How to Plan for College in 12 Steps

How to Plan for College With These 12 Steps

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 Mar 26, 2020

College admissions has always been overwhelming and stressful to families. Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll encounter new changes to the college process. Believe it or not, these changes won’t go away. 

For example, you may wonder whether the SAT or ACT test is actually (really?!) optional. Most importantly, you may wonder what you need to do for college planning right now, whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.

I believe time is a sacred resource and most families don’t have any to spare. I put together a guide about how to plan for college in just a few steps.

Steps for Successful College Planning 

You want the entire college search boiled down to three steps, right? 

Sorry, it’s just not that easy. However, you can hone in on several specific steps in the process and get moving in the right direction.

Step 1: Choose Your Independent Educational Consultant 

Already overwhelmed? First of all, know that’s normal. You’ll quickly find out that the college search requires a lot of stamina! Campus to Career Crossroads can help you navigate deadlines, admissions requirements, and those difficult-to-write essays! Organizing and simplifying all of the details comes naturally from my past admissions experiences.

I can help you get through the stressful early application deadlines and help you determine the best type of college for your child. I offer easy-to-use tools to compare costs and help you learn the value of each school on your list. I’ll help you parse each school’s academic standards and walk you through exactly what you want and need during the entire decision-making process. 

Step 2: Create Your College List

First, create your college list. Before you add colleges to your list, consider a few things:

  • Geographic location: How far away from home would you like to go? 
  • Grades and test scores: What colleges can you get into based on your current GPA? Do any colleges on your list require you to take the ACT or SAT? (Most schools offer a test-optional option, but are you sure you know which ones require which option?)
  • Major: Does the college have the major you think you want to study? You might change your major later (most students do!) but if you have an inkling of an idea, start with that in mind.
  • Financial aid: Does the school fit in your budget? If not, does it have a historically generous financial aid or merit scholarship program?
  • Overall fit: Does the school fit your unique needs? 

Step 3: Research Different Types of Higher Education 

Do you know the differences between various types of schools? Make sure you do, because one type might fit you best — and you may not even realize it! Take a look at the following descriptions and do some planning for colleges around what fits your needs and personality best:

  • Public universities: Large state-affiliated institutions operate with public taxes. You’ll find a wide variety of majors and classes. You’ll pay less for in-state tuition versus out-of-state tuition. Examples: Pennsylvania State University, Clemson University, University of Arizona.
  • Private universities: The public doesn’t pay taxes toward private universities. Fees run higher for private universities. Examples: George Washington University, New York University, Rice University.
  • Ivy League schools: The eight elite universities focus on undergraduate liberal arts education, but also educate students through master’s and doctoral programs. Tuition isn’t cheap and you’ll find a highly selective admissions process at each one. The elite eight include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Brown, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth.
  • Liberal arts colleges: Liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate students and focus on core humanities, sciences and social science courses, in addition to students’ majors. Liberal arts colleges pride themselves on small classes and terminal-degree faculty members who teach the courses. Some liberal arts colleges have tough admissions requirements, others remain less selective. Examples: Wellesley, Amherst, Macalester.
  • Technical schools: Technical schools offer science and math training for a variety of programs. Examples: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California Polytechnic Institute, and Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Community colleges: Community colleges, typically two-year institutions, offer certificates, diplomas and associate degrees. Examples: Community College of Allegheny County, Houston Community College, and Harrisburg Area Community College.

How do you know which type fits you best? You go on college visits! 

Step 4: Research Deadlines and Applications

Time to get organized. Colleges all have different requirements, deadlines, etc. Create a system to keep track of everything. You may want to create a filing system that keeps important documents handy. However, you can also use online tools if you love tech. Don’t forget your master calendar with due dates for everything.

How to Plan for College - Get Organized

You need to map out:

  • Application deadlines
  • Recommendation letter deadlines
  • College visit schedules
  • Tuition, room, board and fees for each college
  • Scholarship search progress
  • Standardized testing schedules (if applicable)

In short, everything you can think of needs to go into one giant system. I use one of the best software products for college information and deadline management so clients do not have to sweat the details!

Step 5: Understand the Costs of College

When you see a school’s sticker price, you may automatically get a little panicky. Remember, you won’t pay that full amount in many instances, but the final net price you may pay can vary widely from school to school. Every college offers a net price calculator that tells you how much it costs to go to that college for one year. Multiply that result by four to see your minimum total cost, but remember that only 58 percent of students who started college in fall 2012 graduated within six years, based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

You can also take a look at the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which shows data about the annual cost, graduation rate, and how much students pay monthly in student loans.

Step 6: Contact Admissions Officials

You might wonder, “Why do I need to contact an admissions official?” 

Oh, you want to get to know admissions counselors at each school you visit because they can help you plan your college visits and make sure you understand admissions requirements. You can pick up the phone, use email or jump on Zoom. Many admissions officials even have online calendar scheduling services so students can reserve 20- to 30-minute virtual meetings in lieu of exchanging a lot of emails.

COVID-19 has permanently changed the way college admissions will recruit and communicate with students. Admissions officials will likely travel less in the future to college fairs. Students in remote areas will have greater access to admissions officials with the click of a button. 

Get to know these individuals — you can glean a lot of information about a particular school. Ask the admission counselor what it’s like to go to school there. Admissions counselors are often proud alumni and can give you the inside scoop.

Step 7: Create Your Timelines and Start Your Checklist

Sit down and create a checklist or schedule. If you don’t do this, you could miss very important dates, forget to request transcripts, hound teachers for letters of recommendation, complete the Common App on time, write amazing essays, meet scholarship deadlines, and more! Give yourself plenty of time to meet these major milestones.

The other thing you need to do: Make sure you schedule all the little pieces of college visits — set them up, book a hotel, flights (if necessary), and more. 

You can still tap into colleges’ YouTube channels or admissions websites to learn more about each campus. Go ahead and “attend” a few virtual visits to get an idea of what colleges and universities have to offer, but don’t let that be your only visit. 

Nothing takes the place of an in-person college visit to find the best fit for you.

Step 8: Apply! 

Now’s the time to submit your applications well in advance of their due dates!

When You Understand How to Plan for College, Applying is Easy

Build out your Common App profile, review activity lists, secure letters of recommendation, and draft your essays. Give yourself as much time to do this as possible, and keep the due dates in mind. Below are some of the most common application methods and please check this article to understand each one further.

  • Early Action 
  • Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action
  • Early Decision 
  • Early Decision II 
  • Regular Decision

(Don’t worry, it’s usually as easy as looking at a college’s website or asking the admissions counselor at that college about the due dates.)

Step 9: Submit Your Financial Aid Forms

Yes, you want to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile. These can help you cut school costs. The FAFSA determines how much your family will pay for college and determines the federal loans you qualify for, as well as federal, state, and institutional grants you’ll get. 

Note: Not all schools require you to file the CSS Profile — it’s usually reserved for more highly selective institutions. In fact, check out the list of schools that require you to file the CSS Profile. The FAFSA and CSS Profile open on October 1 of your senior year and you want to team up with your parents to file it right away. 

Also, note that some colleges require you to submit separate institutional documents for talent-based scholarships or other types of scholarships. These documents can be due as early as November 1, before the regular deadline for admission at most schools. Know the ins and outs of every scholarship you qualify for at every school!

Step 10: Analyze Your Awards

Give yourself a pat on the back! You’ve done everything you need to do to go through the application process. Now, colleges should send out your financial aid award between March 1 and April 15, if not sooner.

 Carefully determine your out-of-pocket costs for each institution. (Sometimes the full costs aren’t visible on the financial aid award.) Next, make sure you can get the merit-based scholarships every year for four years or if you need to maintain a certain GPA, for example.

Step 11: Work Through Appeals and Loans

You can appeal your financial aid award if your awards don’t match up with what your family can afford. In most cases, you’ll send a letter to the director of financial aid or the director of admissions and fill out a special circumstances form. However, make sure you have a more concrete reason for the need than “I just need more money.”

  • Debt not represented on financial aid forms
  • Medical bills
  • Death in the family
  • Job loss
  • Dependents who have special needs

Step 12: Make a Final Decision by May 1

May 1: National Decision Day! Make your final decision (hurray!) and accept your financial aid award. You can choose to decline items you don’t want (such as loans). Submit your enrollment deposit to secure housing by May 1.

When to Start College Planning 

Time is a sacred resource in college planning. The sooner a family starts planning and understands the milestones, the greater likelihood for success. One aspect that remains clear: 

The sooner a family starts planning, the stress levels go down. 

Family Stress Goes Down When You Know How to Plan for College

You should strategize starting freshman or sophomore year, beginning with activities you get involved in at the high school level. College acceptances involve more than the hard factors of great grades and impressive standardized test scores. One factor that colleges value is understanding a student’s passions through their activity experiences. 

COVID-19 has permanently changed the way college admissions will recruit and communicate with students. Admissions officials will likely travel less in the future to college fairs. Students in remote areas will have greater access to admissions officials with the click of a button. 

Take the Next Step 

When you want assistance taking all of these steps, contact Campus to Career Crossroads. College planning is more than creating a list of colleges for a student. It is a capstone project embracing 18 years of a student’s passions, academic successes, and unique accomplishments.  Why go alone on this important journey and risk getting it wrong? 

Campus to Career Crossroads prides itself on delivering unsurpassed knowledge to its clients through professional associations, collaboration with dedicated independent educational consultants, and relationships with admissions leadership throughout the country. If you are confused or uncertain of your family’s college plan, please contact Campus to Career Crossroads today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How do I start a college plan? 

Each student should get a college planning outline based on his or her goals. Campus to Career Crossroads walks you through everything you need to know about college planning and gives you a college planning outline based on goals and works around busy times, such as during sports seasons or summer programs.  

An effective college planning outline consists of the following items:

  • Goals to keep a family on pace 
  • A clear target based on the student’s college goals and year of high school 
  • Key to-do items like standardized testing and college visits, letters of recommendation, admissions applications
  • Time allocation for career exploration
  • Downtime for family and friends

Question: Where do I start with college?

Think carefully about what you want. What type of college will best help you navigate the transitional and complex stages from high school to career? A great way to find that out: Go on college visits! They will help you determine in which type of college environment you will thrive.

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