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18 steps to take to prepare for college

Published June 14, 2024| minute read
Dhara Singh

Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

    As a young adult considering college, advancing your education may feel like a daunting, unfamiliar, and exciting chapter on the horizon all rolled into one.

    It’s undoubtedly a life step that will require some legwork on your part, too. There are applications to complete, potentially standardized tests to ace, and even steps to take once you’ve decided on a college and have accepted admission.

    While there’s no rulebook on how to prepare for college, here’s a list of 18 steps to consider to ease into this chapter of your life. Consider this your guide for navigating high school in preparation for college.

    Step 1: Plan out your high school courses and extracurriculars

    While it’s important to shape your high school career – including what courses you take and what extracurriculars you participate in – around your interests, if you’re considering college, you should make sure as you plan out your high school experience to have one eye on your college applications.

    You may want to consider meeting with your academic advisor and high school college counselor early in your high school career to make choices that align with your college ambitions.

    Step 2: Consider taking college credit classes

    As a high school student, you may be able to take Advanced Placement® (AP) or college-level courses. From there, you may be able to take AP Exams. If you score high enough on AP Exams, you may be able to earn college credits in high school or bypass specific college requirements.

    Early in high school, decide which AP classes you want to take, if any. If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, you may consider researching if a local community college offers courses you can enroll in.

    This effort may be worthwhile as you prepare for college for a variety of reasons. Even if you don’t end up passing AP Exams, a study by the nonprofit College Board (PDF) showed that those who take AP courses tend to perform just well or better than their peers in introductory classes during college. 

    Unsure if college credit classes are the right move for you? Try getting a trusted mentor or guidance counselor’s thoughts.

    Step 3: Start to visit your guidance counselor’s office regularly

    There may be a guidance counselor at your high school to help steer you through your high school academic career and the college preparation process.

    Since they likely have experience advising hundreds of students like yourself, they may be able to share tips for applying to college, deadlines to keep in mind, offer ideas on how to conduct your college search, and so much more.

    They can be extraordinarily helpful when it comes to staying on track to apply for college. If you’re considering applying to college, it may be helpful to set up a regular meeting cadence with a guidance counselor so you can make sure that you’re crossing all your t’s and dotting your i's on your road to college.

    Step 4: Begin assessing your financial situation and your ability to pay for college

    Before you apply to college, you may want to have a financial conversation with your parents about paying for college, or if you’re an independent student, begin to assess your financial situation yourself. As you do this, it may be helpful to estimate how much financial aid you may receive for college. has a Federal Student Aid Estimator that you can use to help estimate how much federal financial aid you may be eligible for.

    By doing this sooner rather than later, you can start assessing what colleges to apply to based on your budget. You can also begin to prepare to apply for scholarships and grants earlier rather than later if you need financial assistance.

    Step 5: Make a list of schools you’re interested in

    One of the essential steps to prepare for college is to narrow down the types of colleges and the specific colleges you’re interested in attending. While this may change throughout your college application journey, formulating a list earlier rather than later may be helpful.

    As you do this, you may want to keep in mind that there are many kinds of colleges to consider, including (but not limited to):

    • Public schools
    • Private schools
    • Two-year schools
    • Four-year schools
    • Vocational and trade schools
    • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
    • Liberal arts colleges
    • Community colleges
    • Schools with dual degree programs
    • Women’s colleges
    • Research universities

    In the early days of researching your options, try to keep an open mind as there are many options available.

    Step 6: Research schools specific to what you want to major in

    You may not be sure about what you want to study and major in during college. The good news is you have time to figure it out, even if you’re a high school senior (and if it makes you feel better, you likely don’t have to declare a major until your sophomore year in college). That said, if you have an idea, you may want to start researching colleges known for being strong for the major you’re interested in pursuing. After all, some schools are stronger in some academic areas than others.

    Even if you aren’t sure of exactly what you want to major in, knowing that you’re interested in the sciences rather than the humanities, for example, may help you narrow down your options.

    Step 7: Prepare for standardized tests

    While the U.S. doesn’t mandate high school students to take a particular standardized test to apply to college, you may find that some colleges you want to apply to require applicants to take one or more standardized test. These may include the SAT or the ACT.

    Depending on how competitive the schools you’re targeting are, you may find that some expect applicants to have high standardized test scores, which may mean that you’ll want to study for these exams and take practice tests to prepare.

    Keep in mind that colleges consider many factors, such as your grade point average (GPA), resume, letters of recommendation, and overall application, when deciding on admission. Still, if some or all of the colleges you’re applying to require standardized test scores, it’s often helpful to prepare.

    Most high school students take standardized tests in their junior or early in their senior year of high school to give you a sense of when you may want to start preparing.

    Step 8: Secure letters of recommendation

    Many post-secondary schools require letters of recommendation as a part of the application process. You don’t want to wait until you absolutely need letters of recommendation to start working on this.

    You may consider asking teachers and others in your junior year rather than waiting close to the application deadlines in your senior year for these letters of recommendation. It also may be helpful to scope out who you may want to ask for letters of recommendation as you progress through high school.

    Step 9: Visit schools (if you’re able to)

    Sometimes, you won’t know if a college is right for you unless you visit the campus and get an in-person look. This may involve signing up for a guided tour, shadowing classes, meeting enrolled students, and getting a feel for the culture of a school by walking around. Many colleges hold tours throughout the year, and you don’t have to wait until your senior year of high school to plan visits.

    Some students may find college visits to be cost prohibitive. If that’s the case, consider connecting with current students virtually, or taking virtual tours of college campuses to start to get a feel for your options.  

    Step 10: Complete your college applications

    This may seem like a no-brainer if you’re applying to college, but set aside plenty of time to complete your applications (including the essay requirements) once you’ve decided on your list of schools. Completing college applications involves compiling various components, including transcripts, letters of recommendation, and more, so this part of the process will undoubtedly require some effort on your part.

    Having a guidance counselor and a trusted mentor review your applications may be a way to double-check that you’ve completed all the necessary sections and that everything is in top shape before submitting them.

    Step 11: Consider applying for financial aid

    To finance your college journey, you may want to consider applying for financial aid. To see if you’re eligible for federal financial aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). This step is necessary if you want to see if you’re eligible for aid like federal grants, student loans, and work-study. Many colleges and states also use this form to determine if you qualify for other sources of aid.

    Beyond aid made available by filing the FAFSA®, you may want to research scholarships and grants provided by nonprofits and other institutions to help you pay for college, too.

    Step 12: After you receive college acceptances, decide where you want to go

    After you’ve received all your college acceptance letters, it’s time to narrow down your options to your top choice. While this decision likely feels like it comes with a lot of weight, there are some steps you can take to help you make the decision, including:

    • Sit down with a guidance counselor to evaluate your academic goals
    • Talk with a parent or trusted guardian
    • Visit the schools you’ve been accepted to (if you haven’t already) to speak with students and staff (if you’re able to)
    • Reach out to the colleges you’ve been accepted to and get any questions you have answered
    • Look up online reviews
    • Evaluate your financial situation and the financial aid packages you’ve been offered (if any)
    • Make a pros and cons list for each school you’re considering

    Step 13: Go through your chosen school’s pre-enrollment checklist

    Once you’ve confirmed what school you’ll be attending, that school will likely send you a package of pertinent information, including a pre-enrollment checklist. Go through that checklist carefully and complete any action items you need to. It may be important to do so to officially enroll at a college.

    Step 14: Decide on your living situation

    If you plan to move either on or off-campus to attend college, you’ll likely need to organize your living situation, whether renting an apartment or finalizing that you’ll be living in a dorm.

    If you’re living on campus or even off-campus during your first year of college, you may want to gather or buy any essentials before your move-in date, too. If you’ll be sharing your residence with roommates, you may consider coordinating with them on what you’re bringing so you can divide who’s bringing what.

    Step 15: Pick your first-year classes

    As an incoming freshman, you’ll likely choose your first semester courses during orientation or a few days before school starts.

    To pick your first semester freshman year classes, you’ll want to start by reviewing your college’s general education requirements (if it has them) in case you want to enroll in these classes early in your college career.

    You also may want to pick one or two electives in areas that pique your interest, especially as you begin to decide what your major will be.

    It’s also important to consider what your workload will look like and try to create a balanced schedule that mixes more challenging courses with those that may be less intense.

    It may be helpful to seek advice from academic advisors, upper-level students, and professors to gain insights and recommendations based on your educational goals and interests.

    Step 16: Order textbooks and supplies

    Before college starts, it may be important to start compiling all the supplies you’ll want to take, such as a laptop (if you plan to take one), notebooks, a backpack, and any other important items.

    If you have access to your classes' syllabuses, you may also consider ordering your books ahead of time. Keep in mind, if you aren’t sure if you want to remain in all of the classes you’ve signed up for, you may want to hold off until you’ve started classes to order your books.

    Step 17: Make a list of clubs and extracurriculars you're interested in

    As a part of your college preparation checklist, you may want to scroll through your school’s list of extracurricular activities, including recreational sports, professional clubs, and any other organization that you’re simply curious about or that align with your interests. By doing this, you can take note of which ones you’d like to try out when you get to campus.

    Step 18: Visit all your classes before they start

    Finding your way around a new college campus may feel puzzling during your first week. To lessen the stress, why not visit the location of all your classes before they officially start (like during your orientation)? Your school may offer physical or digital copies of the campus map to help you navigate.

    College preparation checklist for high school students by year

    Keeping track of the college application process during high school may feel daunting. Here’s a year-by-year checklist for how to prepare for college in high school.

    First year

    • Start planning your coursework, including AP classes (if available)
    • Sign up for extracurriculars
    • Start building your college application resume
    • Maintain your GPA

    Sophomore year

    • Consider taking the PSAT (the practice test for the SAT or ACT)
    • Learn about the college admissions process
    • Learn about different types of colleges
    • Continue maintaining a strong GPA
    • Start discussing college plans with a counselor
    • Begin thinking about how you’d pay for college
    • Take AP Exams (if applicable)
    • Continue to build your college application resume

    Junior year

    • Study for the SAT or the ACT (if applicable)
    • Take the SAT or the ACT (if applicable)
    • Continue to keep a strong GPA
    • Narrow down your list of schools
    • Decide if you want to apply early decision or action to any schools
    • Start preparing admission essays
    • Secure letters of recommendation
    • Visit colleges if you’re able to
    • Consider applying for scholarships and grants
    • Continue to update your college application resume

    Senior year

    • Finalize college applications
    • Submit college applications
    • Retake the SAT or ACT (if needed)
    • Continue to keep a strong GPA
    • File the FAFSA®
    • Finalize your college decision
    • Continue to apply for scholarships
    • Attend any college pre-orientation events

    Final thoughts

    If you’re worried about the college process, know that by preparing early for the various items you’ll need to complete, you may lessen your anxiety about it. Instead of waiting until the last minute, you can start preparing items such as your college resume and essays earlier rather than later. As no one’s journey looks exactly alike, though, give yourself grace to prepare for college at a pace that works for you.