How to Plan for College: 5 Tips for 9th Graders


If you have college aspirations, you can and should start planning for college during your freshman year of high school. You want to make sure you're on the right path and have a solid plan in place to help you navigate the college process and eventually reach your goals.

In this article, I'll detail what to include in your 9th grade college planning. Then, I'll explain what you don't yet need to worry about.


It’s Not Too Early to Think About How to Plan for College

If you’re thinking that 9th grade is too early to start preparing for college, you’re wrong. Some of what you do in 9th grade will impact your college applications and influence admissions decisions. Many of my former students told me in their senior year that they wished they’d developed good study habits or knew more about what they’d need to do to get into college when they were freshmen.

Also, if you have the mindset in 9th grade that you’re going to college, you’ll be much more likely to stay on the path to achieving your college goals.

Below, I outline the five most important tips for 9th grade college planning.


#1: Take the Right Classes

When you start high school, you need to make sure you’re taking a college prep curriculum. Talk to your counselor to ensure that you’re on a college prep track. In many schools, the math or foreign language class you take in your freshman year of high school will determine what level you’re able to reach when you’re a senior in high school.

Colleges will evaluate you based on the classes you’ve taken. If you have any aspirations of attending a top college, the most selective schools want to see that you’re challenging yourself and taking some of the hardest classes that are offered at your school.

You don’t have to take every single honors or AP class, but to get into the top schools, you should demonstrate that you can do well in the most difficult classes. I do recommend taking honors or AP classes in the subjects you're best at and the subjects you're considering studying in college.

Here's an example of a good freshman schedule for a student who wants to be competitive for admission to elite colleges. Note that this is just a rough guide, and you can take a more or less challenging schedule depending on your skill level and the courses offered at your high school:

  • Honors Biology
  • Geometry
  • Honors English
  • World History
  • Spanish I
  • PE
  • Elective



#2: Get Good Grades

Believe it or not, your freshman year grades do matter for college admissions. Colleges will look at your freshman year grades, and your grades in your freshman year will influence your high school GPA and class rank.

Furthermore, if you get good grades in your freshman year, you’ll be more likely to get good grades in your sophomore and junior years. You’ll have developed the skills and habits that will allow you to continue to be successful academically.

Learn more about how to get a 4.0 and better grades. If you don’t do as well as you’d like in your freshman year, it doesn’t mean that your college dreams are doomed, though. Undoubtedly, your sophomore and junior year grades are more important to colleges.

#3: Get Involved in Extracurriculars

Other than your grades and test scores, your extracurricular activities probably have the biggest influence on the quality of your college applications. Colleges, especially top colleges, want their students to have exceptional achievements outside of the classroom, and they’re looking for individuals who use their leisure time to pursue their passions.

Some students believe they need to be well-rounded and do a ton of extracurriculars; however, for college admissions, it may be more advantageous for you to develop a “spike” and exhibit excellence in a particular activity or field.

If you play a sport, you can focus your energies on reaching the highest level in your sport and becoming a recruited athlete. If you excel in math, you can use your time outside of school to practice for and compete in math competitions.

You should be participating in extracurricular activities during your freshman year of high school. Colleges prefer to see a sustained commitment to your activities. It’s more impressive to do one activity for four years and continue to show growth in that activity than it is to start doing a bunch of activities in your junior year. Furthermore, getting involved in extracurriculars now increases your odds of gaining leadership positions or winning awards later in your high school career. Learn what to do if you’re struggling to find extracurriculars.



 Maybe you can join the basketball team. Image source: David Holmes/Flickr


#4: Start Preliminary College Research

When you’re a freshman in high school, you don’t need to know which college you want to go to. You don’t even need to have much of an idea of which colleges you want to apply to.

However, you can start thinking about what you’re looking for in a college. What do you want to study? What geographic region do you want to be in? You can play around with college finders to get an idea of different schools that may be good for you.  You can also visit local college campuses to see what they're like and get a small taste of college life.

Once you have an idea of a few colleges that may interest you, you can get a better idea of what you need to do to get admitted. Google "PrepScholar [name of school] admissions" to get the acceptance rates, average GPAs, and average standardized test scores for different colleges. If you know the grades you'll need to get into different schools, that can help you stay on track. Furthermore, you can also go on colleges' websites and look at their admission requirements so you know which classes you should be taking.

It's perfectly OK if you're unsure at this point what you want in a college, and it's very possible that you'll change your mind before you graduate from high school, even if you think you know where you want to go. Keep in mind, though, that it's good to start thinking about college in general and to realize that what you do throughout high school will impact your college options.


#5: Involve Your Parents

This advice applies primarily to students whose parents didn’t go to college or are unfamiliar with the college application process. Even if your parents went to college, it's probably been a while and they may have fears or concerns about your college goals. If your parents aren’t pushing you to go to college, you can let them know about your desires to attend. If you get them involved with your college planning, they can be more supportive and helpful.

Inform them why you want to go to college. Also, many parents worry about the cost of attending college. Some parents will incorrectly assume that their children can’t go to college because they’re unable to afford the full cost of attendance.

You may want to direct them to our articles on how to save for college and financial aid. At this point, mostly it's important to know that finances shouldn't be a barrier to you attending college. Between grants, scholarships, and possibly loans, a college education should be accessible to you regardless of your financial situation.

If your parents are pushing you to go to college or are generally stressing you out about college, you can try to reassure them by letting them know you have a plan (make sure you have a plan first). All of you can read this article and our other articles about college admissions.



If possible, try to get your parents involved in your college planning.


What Not to Worry About as a Freshman

While it’s good to start thinking about how to plan for college in the 9th grade, you should remember that you still have substantial time to prepare yourself for college. Try to avoid stressing about college now. Your education and future are important, but so are your happiness and emotional well-being.

Here are some specific aspects of planning for college that you don’t really have to be too concerned with in 9th grade.


The SAT or ACT

You’ve probably heard of the SAT and the ACT. Most colleges require you to take one of these tests to gain admission. A higher score will increase your chances of getting into selective colleges.

In the 9th grade, you don’t have to actively prepare for these tests, but you can start to familiarize yourself with them and the skills you’ll need to acquire.

The math section of the SAT and the ACT tests you on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Most likely, you’ll need at least a couple of years of high school math before you’ll know enough to be able to maximize your score. Also, your reading and writing skills, which are tested on these standardized tests, will improve with continued reading and the work you’ll be doing in your English classes.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in attending a competitive summer program that requires you to submit SAT or ACT scores, then you should spend more time during your freshman year preparing.

Even though you don’t have to worry about these standardized tests during your freshman year, it’s not too early to start studying for either the SAT or ACT. You can prepare for and take the PSAT or PreACT.

Learn about how to study for the SAT/ACT as a 9th grader. If you start doing some consistent light test prep early, you'll be more ready and relaxed when you're taking these tests during your junior or senior year when your schoolwork will be more rigorous, and you may be working on your college applications. However, I don't think you should be too concerned with your standardized tests in 9th grade.




The Best College for You

We get many comments from 8th and 9th graders stating their desire to go to a specific college. While it’s great to have goals and dreams, you don’t need to know where you want to go to college in 9th grade. You have a couple of years before you have to start seriously considering the schools that you want to apply to.

Furthermore, as you mature and learn more about different colleges, you may very well change your dream school. You may end up deciding to pursue a different career path or change what you’re looking for in a college. There’s nothing wrong with altering your goals or priorities as you learn more.

At this point in your high school career, you should spend the majority of your time developing the skills and qualifications to give yourself as many college options as possible. Perhaps you’re assuming now that you’ll go to your local state college that may not be overly selective. Maybe its incoming students have an average GPA of 3.2. However, if in the summer before your senior year, you decide that you want to go to a more prestigious college in another region of the country, you’ll have many more options if you have a 3.9 GPA.


If You Can Afford College

While it’s not a bad idea to save for college early, you don’t have to be overly concerned in the 9th grade with thoughts of whether you’ll be able to afford to attend. If you’re worried about college costs, you can start looking for and applying to scholarships, but many scholarships are only open to older students.

Again, just realize that cost shouldn’t prevent you from attending college. Most students receive some form of financial aid and don’t pay the listed cost of attendance. Additionally, if you excel in school and end up with good test scores, you’ll be more likely to receive merit scholarships and be admitted to colleges that offer the most generous financial aid.


What's Next?

Do you want to go to one of the most selective colleges? Find out which classes Ivy League schools require.

Learn more about how many extracurriculars you need.

Finally, you can learn from our fun infographic about how to apply for college, and everything you should be doing from 9th grade until the end of your senior year.



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About the Author
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Justin Berkman

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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