While you might think college preparation only happens during the summer before college, this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, you can start preparing for college as early as 9th grade! But what exactly does the process of college preparation entail?
Here, we explain how to prepare for college at every grade level in high school. Specifically, we take a look at what you can do on the academic, financial, and extracurricular fronts, providing you with advice and tips, as well as a helpful preparing-for-college checklist.
How to Prepare for College: Overview
In this guide, we go over how to get ready for college in every grade, from 9th through 12th and even the summer before college. We give you detailed steps to take in areas such as academics, extracurricular activities, financial aid, standardized tests, and college applications.
If you’d like to jump ahead to a specific grade level, feel free to use this table of contents:
- How to Prepare for College in 9th Grade
- How to Get Ready for College in 10th Grade
- Things to Do Before College in 11th Grade
- Getting Ready for College in 12th Grade
- 5 Things to Do the Summer Before College
We also offer a printable preparing-for-college checklist, which you can download by clicking the PDF thumbnail below:
How to Prepare for College in 9th Grade
Here’s a checklist of the major steps you should take in 9th grade in order to start getting prepared for college early.
#1: Do Well in Core Courses
Aside from your state’s high school graduation requirements, you’ll need to pay attention to the class requirements of most US colleges and universities.
In general, you’ll have to take at least the following in high school to be able to attend college:
- 4 years of English
- 3 years of math
- 3 years of science
- 3 years of social studies/history
- 2 years of a foreign language
- 4 years of math
- 3-4 years of science
- 3-4 years of a foreign language
Naturally, you also want to ensure you’re doing well in your core classes, so keep up your grades as best as you can—9th grade is when your grades really start to count in terms of what colleges will see, so don't goof off!
Do your homework, take notes, study for all your tests, and actively participate in class to the best of your ability. These actions will set you up with good habits in your later high school years. Remember that your 9th grade GPA will influence your final GPA and class rank when you apply to colleges.
#2: Look Into Taking Honors and AP Courses
At this time, you should also start to look into what honors and/or AP classes you might be eligible to take as a 9th grader (or 10th grader, if you’re looking to the future). Meet with your counselor and discuss whether there are any upper-level classes or more challenging versions of the core courses above that you can sign up for.
Your counselor should also map out possible class plans for each year you're in high school so that you’ll be on track to complete all the courses you need for college. Having a four-year plan can really help you visualize the different steps you'll need to take every year.
#3: Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities That Interest You
Your first year of high school is the perfect time to start exploring the different kinds of academic and non-academic interests you have through clubs, volunteering, and other groups. You can ask other students, your teachers, or your counselor what kinds of clubs, societies, and sports teams your school offers.
If there’s an informational club fair at the start of the school year, this would be an excellent time to learn more about what kinds of groups your school has (and doesn’t have).
Remember, too, that you don’t necessarily need to do activities through your school; it's fine to look for volunteer organizations and other groups you could join outside school.
Another alternative is to carve out more time for a particular hobby you have, such as writing short stories or coming up with ideas for inventions. The point here is to start figuring out what your biggest interests and passions are, and how these could translate into possible academic or professional paths.
#4: Take the PSAT 8/9 (Optional)
If one of your goals is to qualify for National Merit on the PSAT/NMSQT as a junior, then it’ll help you greatly to start preparing early through the PSAT 8/9, a version of the PSAT that's geared specifically toward 8th and 9th graders.
This test doesn’t count for anything and is really only helpful if you want to get as much PSAT and SAT practice as possible. If you'd like to take it, ask your guidance counselor how to register for it. The PSAT 8/9 is normally administered in October.
Note that if you plan to take the ACT instead of the SAT, there’s not much point in taking the PSAT 8/9 (except for the fact that it will help prepare you for standardized college admissions tests as a whole).
How to Get Ready for College in 10th Grade
Although sophomores still have a few years before college begins, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to help you prepare for college.
#1: Keep Up Your Grades and a Rigorous Course Load
By 10th grade, if you haven’t already, you should really start to think about taking some AP and honors classes (if offered at your school), especially if you plan to apply to the most competitive colleges.
Meet with your counselor to determine which upper-level classes you are eligible for and most likely to do well in based on your individual interests and skills.
When it comes to your electives, try to take classes in topics that not only appeal to you but also challenge you (and are ideally at least somewhat related to your passion or future major).
As you should do every year in high school, continue to work hard to keep up your grades. If you’re struggling at all with a certain class, talk to your teacher and parents about possibly seeking extra help, such as a tutor.
#2: Stay Invested in Your Extracurriculars
By this point, you should have at least one or two extracurriculars you regularly do and that you’re committed to. These could be school clubs you’re part of, a part-time job or internship, a volunteer position you hold, a hobby or talent you’re pursuing, etc.
While it’s perfectly fine if you have more than two extracurriculars, just know that what ultimately matters is quality, not quantity. The activities you do should reflect what you’re truly interested in, academically, professionally, and personally.
If you plan to apply to very competitive colleges, you should focus on developing a spike, which is essentially finding your niche or what makes you stand out. You can do this by engaging in activities, events, competitions, etc. that speak specifically to your interest, whether that's German or computer science.
#3: Start Thinking About Possible Majors and Colleges
Yes, it’s still early when it comes to college, but your sophomore year is a great time to start playing around with ideas of what you might want to study in college—and possibly do as a career.
Some teenagers know right away what kind of career they want to have, while others (likely most!) have some interests here and there but don’t know what they want to do with these in college and as an adult.
You can get started by thinking about your biggest passions in life and what you generally enjoy doing, both in and outside of school. For example, maybe you’re passionate about music and have always envisioned yourself playing the violin in an orchestra. In this case, a music major at a more artistically inclined school could be an amazing fit for you.
It might also help to look at our comprehensive list of college majors, just to give you some ideas as to what majors are out there.
In terms of colleges, you don’t need to have a final list or anything yet—simply get a feel for what kinds of colleges are out there, including what’s available in and around your area (or in the area you’d like to live and go to school). You can use college search websites and reputable ranking lists to see what certain schools are famous for.
#4: Learn How to Pay for College
As a 10th grader, you probably don’t know much about paying for college or even what the FAFSA is. So take this time to start familiarizing yourself with key financial terms and what paying for college actually entails in terms of tuition, housing, meal plans, etc.
We recommend checking out our helpful guides on the different types of financial aid and how to save money for college. If your parents are worried about upcoming college expenses, read these articles with them and explain to them how you plan to apply for college scholarships and do well in school to increase your chances of securing a merit scholarship.
If you’ll be paying for college entirely on your own, get started early by reading our guide.
#5: Take the PSAT, PSAT 10, or PreACT (Optional)
If you want to get a head start on your SAT/ACT preparation, then taking either the PSAT, PSAT 10, or PreACT in 10th grade will be a wise choice.
- PSAT: The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is an official practice test for the SAT with a slightly easier content focus and a shorter overall time frame. Sophomores who take the exam are ineligible for National Merit scholarships (only 11th graders are eligible for these).
- PSAT 10: A version of the PSAT geared specifically toward 10th graders. This test is identical to the PSAT—the only difference is that it's offered in the spring instead of the fall.
- PreACT: An official practice test for the ACT administered specifically to 10th graders. There's no scholarship competition associated with the PreACT. Schools choose when to administer the PreACT during the school year.
You are not required to take any of these tests in 10th grade—they're simply available to you should you want more practice for the SAT or ACT.
If you’re interested in taking the PSAT, PSAT 10, or PreACT, talk with your counselor to check when and how to sign up for your desired test.
#6: Use Your Summer After 10th Grade Wisely
The summer between your sophomore and junior year is an ideal time to start exploring in more depth your biggest interests and to start thinking about what kind of career/major you want. You could also work a part-time job to begin saving money for college.
Here are some examples of things you could do at this time:
- Take a school trip to a foreign country (I myself went to Japan as part of a class trip)
- Get an internship or part-time job
- Volunteer somewhere—e.g., you could teach a class at a local Boys & Girls Club
- Participate in a summer program or camp
- Enroll in a class at a local community college
Things to Do Before College in 11th Grade
Your junior year of high school is where college preparation really starts to get serious. Here’s an overview of what to do during this critical year.
#1: Continue Taking Challenging Courses and Getting Good Grades
As always, keep up your GPA and do your best in all your classes, particularly in your core classes (English, math, science, and social studies) and any honors or AP classes you’re taking.
#2: Keep Up Your Extracurriculars
Continue to work on developing and adding to your spike (i.e., your passion) by doing activities you love and that are related to your academic and professional interests.
#3: Befriend Teachers You Plan to Ask for Letters of Recommendation
This is the time to start really getting to know your high school teachers better, especially those who teach core classes you consistently do well in, since they'll likely be the ones you want to get letters of recommendation from for your college applications.
Develop a strong rapport with your teachers so they respect you and know you well, beyond just the grades you get on homework assignments and tests.
It’s a smart idea to ask your teachers sometime in the spring if they’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation for your college applications that fall. This way, you won’t be stressing out at the beginning of your senior year about whom to ask or how much time to give them to write your letter.
#4: Start to Research Colleges You’re Interested In
Junior year is an ideal time to start researching some of the colleges you’re interested in attending or that have grabbed your attention.
There are many ways you can get to know more about specific colleges:
- Read the official college website to see things such as what majors it offers, where it’s located, how many students it has, etc.
- Go to college fairs
- Visit college campuses directly to get a feel for the campus, students, and overall atmosphere
- Talk with former or current students about their experiences there
In addition, take care to openly communicate with your parents (or whoever is helping you pay for college) at this time. These are the people paying for your education, so it’s important that you involve them at least somewhat in the decision-making process so that they have an idea of which schools you’re considering and what kind of aid they typically offer.
Also, remember to look for safety schools.
#5: Learn More About Financial Aid
At this point, you should have a pretty basic understanding of how financial aid for college works. Now, it’s time to dig a little deeper and make sure you know the ins and outs of things such as subsidized loans vs unsubsidized loans and how much your parents (or you) can actually afford to spend on your college education. Consider, too, how much money you’ll need for application fees.
As you begin making a tentative college list, look up tuition costs and financial aid info for each school. You can do this research by going to the school’s official website, using the College Board’s BigFuture database, or using the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator tool.
It might help to make a chart showing all the schools you’re considering applying to, their net costs, and whether they offer any scholarships or other aid based on merit and/or need.
Finally, keep educating yourself on how you can save up money for college.
#6: Begin Searching for Scholarships
While it might seem early to apply for college scholarships, it’s actually not, as many have deadlines between your junior and senior years. The US Department of Education offers a scholarship search tool you can use for free to get started on looking up potential scholarships.
We also maintain a comprehensive list of scholarships you can apply for as a junior. Some of these might require more documents and effort from you than others, such as transcripts and letters, so give yourself plenty of time to research and apply for them.
#7: Take the PSAT
Most 11th graders take the PSAT to help prepare them for the SAT, but you can also take it to try to win a National Merit Scholarship (remember that 10th graders aren’t eligible for these scholarships if they take the PSAT).
The PSAT is typically administered in October, so plan to prep for it (only if you're hoping to nab a super-high score) in the few months before.
#8: Take the SAT/ACT (Preferably Twice)
As a junior, you should take the SAT/ACT once, preferably twice, to prepare for your college applications in your senior year. At PrepScholar, we recommend taking your first SAT/ACT in the fall of your junior year and then again in the spring.
#9: Take SAT Subject Tests in the Spring (If Needed)
If your college requires or recommends SAT Subject Tests, then plan to take these in the spring of your junior year. By the end of this school year, you should have learned the majority, if not all, of the content on the SAT Subject Test(s) you’re planning to take.
#10: Use the Summer to Finalize Your List of Colleges
By this time, you should have taken the SAT/ACT at least once and come up with a rough idea of the colleges you’re most interested in. Now, you can crack down and start putting together your finalized list of schools.
Consider important factors such as the following:
- Majors/courses offered
- Student life/social scene
- Acceptance rate (i.e., how competitive the school is)
Most students apply to six to eight colleges (this includes two to three safeties, two to three target schools, and two to three reach schools). It’s OK (and even encouraged) to talk to your parents during this time about what schools you want to apply to and their costs. That said, remind them that you are applying for scholarships as well and will hopefully win one!
Getting Ready for College in 12th Grade
At last—you’re a senior! But don’t get too comfortable yet—there’s a lot to do in order to get ready for college, especially in the fall. Here are the most important steps you’ll need to take.
#1: Get Your College Applications Ready to Send Off
Your senior fall will be extremely busy since this is when many college application deadlines are, including most early action and early decision deadlines. So you’ll need to start putting together your applications by writing your essays and gathering all necessary materials, such as your high school transcripts and recommendation letters.
Here’s a brief checklist of what to do for your college applications at this time:
- Write your college essays: You’ll likely have to write more than one, so get a head start on these. Give yourself at least a month or two to write, edit, and proofread before you submit.
- Ask for letters of recommendation from teachers: If you didn’t already do so your junior year, ask your teachers for rec letters ASAP. Try to get letters from teachers who teach core classes and/or classes in a field you want to major in.
- Take the SAT/ACT one last time, if needed: By this point, you should’ve taken the SAT/ACT twice. If you still want to take it one last time to try to raise your score, though, now’s the time to do it. Don't forget to check your colleges' websites to see what the last possible SAT/ACT test dates they’ll accept scores from are.
- Visit campuses if possible: Actually seeing college campuses in person should help you get a better sense for the overall atmospheres of the schools you’re applying to, and might even give you ideas for what you can write about in your college essay(s).
#2: Complete and Submit Your FAFSA
The FAFSA is released on October 1 every year, so try to complete and submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after this date as well as any other financial aid applications your schools might require. Most colleges will require you to turn in your FAFSA by February, so getting started on this sooner rather than later should help make the application process go a lot more smoothly.
Make sure to have your parents with you when you fill out your FAFSA as you’ll have to report your parents’ federal income tax returns and other essential information.
#3: Stay Focused in School
Even though there’s a ton to do your senior year, it’s still important that you work hard to maintain your grades and do well in challenging (AP) courses during both semesters (even in the spring!). As a result, don't stop studying hard for midterms, finals, and AP tests.
Remember that colleges will want to see your mid-year report, which shows your most recent senior-year grades, so definitely avoid falling victim to senioritis!
#4: Stick With Your Extracurriculars
You’ll be extremely busy your senior year, yes, but you should still try your best to keep up your extracurricular activities and hobbies—at the very least, the ones that you are most invested in and that pertain to your major or professional endeavors.
It’s OK if you have to drop some activities or don’t do them as often during the fall; just make sure to keep them up in the spring when you’re free from the demands of college application season!
#5: Keep Applying for Scholarships
Yes, it’s a pain, but don’t stop applying for scholarships now! Many scholarship applications are due during or even right after your senior year, so don’t overlook these opportunities.
Check out this list of the best scholarships for high school seniors to help with your search.
#6: Compare Financial Aid Offers From Colleges You’ve Been Admitted To
By around March and April, you should start receiving admissions decisions from the colleges you applied to. As you get these letters, begin to compare the financial aid offers from the ones you’ve been accepted to.
With your parents, estimate overall costs and how much money you’ll likely need for living expenses and food (if you’re not commuting to college).
Take your time here—financial aid can seem overwhelming at first, but it’s definitely worth it to be sure you understand how much college costs and what you will actually pay in order to attend. It might also help to create a spreadsheet listing the total costs and aid offers you've gotten.
#7: Make Your College Decision
Once you’ve had time to go through your college acceptance letters (and emotionally process any rejections you might have gotten), it’s time to make your final decision and pick the college you will attend that fall.
You’ll have to submit your decision, along with a nonrefundable deposit, to your school of choice by May 1.
You should also get working on officially declining any offers from schools you have decided not to attend; usually you’ll have to do this through an online portal. If you’ve been waitlisted at your first-choice school, read our guide to figure out what to do in this situation.
You've graduated from high school ... now what?
5 Things to Do the Summer Before College
Here are some final steps to take the summer before college, when you've finally got a little bit of breathing room.
#1: Continue Applying for Scholarships
The summer before college often goes unutilized in terms of scholarship searches, so don't be one of those people—make the most of your time by applying for even more college scholarships.
Even if these scholarships won’t apply to your first year of college, it’s never too early to get started on finding potential funding sources for your sophomore year!
#2: Save Money by Getting a Part-Time Job (Optional)
While you might be tempted to take this summer to completely relax (and you certainly do deserve a little rest!), consider using this time to save money for college by getting a part-time job.
It doesn’t have to be anything special or relevant to your interests—just something that allows you to grow your savings and prepare yourself for other expenses you might have your freshman year, such as going to concerts, eating out with your roommate, etc.
#3: Reach Out to Your Roommate
Once your college gives you your roommate info, it’s a great idea to reach out to them through social media and introduce yourself. You’re going to be living with this person the entire year, so it’s best to get started on a positive note and as early as you can in order to reduce any nerves that you (or your roommate!) might have on move-in day.
Doing all this should help to ease the transition from living at home with your parents to living with somebody else your age.
You can (and should) also talk to your roommate about what furniture and appliances you plan to bring so you can figure out who’s bringing what and what you’ll be sharing and not sharing.
#4: Go to Orientation
Your school’s orientation will take place at some point during the summer, so plan to meet other incoming students and get to know the campus and school as a whole better. You might also have the opportunity to meet professors in your major.
Make the most of your orientation: ask questions about living there and paying for school, get to know other students in your major, and start to memorize where things are on campus.
#5: Get Started on Your College Packing ListThe final tip is to get a head start on your college packing list. This includes the following:
- Furniture and appliances
- Bedding, sheets, and pillows
- Trash can
- Clothes hangers
- Laundry basket
- Storage containers
- Kitchen essentials (e.g., silverware, cups, plates, microwave, etc.)
- School supplies
- Electronics (e.g., laptop, cables, headphones, power strips, etc.)
As mentioned, it’s a good idea to consult your roommate about who will be bringing what.
Recap: How to Prepare for College in High School
As you can see, there are many steps you can (and should) take, even in 9th grade, to get started on preparing for college. Read through this list whenever you want to confirm you’re on track.
We also strongly advise printing out our preparing-for-college checklist, which you can tape to the wall in your bedroom and use as a reminder for what you'll need to get done in high school in order to give yourself your best shot at succeeding in college.
Need some more help preparing your college applications? Then check out our guides on how to apply to college and how to build the most versatile college application possible.
What looks really impressive on a college application? We list the seven most important things you should have on your college apps here.
Want to build the best possible college application?
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We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.