College Planning Guide

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college planning guide

College Planning Guide

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Though hopefully you have supportive parents, admissions staff, and college counselors to guide you on your transition from high school through college, there are tons of little things that many students wish they had known earlier in their college years. Topics like structuring your high school courses, the difference between the ACT and SAT, application tips, negotiating financial aid, and making plans for the future. While guides in individual topics pop up with regularity online, we noticed a lack of resources stringing together and commenting on many of your college planning needs. We hope you find the following guide a great resource through the exciting transition years from high school through college. Enjoy!


High School Curriculum

At some point in their high school experience, many students begin to wonder what courses colleges would like to see in their records. While students with mindful parents or good college counselors might have already worked through this stage of planning, many students will need to sit down and do some research on their own. Keep in mind that course offerings will vary from high school to high school, and that in extreme cases, you may want to think about changing schools. Most high schools, however, will offer a variety of levels of courses; courses ranging from normal levels, honors, advanced placement (AP), international baccalaureate (IB), to courses at local colleges. While very few colleges will need for you to take the hardest level of courses across the board to gain admittance, a good rule of thumb is that you should balance showing how capable you are with showing the challenging nature of your coursework. If you’re acing all of your normal-level classes, and your school offers AP courses, take a few. Note that colleges are looking for a whole person, preferably one who can navigate different academic settings and who wants to be challenged.

While you’ll want to consult individual colleges that you’re interested in regarding their specific prerequisites, a few general rules of thumb apply. Most colleges want to see someone who takes on challenges. Even if a college doesn’t require a certain level of courses, you should strive to take some upper level courses in your time in high school. This is particularly the case if you’re doing well in lower level courses. Beyond that, many colleges seek the following basic course collections:

  • 4 Years of English
    • Most schools offer at least honors English. A traditional course of study progresses through American Lit, English Lit, Literature and Composition, as well as World Literature.
  • 3-4 Years of Math
    • For many schools Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry/Trigonometry should be taken. More competitive schools will look favorably on taking Calculus as well.
  • 3-4 Years of Science
    • Competitive schools will look to see four years. One year each of one of the following is recommended: biology, chemistry or physics, Earth or space science.
  • 2.5 Years of Social Studies
    • Some regularly included courses include U.S. History, Government, World History, and Geography.
  • 2 Years of a Foreign Language
    • While some colleges prefer more, and some high schools offer up to 8 semesters of foreign language, many colleges only require 4 semesters.
  • 1 Year of Arts
    • Many students enjoy classes in the arts, and use them as a relaxing mental health break from the rest of their busy schedules. Turns out, many colleges also like to see at least a few semesters of classes in the Arts.

Helpful Links:

  • Big Future, a college planning section of the College Board offers this guide on taking your college courses to the next level. We’ve mentioned how important it is to take on new challenges in high school. Well here’s a guide with specific examples on how to show that your schedule is challenging.
  • A separate angle involves challenging yourself through (many times) free online courses. Today some MOOCs (massive open online courses) are accepted for credit by universities. And there are many ways high school students can start their college studies early online.
  • FreeAPStudyNotes offers a variety of free study guides for students planning on taking Advanced Placement Exams. Check out their offerings here.

Standardized Tests

By the time you’re thinking about college, chances are you’ve taken your fair share of standardized tests. And chances are you’re one of two types of students: a grade-a test taker, or someone who curses the day they have to fill in bubbles for hours. The good news is that most colleges fully understand that standardized tests aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. And while it’s important to prepare for standardized tests to the best of your abilities, there are other tactics for making your application impressive if you aren’t the best test taker. In short, standardized tests are important, but not the only criteria colleges will be looking at with your application. One important planning note is that it is important to be honest with yourself through the testing process. Students who take tests or practice tests earlier will have the advantage of having the range of colleges that they can reasonably expect to get into pegged down, allowing them to hone the other parts of their application and planning earlier. Below we’ll provide some helpful links for all of the standardized test types.

Helpful Links:


  • For parents and students wondering why the PSAT matters, this guide by US News jumps into a few reasons why this often overlooked test can be a useful test to focus on.
  • While teachers will most likely give you informational material on the PSAT before hand, you may be wanting additional information to help you prepare for the test. Check out this in-depth guide of the PSAT by Peterson’s if this is the case.
  • Finally, for students who really want to get ahead in the standardized test realm, there’s rarely a better way to prepare for tests than taking practice tests. Check out these 5 Practice Tests divided by section for the PSAT.


  • Before you start jumping into a large study regime on either test, it’s best to know that many colleges accept the ACT and SAT, and that they tend to reward different types of student strengths. Check out this guide by the Princeton Review that compares the two test types before going any further.
  • If the SAT looks like a better fit than the ACT, perhaps the best place to start is with the makers of the SAT: the College Board. Check out their main SAT page for information about free practice materials, dates, and other helpful SAT-related information.
  • The Princeton Review also hosts a number of free practice events for the SAT. Check for availability and scheduling in your area here.


  • Before you start in on a study program, you may want to align where you currently are with where you want to be. Check out this guide on how long and in what ways to study to achieve your own personal study goals.
  • The ACT Student hosts a variety of resources for soon-to-be ACT takers. Check out their official guide which includes 5 practice tests, explanations of the right and wrong answers, as well as a guide to the writing section.


  • There are currently over 30 AP subject and subject tests, and chances are your school won’t offer every topic (or even close). You shouldn’t let this stop you from attempting to take the test to get college credit. Check out this guide on self-studying while not in an official AP class.
  • If you’re looking for actual practice tests on Advanced Placement subjects, check out AP Practice Exams, one of the largest groupings of practice tests available online.


  • A number of sample tests for the International Baccalaureate Exam are available on their site. They include papers used in actual examinations on 5 topics.
  • IB tests are some of the hardest out there, use Exam Time’s powerful planning site that includes an IB specific planner to keep track of where you’re at in your studying.

Application Tips

Unless you’ve been through the process with older brothers or sisters, or have a particularly attentive college counselor, chances are you can do things to improve your application process. One crucial component of applying well is assessing your own strengths and goals. Some students completely rocked standardized tests, others have amazing experiences they want to share in their application essays, others might shine in in-person interviews. This is also the stage at which you’ll want to take a realistic assessment of what schools you think you can get into, what schools are going to be a stretch, and which should be safety schools.

Helpful Links:

  • Though many college counselors advise students to apply to between 5 and 8 schools, sometimes it’s hard to hone in the criteria that means the most to you. Check out this article on what you should consider when choosing the schools you will apply to by the College Board.
  • Sometimes college counselors can be hard to get in contact with. As you discover more about what is needed for a successful college application process, don’t wait to ask these important questions.
  • At $35-$50 each, college application fees can add up quickly, particularly when paired with the cost of college visits and standardized testing costs. Check out the following guide from US News on how to save on college application fees, or get them waived entirely.

Choosing a School

If you’ve made it this far–and have a choice between a few of your top schools–you’re in an enviable position. That often doesn’t make the final choice any easier, however. A range of factors including the quality of the school, location, programs offered, affordability or financial aid offers, and social dynamics can all factor into choosing a school that’s the right fit for you. Check out the following resources on analyzing what you want to get out of college and aligning this with what schools have to offer.

Helpful Links:

  • Unless you’re in the clear with money–from family, yourself, or scholarships–chances are you’re one of many students whose facing the choice between attending a more expensive school for the sake of name recognition, or a more economical choice. Check out this NY Times article on how to discern what the right type of college for you might be.
  • One way many parents and students choose to analyze potential higher education options is to analyze the return on investment of a given college or major. Check out the Payscale ROI Report to get an in-depth look at how the top schools and majors stack up.
  • If you are still undecided about the type of school you’re looking to attend, check out this comparison from College Choice on choosing whether or not to attend a liberal arts school or a larger research university.

Financial Aid

With the average cost of many private four year colleges rising to over $200,000, effectively dealing with financial aid has become mission critical for many families trying to send children to schools of their choice. What most students and families don’t know, however, is that there are a number of ways to legally get the most from financial aid. These include the use of tax deductible educational spending accounts, applying for the FAFSA early, as well as actually negotiating with schools before and after you’ve received your financial aid offer. Check out the following resources to making the most out of your financial aid-seeking process.

Helpful Links:

  • The first stop in the financial aid process is the FAFSA. Filling out the necessary documents should take less than an hour, and getting the form in early can increase your financial aid eligibility.
  • Time Magazine has a guide for families seeking to maximize financial aid offerings, with advice on where to keep your savings, FAFSA tips, and how to negotiate a better financial aid deal.
  • There are tons of scholarships available from schools, employers, government organizations, and non-profits. Though there are a variety of sites displaying available scholarships. Check out Federal scholarships first.

Transitioning into Freshman Year

Your freshman year of college can be one of the most formative times of your life, but without the proper support services it can also be an easy time to fall behind in school, get sidetracked, and generally have a tough time adjusting. Known as the “freshman myth,” a common phenomenon centers around students social, academic, and cultural expectations of college not being met. In 2008, of 18 million students enrolled in undergraduate, 34% flunked or dropped out due to being over confident, under prepared, or not having their expectations of college met. While there are a number of resources below, be sure to check to see if your particular school offers a ‘first-year experience’ program, as well as supportive academic and social counseling arrangements.

  • Check out this article in the Huffington Post about the “freshman myth,” including detailed questions and processes through which you or a student you know can help to realistically align their needs and goals with their college experience.
  • While we could have created a list from our own experience, there are a number of quality guides about excelling in your freshman year of college. Check out this guide by College Info Geek, one of the better freshman year guides online.
  • Oftentimes students can be so caught up with adjusting to their new environment that they don’t take some easy steps early in their college career that can help assure four-year success.

Living Expenses

With everything else you’ve got on your plate, you don’t want to have to be worrying about money a great deal during your college experience. Plus–for many students–the college years are a good time to start learning to manage your money, and setting yourself up with good financial habits that you can use throughout your life. Good places to start are learning to do your taxes and FAFSA by yourself. If you can manage it, there are also often a number of opportunities to work on or around campus. Negotiating a work study as part of your financial aid award can often guarantee employment through your time at university. Check out the resources below for other tips on managing your living expenses while in college.

  • While your primary focus should be on making good marks and having fun in school, there are a few easy habits that can leave you in much better financial shape upon graduation. Check out these five tips from About Money.
  • There are a number of helpful apps out there that can help you to stick to a budget and financial goals on both Android and iOS. Check out these seven as noted by DailyWorth for a wide array to choose from.
  • It’s actually normal to work to some extent while in college. Check out some stats about working and school and it’s potential benefits presented by StraighterLine.

Choosing a Major

Some say ‘follow your passion,’ others choose schools and majors entirely based on potential return on investment. While neither course of action is foolproof, and either route comes down to both applying yourself and taking advantage of school and future workplace opportunities, it is good to decide on what you want to get out of your college experience. And then take steps to make your goals a reality. If you’re planning on heading to grad school, choose a major that will enable you to get into the type of grad school you’re interested in. If you know what sort of work you want to do, take on internships and get work experience in the field (even if it’s not your major). If your passion and future career plans aren’t in the same realm (hopefully they are), do a double major. Most of all, be honest about your goals, and open to learning something new about yourself. College is a time of expansion and exploration. Check out some of the following resources with information pertinent to choosing a major below.

  • Choosing a college major doesn’t have to be overwhelming. As noted in this Princeton Review Guide the average twenty-something switches jobs once every three years. And the average person changes fields two to three times in their lifetime. A college major doesn’t have to be a life sentence into anything.
  • Even if you have to think outside of the box, almost any major can be turned into a vocation with the right amount of work and acumen. Check out myCollegeOptions’ guide to turning your passion into a career to start brainstorming.

Post-Graduate Plans

For some, senior year of college is a return to more standardized testing, with the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT as the four most popular. For many of these students important preparations for post-grad life include their coursework, grades, and creating lasting impressions on professors or community members who can write them letters of recommendation. For other students, senior year is filled with networking, meeting with career services, and job applications. For both it’s often a time when students have to be open to learning about new opportunities, revising previous plans, and juggling current schoolwork with preparations for the future. Here are some resources to help with post-graduate planning in your final months of college.

  • If you want a general run down of deciding what graduate admissions standardized test you should take, and how you should prepare, check out this guide by’s education site.
  • If you’re thinking about working right out of schools and on utilizing support services at your career services department (which we recommend), check out this article by US News
  • Without the experience of older job applicants, many recent or soon-to-be college grads find themselves being asked the same interview questions repeatedly. While interviews can vary drastically from company to company or sector to sector, check out this basic overview of interview questions for an idea of what you might be asked.
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