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It’s never too early to start thinking about college, especially if you’ve been putting it off (we’re looking at you, juniors). We get it—it’s overwhelming, maybe even ridiculous-sounding if you’re a freshman or sophomore. But, believe it or not, the least stressful way to prepare for college is to start at the beginning of high school and do a little at a time. Whether you know exactly what you want to study, or you just want to make sure you don’t get all the way to senior year without finishing the prereqs and service hours you’ll need, you can save yourself considerable stress by starting now.

“We work with students as early as eighth grade, sometimes even seventh, helping them figure out what high school classes to take, what activities to get involved in,” says the founder of College Expert, Sue Luse, a certified educational consultant and former school counselor. A recent Student Health 101 survey of high schoolers found that nearly two-thirds of respondents had either started to look into college, or were at least planning to soon. Luckily, today’s students have more resources to guide them than ever before.

Calling all freshmanAccording to Carl Stange, the director of admissions at Winona State University in Minnesota, the classes you take as a freshman count just as much, if not more, than those you take later on. That C+ in your freshman-year elective may not seem like a big deal at the time, but it will be calculated into your overall GPA, which is what colleges look at. “Whether or not [students] know what their aspirations are going to be at that point, [freshman] grades are the most important to establish the foundation, to give them any choice at the point of graduation,” says Stange. Don’t stress too much, though, especially if you do OK on your SAT or ACT. Colleges also look at improvement over time, and a combination of GPA and test scores is a better predictor for college success than either considered alone, according to research by the College Board.

Opt in to challenging classesOn the other hand, while grades matter, your level of coursework matters more. “The most important thing colleges are looking for is a rigorous high school curriculum that challenges the student,” says Luse. Colleges want to know that prospective students opted for honors-level classes and extra online learning instead of study hall. “We’d rather see a B in a more rigorous class than an A in an easy class,” Luse says. Most colleges do realize, however, that the availability of honors-level classes (such as AP or IB) varies from school to school. Colleges will likely review which advanced classes you took out of those that were available to you, according to PrepScholar. But performing poorly in an advanced-level class or struggling to keep up in your other classes can really drag your GPA down. Know your limits. Choose advanced classes in the subjects you’re interested in and those you already excel at so that you’re more likely to do well. If you mess up, don’t sweat it. College applications are about the big picture. 

Check yourself before you prereq yourself“I know that higher ed is necessary in today’s world,” says a senior in Roseville, California. “The key is to do it without going into debt.” That’s why one of the best ways to make the most of college is to get a head start in high school, such as by taking advantage of AP or IB classes, or taking courses at your local community college. While most high school curricula cover basic college prerequisites for your standard liberal arts education, if your aspirations are more specific, bulk up that college app now. For example, students interested in studying medicine should aim for four years of math, including senior-year calculus, and at least three years of science, including physics, according to the University of Chicago. If you don’t know yet what you’re interested in, high school electives offer an opportunity to experiment. That photography or personal finance class could help you figure out what you do and don’t like, making it easier to research college programs down the road.

Avoid the senior slideDon’t make the mistake of taking a course load of easy classes your senior year, says Stange. It may be tempting to slack off after you’ve already applied to or been accepted at schools, but colleges have the right to reevaluate your application after your senior-year grades come in, and they’re more likely to do so if they notice a drastic difference in your grades from junior to senior year, according to the resident dean at College Confidential. Plus, getting out of good study habits will make college coursework feel that much harder. “The senior curriculum will only enhance [new college students’] ability to make the transition and be successful,” says Stange. By all means use your senior year to take that elective you wanted to try but didn’t have time for in the past. Just make sure you’re still giving it your best effort.

Test prepTake advantage of in-person or online prep classes and the free pretests offered in school to score your best on either the ACT or the SAT (you will not need both, and all schools accept either, according to the Princeton Review and Prep Scholar). If your scores do happen to fall short, don’t let that discourage you from applying. “Rigor and high school GPA is what we look at more and more in the admissions decision,” says Stange, “and use the [ACT or SAT] as a complement.”

Stick with itActivities are important, but don’t spread yourself thin trying to do it all. Whatever you choose—basketball, music, chess, theater—stick with it. “We want to see them do it all the way through high school,” says Luse. “And by the time they’re a senior, hopefully they’re captain or president—somehow a leader of that activity.” The same goes for volunteer work; colleges would rather see a student exhibit a passion and stick with it. Extra points to those who can explain why the experience was meaningful, as opposed to sharing a list of one-off work service days.

Hit up the school counselorThe school counselor’s office isn’t just a place to process feelings; it’s a powerful college tool. “The first thing students should do is get to know the guidance counselor, because that person has a lot of knowledge and resources,” says Luse. Don’t wait for a busy counselor to come to you; it’s important to seek the person out because it can be hard for a counselor to keep track of every student. Work together with your counselor to get to know your skills, scores, and interests, then start to make a list of potential schools. “That’s free and available for everybody, and most kids do not take advantage of it,” Luse adds.

Immerse yourself“I want to visit colleges, but I can’t miss school or practice, unless it’s a holiday or something,” says Grace, a junior in Barneveld, Wisconsin. Try to make time, says Stange. There’s only so much you can tell from glossy brochures and a college’s website; you’ve got to set foot on campus to get the full experience. Schedule an official admissions tour and information session as early as sophomore year, and visit on a weekday when the student body is in full swing. Witness what 50,000 or 2,000 students really looks like, feel the difference between urban and rural; walk one end of campus to the other, and don’t rely on your parent to navigate or ask questions—they aren’t the ones who’ll be attending. If you truly can’t get away, most colleges offer virtual tours on their website, and you can reach out to current students to help you get a better feel for campus culture.

Money talks“My only doubt [about going to college] is that it will cost a lot,” says Michael, a sophomore in Tyngsborough, Massachusetts. But those doubts can be alleviated only with investigation, and the earlier you face it, the more time you’ll have to make a plan. A realistic budget might even help you narrow down your search. Sit down face-to-face with your parents and talk about how you will be paying for college. Most universities have a net price calculator on their websites. Many high schools hold financial aid nights to help families navigate the process, and families can also get an online financial aid estimate. And while it’s important to be realistic about your budget, don’t let surface cost deter you from the school of your choice. “We’re surprised by a lot of the private colleges that actually end up giving more money than state colleges,” says Luse.

Cast a wide netAim to apply to at least three or four colleges. Luse adds that 693 colleges and universities in 48 states now accept the Common Application, which goes live each August, saves time, and allows students to apply online. “We like to see [students apply to] ‘reaches,’ ‘possibles’ and ‘likelies.’”

Seniors: I got in; now what?Luse suggests creating a list of criteria that are important to you, such as location, distance from home, size, quality of the program, student life, cost, and impact on your future, then rank each school on each quality using a 1–5 scale (see below).

Example of your college-ranking chartThe highest-scoring schools should make your choice much clearer. When you’ve got your top two or three, go back and revisit those schools in person if you can. Many colleges let accepted students plan an overnight, or they even host a formal Accepted Students Weekend, which could help to keep costs down and provide direction. Compare financial aid packets, talk to the kids you know who already attend, and follow the social media accounts of potential schools to see which vibe you’re most attracted to. Each year, seniors have until May 1 to decide (though some acceptance letters, such as those from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, don’t arrive until April 1). Whatever you do, don’t decide based solely on where your girlfriend or boyfriend is going. “Every year we have a few,” says Luse, adding, “it usually doesn’t work out.”

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Article sources

Sue Luse, certified educational consultant, Eagan, Minnesota.

Carl T. Stange, director of undergraduate admissions at Winona State University, Winona, Minnesota.

Edwards, H. (2015). Exactly how many AP classes should you take? Prep Scholar. Retrieved from http://blog.prepscholar.com/how-many-ap-classes-should-you-take

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). FAFSA4caster. Retrieved from https://fafsa.ed.gov/FAFSA/app/f4cForm?execution=e1s1

Ramist, L., Lewis, C., & McCamley-Jenkins, L. (1997). Students with discrepant high school GPA and SAT scores. The College Board Research Summary. Retrieved from https://research.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/publications/2012/7/researchinreview-1997-1-students-discrepant-hs-gpa-sat.pdf

Rubenstone, S. (n.d.). What grades do colleges look at? College Confidential. Retrieved from http://www.collegeconfidential.com/dean/000195/

The Princeton Review. (2017). Should I Take the ACT, the SAT or Both? Retrieved from https://www.princetonreview.com/college/should-i-take-the-act-or-sat-quiz

The University of Chicago. (2017). Suggested high school courses. Chicago Collegiate Scholars Program. Retrieved from https://collegiatescholars.uchicago.edu/page/suggested-courses

Zhang, F. (2015, March 9). Do colleges accept ACT takers as much as SAT takers? Is the ACT disadvantaged? PrepScholar. Retrieved from http://blog.prepscholar.com/do-colleges-accept-act-takers-vs-sat-act-disadvantaged