Freshman Through Senior Year Checklist: College Planning for High School Students

Check Out Our College Planning for High School Students Checklist

Written by Jason

It is simple: I envisioned Campus to Career Crossroads helping students have successful outcomes, dreamed up by the students themselves. Our mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with you and your family to help you navigate the complex stages from high school and throughout your career. Let's work together!

Last updated Apr 15, 2024 | Published on Jun 30, 2022

As a high school student, we know you have a busy schedule. Your high school experience begins with adjusting to a new environment and new friends, and snowballs to challenging classwork, lots of extracurricular activities, and a host of social events. Your time is limited and yet you have to think about college too! That is why we have broken down our high school checklist for getting ready for college.

College planning for high school students is never a “once and done” type of checklist but it is definitely possible to whittle down a college plan to its essential elements. Let’s take a quick look at all the things you need to do to find the right college fit, starting with the freshman year of high school. 

We will also throw in some “things to think about” during your four years of high school. Do not wait until your senior year to try to cram all of these recommendations into one year. 

Do Not be Afraid to Ask for College Planning Help

When Should You Start Planning for College?

Ideally, you should start planning for college starting in eighth grade — yes, eighth grade! — because you select your ninth grade classes at the end of that year. What you put on your transcript matters throughout your four years of high school, including freshman year.

Sure, grades matter, but there are a few other things you will want to consider, including knowing yourself, talking to family members about college costs, researching early, visiting colleges, understanding the differences between types of schools, and applying for scholarships.

Take a look at a few tips you can use to plan.

Know Thyself

What do you like to do? Do you enjoy athletics or biology? You may not have any idea what you want to do in the future, and that is okay. However, you may intuitively know that you prefer certain things, like smaller environments or lecture-type classes. That said, it is a good idea to start considering:

  • Classes you enjoy (and those you do not like at all!)
  • Professions you find interesting
  • Settings where you thrive 
  • How long you want to be in school

Consider asking people who know you really well where they see you excelling. For example, a trusted teacher may say, “I think you are good at computer coding,” or your parents may say, “You really light up when you participate in your school’s debate team.”

They may help you realize certain things about yourself that you may have never known. Self-reflection is a really important component of choosing the right college and can help you when you target colleges. If you need some direction, you may want to consider a career assessment to ensure you are on the right path.

College Planning for High School Students Begins with Career Assessments

Talk to Your Family Members About College Costs

How will you and your family handle the costs of college? Are you completely on your own or do your parents plan to fund at least a portion of your college costs? It is a great idea to have more than one conversation about the cost of college and how you will tackle it as a family. 

Start by looking at net price calculators online. This tool exists on every college website and can help you get a baseline for the cost of college at a particular institution. You can enter information about yourself to find out what students like you paid to attend the institution in the previous year — after you take grants and scholarships into account.

Furthermore, the net price calculator cannot take every single variable into consideration regarding your financial profile. Your best bet is to meet with financial aid professionals at every college and university you are considering to get a more comprehensive understanding of college costs.

The bottom line: You and your family should be on the same page regarding college costs and affordability. If you can identify schools that will cost way too much money to attend from the get-go, you will not be scrambling during your senior year to find an affordable one. Doing research in advance can really help. Be sure to check out some additional tips on paying for college.

Start Researching Early

It is never too early to envision where you might want to go to college. In fact, it is downright beneficial to get started thinking in the right direction and begin researching colleges. 

Start Researching Colleges Early in the College Planning Process

  • What size campus do you envision? Small or large? Public or private?
  • What major do you think you want to pursue?
  • Do you want to be in a major city or prefer a suburban or rural location?
  • Do you think you want to go where a lot of people from your high school attend?

Use all the resources you can get your hands on to answer some of these questions. For example, you might want to check out a college’s website, but quickly realize that they do not answer some of your deeper questions, such as what the residence halls are like or whether the cafeteria has yummy food. You may need to seek out a current student you know from high school who attended that institution or look online for student discussion groups.

Also, it is okay not to know the answers to some of these questions when you are getting started with the research phase. You may not know until you start doing actual college visits.

Keeping a spreadsheet may help you keep track of your discoveries. Before long, you will be trying to rack your brains, asking yourself, “Which school had that cool rock-climbing wall?”  

Visit College Campuses: It is Never Too Early

If a friend’s parents invite you to hop in the car because their older daughter is going on a college visit, go! (Yes, even if you are “just” a sophomore.) Take every opportunity to get on campuses — even the ones you are really not sure that you are interested in at all. Colleges have a way of making a memorable impression and those that you may not have otherwise considered may just catch you by surprise. Even if you are not the one who is on center stage because you are not the actual student visiting, you can learn a lot by listening to someone else ask questions and get a feel for what each campus deems most important. 

Furthermore, you may get a chance to squeeze your questions in as well. The tour guide and admission counselor should always be happy to answer any and all questions presented. 

Always Meet with Admissions Officials During Campus Tours

It is always best to visit college campuses in person. Even though you got the message during the height of the pandemic that virtual tours are totally in vogue, that is a great first step — but do not let it be your only step. Virtual campus tours are nothing like the real thing. Get your feet on campus and talk to the students, faculty, and staff members.

Know the Differences Between Various Types of Schools

It is really important to know the differences between different types of colleges. For example, a private liberal arts college offers a much different type of college experience than a large public university. Depending on the type of school you choose, you could be looking at two vastly different price points, fields of study, and two completely different types of college experiences. Check out a few types of colleges and career schools below: 

  • Four-year public university or college: Four-year public universities and colleges receive taxpayer dollars, which is why they typically cost less than private colleges, though it is usually pricier for out-of-state students to attend. Take a look at city and state colleges and universities if you are interested in a larger campus and potentially much larger class sizes. 
  • Four-year private college or university: Private colleges and universities do not receive taxpayer dollars and typically cost more than public colleges and universities. However, you may have access to smaller class sizes, more undergraduate research opportunities, and financial aid that may cut down on the sticker price.  
  • Community college: A community college offers associate degrees and certificate programs, usually in two years or less. You may want to consider attending a two-year institution and then transfer to a four-year school for a lower price. This dual option could allow you to save considerable money over time.
  • Trade or technical college: Do not rule out technical colleges or trade schools if you are planning to earn a specific vocational-oriented degree. For example, if you know you want one direct career path for a high-demand, skilled vocation like automotive technology, electrical, or plumbing, a technical college might be the way to go.
  • Online institutions: Online degree programs offer a much more flexible schedule, where you can catch online lectures at your convenience and allow you to work around other commitments, such as a full-time job.
  • Special focus institution: If you are a dancer or a pianist, you may want to consider attending school at a conservatory of music or another school. You may not be able to consider a degree in history, for example, at a special focus institution, because they usually offer a narrower selection of choices.

Apply for Scholarships

Just like when visiting college campuses, it is never too early to apply for scholarships. If the local Rotary club will give scholarships to high school students of any age, why not apply? Those $1,000.00 scholarships can really add up, even though they might not look like it at first. There is a lot of free money out there, so check into as many local scholarships as you can find. Colleges and universities often offer merit-based scholarships, but it is worth poking around for other types of scholarships you may qualify for. If you can start looking for scholarships early and apply to multiple scholarships, it will save you some time and energy during your senior year.

Always Apply to Scholarships to Reduce the Cost of College

College Planning Checklist for Freshman Through Senior Year

College planning gets easier when you break it up into chunks. The team at Campus to Career Crossroads can help you keep everything organized, including the deadlines you must meet. We can walk you through the valuable advice you need to know about finding the right fit college for you and even the latest admissions trends.

Freshman Year – Grade Nine

College may seem like a million miles away, but your grades start counting toward your cumulative grade point average this year! Make sure to start freshman year off with a bang and get the best grades possible.

  • Meet with your high school counselor. A school counselor’s job is to keep the train on the tracks throughout high school. They should offer advice and guidance about the classes you should take. Let them know about your possible goals for the future. If you are thinking about becoming an engineer, mention it to your school counselor. Building a solid relationship with your school counselor can give you a scholarship advantage as well. Your school counselor might say, “Ah, I know the perfect student with whom to share this scholarship opportunity.”
  • Choose the right classes. Most four-year colleges like to see four years of English, three years of social studies, three years of math, three years of science, and two years of a foreign language. Some others like to see even more robust requirements! Letting your counselor know in advance that you would like to go the Ivy League path can help them advise you on the right number of years of French — in that case, you will likely be saying, “Bonjour!” to four years of the language!
  • Career path exploration: Your school counselor may give you some opportunities to explore careers by doing some job shadowing, career speakers, and more. This might help you track what you would like to do early on and even schedule career related classes in the future.

Career Exploration Helps High School Students Plan Effectively For College

Sophomore Year – Grade 10

Sophomore year still means keeping up with great grades and a few other suggestions: 

  • Consider the PSAT, PSAT 10, or Pre ACT. Standardized testing is still a good idea even if many colleges have gone test-optional, particularly for high-achieving students. You can take the PSAT, PSAT 10, or Pre ACT. You will likely start taking the SAT or ACT as a junior, so taking these “pre-tests” is a great way to prepare for the real thing.
  • Check out new extracurricular activities. Let’s say you ran track freshman year but did not love it. You may consider other options like student council or a leadership club, or volunteering opportunities. It is time to hone in on what you really like to do and demonstrate dedication to whatever it is you enjoy. Colleges want to see some passion dedicated to one activity or more.
  • Attend a college fair. Going to a college fair as a sophomore can give you wide exposure to many colleges. You may also want to consider chatting with a college representative who comes to your school. Ask your school counselor for more information.

Junior Year – Grade 11

The more you can do to prepare yourself for senior year during junior year, the better off you will be. Take some of the pressure off early! 

  • Take the PSAT. Yikes, tests! Taking the PSAT will get you ready for the ACT or SAT and if you do really well, you could qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.
  • Take the ACT or SAT. You may have heard that a lot of schools have gone test-optional, but it is still important to take these tests anyway. If anything, it gives you another edge to your application. For example, if you do not have quite as well-rounded of an activity list as you would have liked, a high SAT or ACT can help you balance it out.
  • Consider taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. If you can earn college credit as part of your high school curriculum, why not take advantage of it? Your high school counselor can let you know about your AP options.
  • Continue your research. Remember all that research we suggested doing in the above section? This should continue in earnest in your junior year. Start thinking about a shortlist of colleges and discuss them with your family. Talk through affordability for each one and determine whether they will fit into the family budget. If you think you will have to take out student loans, figure out how those will fit into the picture as well.
  • Visit colleges. If you have not started visiting colleges, now is the time to do so. If you are not sure about the type of college you prefer, consider visiting one large state university, one private college, and a liberal arts college.

Campus Visit at the University of Tennessee

Senior Year – Grade 12

This is the busiest year of all! Your senior year should be an exciting time, but if you are starting to feel overwhelmed, remember to take a deep breath and realize that you will get things figured out. That said, here are a few things you will need to get accomplished.

  • Retake the ACT or SAT. You may need to retake the ACT or SAT. Taking the test a second or third time can help you raise your score. Take some SAT or ACT practice tests if you know you are struggling with a specific content area.  
  • Start your applications. After your college visits, it is time to apply! Many colleges allow you to apply with the Common Application, or the Common App. Other schools have their own applications, independent of the Common App. In addition to the application, you’ll also have to submit your transcripts, SAT/ACT scores, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and portfolio (such as if you apply to an art institution). You may also have a separate set of questions within the Common App that you have to answer for a particular college. If you are looking for some Common App tips we have you covered too!
  • File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can start filing the FAFSA as of October 1. Remember that you should never pay for this service — it is free. Schools offer financial aid on a first come, first-served basis so you need to complete the FAFSA earlier rather than later. Even if you do not think you will get any money, you should still file. You may lose out on things like work-study and the more beneficial federal student loans if you do not file the FAFSA. 
  • Make a final decision by May 1. May 1 is Decision Day! If you have not already made a decision, you will have to make the final college decision by May 1 of your senior year. You will have to pay a housing deposit and accept your financial aid award in order to reserve your spot in the class.

College Planning: We Can Help

Whew! That is a lot! However, you do not have to go it alone. Campus to Career Crossroads will outline each step for you so you know what is next. Let us bring a toolkit to you so you know exactly what you need to do throughout your high school to college journey. 

Campus to Career Crossroads Can Assist Your College Journey

Contact us today to learn how we can collaborate to find your best fit.


When should you start planning for college?

Believe it or not, you should start in eighth grade! Eighth graders typically pick their classes for freshman year in high school, and that is where it starts. Your cumulative grade point average starts with that very first high school class. 

Why is it important to plan for college?

It is important to take a specific number of steps in the right order so you are completely ready for college. In addition to that, doing the right things in the right order also ensures that you get the most out of the scholarships, grants, and other opportunities available to you.

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