Ultimate College Planning Guide for High School Students

College Planning Tips to Help You Get Started

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 May 11, 2021 | Published on Apr 8, 2018

I am going to let you in on a secret. You only need four things in the transition from high school to college: 

  • A good college fit
  • Comfortable college affordability options
  • Proper planning leading up to the start of college
  • Great preparation in anticipation of college graduation and career launching

That is really it!

You must continue to make informed choices throughout all four years of high school, which leads to a smooth progression to college. Let Campus to Career Crossroads serve as your professional advocate to navigate from college to career and provide you with a personalized plan to reach your goals. 

Benefits of a College Planning Guide

You have probably heard of other students who spend more than four years on their degrees. In fact, the inability to complete a degree in a timely manner becomes a major financial drain.

The active length for students earning a bachelor’s degree from a four-year public institution is 5.2 academic years or the full-time equivalent of 5.6 calendar years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. More than 370,000 graduates did not finish within six years.

Not only that, but you must evaluate whether a particular college offers a good fit for you. Students who can define these factors will engage in the college process and make sound decisions that will lead to long-term success. This leads to professional jobs, higher lifetime earnings, and financial benefits such as company-sponsored health insurance and retirement benefits.

Eighth Grade: Plan for High School

The college preparation process starts in eighth grade because eighth graders typically choose the classes they will take for their freshman year. A college planning guide is needed for the years ahead.

College Planning Starts in Eighth Grade

Students who take algebra and geometry early — yes, even in eighth grade for some students! — will more likely go on to college compared to those who do not. Taking algebra early in middle and junior high school means students can enroll in chemistry, physics, and trigonometry earlier.

Freshman Year: The Gateway to College Prep 

Researchers reviewed the predictive value of freshman year of high school related to a number of future outcomes and found that 9th grade matters. Success in 9th grade means students will more likely graduate from high school, enroll in college, and remain in college beyond their freshman year compared to students who didn’t do well in their first year of high school.

Your determination to do well in 9th grade sets the stage for college.

Classes Matter

You want to start from the very beginning for one major reason: Trying to recover from a low grade point average (GPA) starting from freshman year feels like trying to roll a boulder up a hill. You cannot quickly turn around poor performance because GPA builds on itself, year after year.

Get Active Early

Look into extracurricular activities. You want to start building your resume of extracurriculars, but not just to put together a long resume of things you don’t love. In other words, don’t join Model UN just because you think it “looks good on a résumé.” 

Admission committees want to see you dive deep into a few things for which you really have a passion. 

Add a Foreign Language

You need to add a foreign language starting in 9th grade if you want to get into a highly selective college. Even if you have no desire to look into the Ivy League, many other schools like to see you take at least a little bit of foreign language. In other words, why wait? Tackle a foreign language as early as possible. 

The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language for College

Check out AP and Honors Courses 

Take a look at the following types of courses:

  • AP courses give you high-school level access to college classes. You can choose from over 30 AP courses, ranging from the sciences to foreign languages.
  • Honors courses, more intense and faster paced than regular courses, give you access to more difficult classes in high school.
  • College courses also give you advanced instruction at a local community college or university during the school year through online college courses or college summer programs.

Get Help Early

If you struggle in a particular class, you want to get help now. Do not wait until your junior year when you realize you do not understand critical concepts. As homework gets more intense, students may find it harder and harder to balance academics with extracurricular activities, having fun, and even after-school jobs.

Learn to Study

When you have six subjects and each one has homework, it can feel overwhelming. Divide tasks into smaller chunks. Learn how you best study, whether it’s by rewriting notes, using flashcards, or connecting with a tutor. Some schools even have free peer-to-peer tutoring programs.

Learning how to study early on prepares you well for college — because if high school comes easily to you, you might have much more of a challenge in college!

Sophomore Year: Get Involved! 

Now is the time to get involved and build on what you did during freshman year. Extracurricular activities continue to rise in importance every year to admissions committees. Admissions officials are looking for a few activities that get to the core of your passions.  

Sign Up for Clubs and Organizations 

Now, more than ever, you must focus on your extracurricular activities because some colleges no longer rely on test scores to admit you. Again, focus on a deep commitment to the activities you like, and take responsibility as an officer of a club or organization. When you enjoy a particular activity and can demonstrate a positive impact, it shows on the application! 

Research Colleges 

It is never too early to research colleges. Start sophomore year and take note of what you like and don’t like about specific colleges. This is a great time to explore the college possibilities with regards to large public universities, private colleges, liberal arts colleges, and colleges with a religious affiliation. Colleges come in all sizes and locations.  

Consider Future Careers 

Why not start early with career exploration? Many students are uncertain of the perfect career for them but exploring the possibilities can identify the correct path. Campus to Career Crossroads offers a career assessment used by top companies which helps students find their career path and safeguard the college investment ahead. Potential careers identified by this assessment may just ignite a course of exploration that will lead you to your dream college.

Career Assessments Safeguard the College Investment

Take Courses That Challenge You 

How did those 9th grade classes go? Take some time to review how they went, then review how you can challenge yourself! Colleges want to see evidence that you took rigorous classes when they review your transcript. They like to see that you took classes in the following core subjects: history, math, English, lab science, and foreign language for three to four years. 

Get Organized

If you did not master this freshman year, you want to get organized sophomore year. Keep assignments and class information organized by subject. Make sure you have a planner or calendar as well with prioritized daily to-do lists. 

Your organization abilities will pay off as the college application process requires exceptional organizational skills.  Numerous application deadlines, additional writing requirements (supplemental essays), submitting standardized test scores, transcript requests, and ensuring letters of recommendation are sent require outstanding organizational skills.  If your application is missing any required items, admissions officials cannot make a decision.  

Junior Year: Get Serious About College 

Ready to get serious about college? It’s time! You need the college planning guide now!

Put Together a List of Schools and Check Admissions Requirements

As a junior, you can start narrowing your list of schools. Start researching colleges and universities, go to college fairs and open houses, begin planning college visits. Develop a preliminary list of colleges that interest you and take a look at some college applications.  

Connect with Admissions Officials

Looking for an admissions secret in this college planning guide? Admissions officials want to hear from students so be sure to contact them during the application process. Many students are considered “stealth applicants” as they just submit their application through the Common App and never communicate otherwise with the admissions office. Speaking with an admissions official will allow you to build a relationship and not be another application. Additionally, admissions officials know specialized knowledge about majors and campus amenities. Some admissions officials are even alumni so they can speak directly to student life and their personal experiences.

To understand how approachable admissions officials are, check out the video below. Vernon Castillo, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions, and Rachel McNeil, Assistant Dean of Admissions, from Union College (Schenectady, NY) are very easy to communicate with and have a wealth of institutional knowledge. Union College is respected nationally for innovating the liberal arts education required in today’s global workforce. Vernon has over fifteen years of admissions experience at Union College and Rachel is a 2018 graduate. Vernon explains two unique programs in their Accelerated Law Program and their Leadership in Medicine Program with a direct-entry pathway to Albany Medical College. This highlights the knowledge you can learn from speaking to admissions officials and not just visiting college websites!

Research Scholarships

It is scholarship time! What scholarships exist and how do you find them? You can take a look at national scholarship database websites like Fastweb.com, Cappex.com, and Unigo.com. However, you might want to get serious about looking at local scholarships first. Local scholarships generally have less applicants than prestigious national scholarship programs. 

Regardless of local or national scholarship opportunities, please make sure you applySo many students have good intentions of applying but do not apply to one scholarship. Utilize those exceptional organizational skills discussed earlier and apply, apply, apply!

Ask About Letters of Recommendation 

Do not forget to start asking around for letters of recommendation from teachers, professors, or school counselors. Scholarship programs and colleges in general will let you know what type of recommendation they need. Choose the right person to write a recommendation — you must know this person well, the recommender must know your classroom qualifications, goals, and achievements. 

Senior Year: Find the Right Fit 

It is time to find the right college for you! You are almost finished with the college planning guide!

Apply to Colleges 

Start the college application process by knowing your deadlines, first and foremost. Look on each school’s website and understand application deadlines and requirements front to back. Your first thought might involve applying for all schools via the Common App, but not all schools accept the Common App. You might also apply via the Coalition Application, a newer platform accepted by more than 150 schools, and school- or university system-specific applications. The Common App and Coalition Application websites list their partner schools. 

Next, send transcripts and test scores (if applicable) to the colleges and universities to which you apply.

Complete the FAFSA and the CSS Profile (if Required)

A college planning guide would not be complete without financial aid information. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps you qualify for work-study, federal grants and loans. Do not assume you will not get anything out of it — file the FAFSA if you think you may want the option to take out federal loans, which offer the lowest loan rates compared to private loan lenders.

You may have to fill out the College Scholarship Service – CSS Profile, an online application that collects financial information used by nearly 400 colleges to award non-federal aid. The CSS Profile is not commonly known by families and takes much more time to complete than the FAFSA. There is a cost associated with sending CSS Profile information to colleges where the FAFSA is always free to send.

Take AP Exams 

AP Exams, taken at the end of the year, are standardized exams designed to measure how well you have mastered the content and skills of a specific AP course, are exams at the end of the year. A few AP Exams can assess what you have learned in different ways. 

Have a Backup Plan

What happens if the schools on your list do not pan out? You want to have a safety net school option — but be just as comfortable with your fallback options as your first choice. 

Your College Plan Should Have A Safety School

Are You Planning for College?

Sounds like a lot, right? Just remember, you do not have to go through all of this alone. Even with a college planning guide families require a personalized plan to their goals. Add a professional advocate to your arsenal in the college to career journey with Campus to Career Crossroads. 

My clients have received presidential scholarships, won complex financial aid appeals, secured prestigious internships, and landed lucrative jobs in their major. Campus to Career Crossroads has consistently delivered inspired outcomes for clients all throughout the country! Contact Campus to Career Crossroads today to change your tomorrow!


Q: What should you consider when planning for college? 

A: You want to consider so many things, but the most important thing to remember is that you want to choose the right fit. The college must offer exactly the right programs for your needs, and also match you socially. 

In addition, you might want to make a serious judgment about the consequences of excessive student loans. Students take on more loan amounts than ever before, in addition to many parents taking on private loans to finance their child’s college education. These financial risks can impact future life decisions, such as the purchase of a first home or a parent’s retirement. As a nation, we now have over one trillion dollars in student loans, the second-highest consumer debt category behind mortgage debt. 

Q: What is the impact of effective college and career planning?

A: Effective college and career planning gives you a complete roadmap for your future. You want to do everything you possibly can to plan and organize your readiness, finances, and more so you have the most positive experience possible when it comes to college and career opportunities. 

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