year for college prep, as it's when grades begin counting toward your cumulative high school GPA.

Choose Courses Carefully

Ninth graders should primarily focus on choosing classes to fulfill college prerequisites. Most colleges and universities maintain the same set of general requirements:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of social studies
  • Three years of math
  • Three years of science
  • Two years of a foreign language

Students who begin fulfilling college course requirements in ninth grade may be able to enjoy a more relaxed schedule their junior and senior years, allowing them to pursue other college prep programs and activities in their spare time.

As you review your high school's course offerings, consider challenging yourself in one or more subjects you enjoy by taking honors classes (if available at your school).

Research Potential Career Paths

Spend time looking into relevant career paths that align with your interests and/or the subjects in which you excel. You may want to keep a list of career opportunities that appeal to you the most.

10th Grade

Sophomores may want to start setting up meetings with their high school guidance counselor to discuss college planning. These professionals can explain schools' requirements and help students identify schools that most closely match their academic and career interests. Counselors can also provide valuable information on topics like financial aid, college applications, and entrance exams.

Consider Taking the PSAT, PSAT 10, or PreACT

Tenth graders can benefit from exposing themselves early on to the types of standardized tests they'll most likely need to take to get into college. Instead of jumping straight into the SAT or ACT, however, many students prefer to take practice versions of these exams, such as the PSAT, the PSAT 10, and the PreACT.

You can use your performance on your chosen practice test to help you identify areas for improvement and begin preparing for the actual SAT or ACT as a junior.

Concentrate on Extracurriculars

If the extracurriculars you chose the previous year no longer match your interests, feel free to switch activities. That said, you should try to commit to any new activities for the remainder of high school. Colleges like to see passion, consistency, and dedication.

Most colleges look for extracurriculars that demonstrate leadership, community service, and/or exceptional ability. While sports remain a popular activity, students may explore other options, such as debate and student government. High schoolers should also consider engaging in service opportunities to give back to their communities.

Attend College-Related Events

Your high school or another organization in your local community likely hosts one or more college fairs throughout the year. Attend a fair to network with representatives and learn more about colleges in your state and beyond.

11th Grade

In terms of college prep, the second half of high school is far more intensive than the first. College-bound high school students must complete many different tasks during their junior and senior years. The more they accomplish in 11th grade, the more pressure they can remove from themselves in 12th grade.

Take the PSAT

Held in October each year, the PSAT helps you prepare for the SAT (or ACT). Doing exceptionally well on this exam can qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship as well.

Take the SAT or ACT

Juniors should take the ACT or SAT in the fall or spring (or both, if desired). Create a study plan at least a few months before your test date to help you earn a high SAT or ACT score.

You might also consider using free SAT or ACT resources, buying SAT or ACT prep books, or signing up for online SAT or ACT prep classes.

Consider AP/IB Classes

AP classes and tests give you the chance to earn college credit and impress college admissions officers. Talk to a teacher or advisor and consider taking 1-3 AP classes in your best subjects.

Alternatively, you may take IB classes if your school offers them. Earning an IB diploma can reflect positively on you during college admissions, and high scores on IB exams can similarly earn you college credit.

Research Schools and Financial Aid Options

Juniors should start putting together a tentative list of colleges. You can further prepare for the future by researching student loans, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities.

As you research colleges, compile a "top schools" list of institutions that interest you the most. Aim for 5-10 schools. Feel free to modify this list as your interests and goals evolve.

12th Grade

Senior year of high school is a pivotal time in teenagers' lives. For college-bound students, 12th grade is particularly busy.

Retake the SAT/ACT If Needed

Many students improve their SAT/ACT scores on a second go-around. Make time to study for your chosen exam, taking care to focus on your biggest weaknesses and content gaps.

Apply to and Visit Schools

A college tour can help you decide whether to apply. Also, keep track of all your application deadlines and application materials with a planner.

Some of the most common college application materials are as follows:

  • General application form with your personal and contact information
  • Official high school transcript
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • 1-3 letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • Portfolio (usually for more artistic programs)

Fill Out the FAFSA and Apply for Scholarships

To see whether you qualify for federal aid and certain institutional scholarships, file the FAFSA. Since aid is available on a first-come, first-served basis, you'll want to submit your FAFSA on or as soon as possible after October 1 when it opens.

It's also a good idea to apply for private scholarships at this time. You can search for scholarships online, narrowing your options by factors such as demographic, major, and location.

Compare Your Options and Commit

Receiving acceptance letters from colleges is a tremendous accomplishment. After celebrating, you must weigh your options. Consider asking a parent, guardian, or teacher for advice before committing to a school. You typically have until May 1 to make your decision and submit your nonrefundable deposit.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Planning

Why is it important to plan for college?

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Not only do college students take four or more years to earn a bachelor's degree, but many also spend thousands of dollars on tuition, books, and housing. Since college typically requires a huge investment of both time and money, you'll need a plan to identify a school that offers you the academic and campus experience you want while meeting your budget.

What should you consider when choosing colleges to apply to?

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No two people have the exact same interests and goals. Nevertheless, when choosing colleges, all high school students should consider how they're going to pay for college, the majors and academic offerings of the colleges they're considering, and their career goals.

Other factors may include campus location, extracurricular offerings, internship and professional opportunities, and student body diversity.

When should you start applying to colleges?

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College applications generally open in August and are due in the late fall or early winter of your senior year. As such, most students start applying in the fall. That said, it's advised you get a head start on certain application materials, such as securing good SAT/ACT scores and asking for letters of recommendation, toward the end of junior year or during the summer before senior year.

Early decision and early action deadlines are earlier in the fall, usually in November. If you plan to apply for early admission, you'll need to get started on the application process sooner.

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