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Preparing for College in High School

College is a big step — and you want to make sure you start off on the right foot. While many think the collegiate experience starts with move-in day, the truth is that the journey begins months (if not years) before that. Preparing for college is the true first step. Wondering how to prepare for college with the best of the best? In this guide, we have you covered.

While it may seem premature, or even paradoxical, your high school years are some of the most important times determining the success you’ll have in college. High school is where you set the standard that will get you accepted (or denied) from colleges across the country. It’s the place where you’ll solidify your GPA, take your standardized tests, and craft your college applications. It’s also the time and place where you’ll get to research colleges and determine a good fit. There’s a lot to take care of, so it’s important to have a game plan. Here’s how to prepare for college in high school, year by year. 


How to Prepare for College in 9th Grade

College preparation starts early. From the first day of high school, everything counts towards college. Here's what you do can do make sure your freshman year of high school counts:

1. Focus on getting good grades from the very beginning. If you mess up your grades in 9th grade, it is hard (but not impossible) to bring your GPA up. You don’t want to find yourself in a spot when you’re applying to colleges, wishing you had worked a little harder your freshman year to have a better application GPA. 

2. Make sure your parents talked to your teachers and counselor about your future in high school and beyond. Make sure you are taking the right courses for your future major. If you need extra help in a subject, make sure the teacher is aware. 

3. Check out the extracurricular activities at your high school and in your community. At some point, look into leadership in one of the clubs. Keep a running list of your extracurricular activities for your high school resume.

4. Create a summer plan (between 9th and 10th grades). You want to do something that will lead to a valuable experience or personal growth. Your summer plan should tap into something you are passionate about. 

5. Go over your schedule for sophomore year with your counselor and your parents. Many colleges look at the strength of your schedule and want you to challenge yourself.

6. Begin a running list of accomplishments, awards, and recognitions to use in preparing a résumé and college applications. To get accepted into the school of your dreams, you need to stand out from a sea of candidates. The best way to do this is to be intentional and get a head start. Begin crafting a preliminary resume to determine your strong suits and your weak areas. This will help you determine what to focus on as you get closer and closer to college.

7. Start working on scholarship applications. Scholarships are a great way to cover costs in college. There are need-based scholarships, which are awarded to students who stand out with exemplary performance in academics, athletics, or extracurricular activities. There are also need-based scholarships, which are awarded to students whose families show demonstrable financial need through FAFSA. Believe it or not, it’s possible to start searching and applying for both types of scholarships as a high school freshman. Use the internet or talk to your high school career counselor to see what scholarship opportunities are available to 9th graders, and start doing some preliminary research on schools that offer scholarships for you to apply to later on.

9th Grade College Prep Summary:

  • Start early! 
  • Get your grades in a good place
  • Start searching for scholarships
  • Utilize your summer


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How to Prepare for College in 10th Grade

Preparing for college in high school begins to take a more serious turn in 10th grade. That’s where most students will get the chance to take the PSAT for the first time, and it’s where many will have their first shot at AP classes (great ways to boost GPA and potentially earn college credit).

So, how do you make your sophomore successful, college-wise? Start by continuing all of the steps you started with in ninth grade. While you’re doing those, kick things up a notch with these tips:

1. Continue to take your classes seriously. Your GPA is one of the most important factors colleges and universities consider when evaluating your application. Although junior year is the most important in high school, it’s much easier to impress schools if you have solid grades your freshman and sophomore years and demonstrate steady improvement.

2. Begin building relationships with your teachers. They will be able to help you decide which schools are the right fit for you, as well as write letters of recommendation for applications and scholarships.

3. Get involved with clubs, sports or organizations at your high school. Perfect grades and test scores aren’t enough to nab a school's attention — you have to stand out. If you’re just getting started, think about what you’re passionate about and join activities that fall in line with that. Extracurriculars are a great way to boost an application. Remember, depth matters more than breadth. It is better to pursue a few activities well than to be a joiner.

4. Make your schedule for junior year stacked with impressive classes. You will schedule your junior classes as a sophomore. Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) classes impress schools. Take a challenging course load but don’t forget to balance it out so you’re not overwhelmed.

5. If you haven’t already started, now is the time to look for scholarships. This will help you reduce the amount of money you need to borrow. Remember, scholarships are free money. You can get a jumpstart on your scholarship hunt by signing up for a Appily account. Appily will match you with relevant scholarships across the country.

6. Start to research some career fields of interest. While you might think 10th grade is too early to start thinking about a career, the fact is that your future career may just influence your college choice, which you should be thinking about now. If you’re not sure what you want to do professionally, that’s okay. Write down a list of three or five potential careers, learn a bit about what it takes to pursue those careers, and check out colleges that offer majors in adjacent areas. If you really aren’t sure whatsoever about a future career whatsoever, it may be a good idea to start focusing on schools with a lot of options, or those that emphasize a wide range of study, like liberal arts schools.

7. Begin making a list of colleges of interest. You’ve spent some time thinking about future careers, you’ve begun building a resume with areas of focus — now it’s time to start making a list of colleges that you think may be a good fit. Somethings to keep in mind when making your list are majors offered, student body size, location, cost, prestige, and school culture.

10th Grade College Prep Summary:

  • Maintain grades in a good place
  • Get involved in extracurriculars
  • Build relationships with teachers for recommendations, etc
  • Make a list of initial colleges you are interested in
  • Stack your junior year with impressive classes


How to Prepare for College in 11th Grade

Of the four years you have in high school, your junior year is the most important time for college prep. It’s the time you’ll choose colleges to apply to, take most admissions tests and decide what you want the next four years of your life to look like. It’s also the year where your grades matter most. During junior year, you’ll have the opportunity to stack your schedule with AP classes. (And during senior year, only one semester of grades may need to be submitted to colleges.) So, how can you make your junior year jump start your college career? Here is a list of things you should do and consider as you get ready for college during 11th grade.

1. Begin preparing for your college admissions tests. They may last under four hours, but the SAT and ACT can make a world of difference on your college application. For this reason, you spend significant time preparing for at least one of these tests. That’s right: before taking the SAT and/or the ACT, you should study and do practice tests. You can find free test prep resources from various college prep organizations. There are also a host of tutoring services that can help you boost your score with on-on-one instruction.

A couple important things to know about the SAT and ACT is that they are not the same, you (usually) only have to take and submit a score from one or the other, and you can take each test multiple times. You can check out our guides on the SAT and ACT to learn which one may be right fit for you — though we recommend taking both at least once so you can let the scores do some of the deciding.

2. Decide what kind of college experience you’d like to have. There are many things to consider, such as the social, financial and academic fit. You also need to think about what kind of college setting you’d like, because campuses are located in rural, suburban and urban settings.

3. Research colleges and start shopping around. Gather as much information as you can about the colleges you're interested in and add them to your college list. At this point, the goal is to whittle down your list to a handful of colleges. These schools should fit a number of criteria. They should be attainable in terms of grades and test scores, they should be doable in terms of cost, and they should offer the majors that interest you. Not sure how to supercharge your search? While the internet is a great resource, your high school most likely has a professional (or several) whose job it is to help students with questions like yours. Schedule a meeting with a career counselor at your school for assistance on finding colleges.

4. Start your college visits. Getting a feel for a campus is essential. This will be your home for the next four years and you should like it. In fact, this is the time to ask questions. You also should speak with current students to get a realistic view of what college life on that campus is like.  

5. Try and decide on a few potential majors. Even if you don’t know what you’d like to study, having an idea helps you choose colleges. If you’re truly ambitious, some colleges let you create your own major. Even if you don’t know what you’d like to study, you always can change your major.

6. Keep your grades strong. Although many students think test scores hold the most weight with college admissions officials, academic performance is the most important factor. Also, Advanced Placement (AP) classes look great on a high school transcript.

7. Get a summer job, volunteer or do an internship. These activities not only build your resume, but they look great to college admissions officers and scholarship committees. (Plus, they can make great topics for college application An internship shows that you’re serious about a particular pursuit, or just serious about getting a head start on your career in general. Both show colleges that you’re capable, proactive, and a candidate that other organizations have successfully trusted. You’re not just a safe bet—you’re a great bet.

8. Apply for scholarships if you haven’t already started. In fact, you should sign up for Appily because it will match you with relevant scholarships across the country.

11th Grade College Prep Summary:

  • Begin test prep & start taking admissions tests
  • Make shortlist of colleges & go on college visits
  • Identify a few potential majors
  • Secure a summer job or internship


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How to Prepare for College in 12th Grade

By your senior year, the work you’ve done in grades 9 through 11 should put you in a good position to enroll in the school of your choice. That said, in grade 12, the work still isn’t over. Your senior year of high school is the perfect time to prep for your next four years at a college or university. So there's a lot to do to prepare! Here's how to start getting ready.

1. At the beginning of your senior year, ask to see a copy of your high school transcripts. You want to see what will be sent out to colleges, so there are no surprises. Wondering what’s included on your transcript? As an academic record of your high school years, your transcript includes an ordered list of all classes that you took in high school, your grades in each of those glasses, your overall GPA, your class rank, and your graduation date and year. Taking a look at your transcript before it’s sent off to colleges is a great way to make sure there are no mistakes. It can also help you plan your schedule to boost your GPA with your senior year’s first semester course load.

2. Decide which teachers you are going to ask to write you recommendation letters, and ask them early. The need for recommendation letters varies college to college, so make sure you’re clear on what you need, and ask early. Be aware that teachers may have a lot of students asking them for recommendations, and you want to make sure your selections will have the time to write yours! 

3. Attend college fairs to learn about any other colleges that may be a good match for you. This will help you create a complete list of colleges to apply to. Before any college fair, put together a short list of questions to ask colleges at each booth. These questions should be things you want to know — especially things that may be harder to learn from the internet or the colleges’ admissions offices. If there are current or past students running the booths, ask them about their personal college experiences. This will help you get a better idea of what life at a given school is really like.

4. Sign up for any additional SATs or ACTs you might need to take or retake. Make sure your scores are sent to the colleges you are applying to when you register for the test. You also should want the highest scores for merit, academic and organizational scholarships. 

5. There are more scholarships available to you this year than ever before. Fill out as many applications as possible.

6. Start working on your college applications. If the schools have rolling admissions policies, the applications may come online as early as July or August.

7. Have a teacher, parent or mentor take a look at your college application essays. Your essay needs to answer the question asked in the prompt. Make your essay about you.

8. Once you send your applications, be proactive!  Check your status online or by email with the school. Do not assume that you aren’t missing any data. Schools misplace checks, transcripts and applications all the time.

9. If you haven’t yet, visit the schools. As we’ve already covered, visiting a school is one of the best ways to get a feel for a campus and determine whether you could see yourself going to school there. At this point in your senior year, you may have been accepted into several schools you haven’t even visited. If you’re seriously considering these schools, visiting is a great way to narrow down your choice. Take a scheduled tour to visit everything from the dorms to the student recreation areas. If possible, try to sit in on a class or two to see your future education in action.

10. Send your transcripts to the colleges. A transcript has all your high school information like credits, grades, honors classes and your GPA.

11. Meet with your guidance counselor to discuss your college plans to make sure you’re on the right track. Especially once you start hearing back from schools, don’t be afraid to lean on your guidance counselor for guidance… that’s what they’re for, after all!

12. Have your parents fill out the FAFSA Form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at Starting in 2016, the FAFSA opens October 1 so get started early. You won’t receive your financial aid package from colleges until you have been accepted to the school and FAFSA has been completed.  

13. Don’t let senioritis get in your way! Keep in mind that senior year grades are very important. A college can rescind your offer if you don't perform as expected senior year.

14. If you have been deferred by a school, find out why. If it's because of your test scores, you may still have time to retake the tests. If it's because of your GPA, send the schools an updated copy of your transcript if you retook any classes. 

15. Decide on the college you want to attend! 

  • Submit your deposit. Many schools require this to be done by May 1.
  • Send in your housing application for priority housing, if you decide to live on-campus.
  • If you'll be living off campus, make your housing arrangements. The housing department at the school is a good source of information if you need help figuring out where to live off campus.
  • At the end of your senior year of high school, make sure you have your final transcript sent to the school you are attending.

12th Grade College Prep Summary:

  • Take any final College Admission Tests to get your best possible scores
  • Secure recommendation letters
  • Apply for colleges
  • Choose your college, and begin preparing for your college experience! 


BONUS Section: Preparing for Campus Life

College life comes with a lot of changes; more responsibility, a rigorous academic schedule and a host of new opportunities. One of the most significant, though, is adjusting to life on campus. Packing up your life and moving into a dorm can be scary, but with this list, your transition to school will be easier.

Talk to Your Roommate before Moving In

Whether you’re moving in with someone you don’t know or are moving in with a friend, it’s important to touch base before move-in day. You’ll need to coordinate who is bringing things like the TV, mini fridge, microwave and other room essentials. If you want to go the extra mile, you can design a room theme with your roommate.

Set Rules

College comes with a lot of change and people adjust differently. It’s important to talk with your roommate and set a few ground rules, including when you want the lights turned out, what passes for acceptable behavior and when you’ll need to occupy the room. It might sound lame, but setting these rules ahead of time will help you avoid friction later in the year.

Buy Comfortable Bedding

If your college hasn’t built luxury dorms, chances are you will be saddled with a rectangular room with a bed that has an uncomfortable mattress. Don’t fear: There is a plethora of great bedding options out there. Memory foam mattress toppers, comfortable sheets, a nice comforter and blankets for colder months will take your bed from drab to fab.

Stock up on Snacks

Although college cafeterias offer many different options, you’ll still need some food in your dorm room. When you’re studying at 2 a.m. and craving a snack, microwaveable macaroni and cheese will hit the spot. Plus, your campus cafeteria might not be open 24 hours a day.

Start preparing for college in high school with Appily!

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you now have 4+ years of college preparation advice under your belt. Want more tips on college preparation for high school students? Ready to make your college search as successful as possible? At Appily, we have the resources to help. Create an account with us to search colleges, search scholarships, or look at majors. Your path to college starts here.

Contributions to this article by Barbara DiAlberto - She has been a College Advisor and Consultant for 18 years, both in the school system and privately. She has helped thousands of students get into college. As the Territory Manager for The Princeton Review, Mrs. DiAlberto is still helping students get into college.

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