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How to Start Planning for College

Last updated February 14, 2024

Ready to start exploring your college options? We’re here to help! Here’s how to start planning for college in high school.

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Do your research 

An important first step of beginning your college planning is to do online research. Set aside some time to research schools that have majors, sports, or extracurricular activities that interest you. Not sure where to start your search? We recommend using BigFuture’s College Search tool, which allows you to research colleges by academics, location, campus life and more. Here are some other important things to consider when beginning the process of researching colleges:

  • Do I want to attend a small or large school?
  • Do I want to attend school close to or far away from home?
  • What do I want the campus culture to be like? Do I want to attend a school with lots of events always happening around campus, or one that’s a bit more low-key?
  • Does this school have the major I’m interested in? Will I be able to change my major down the road if needed?
  • Could I realistically afford to attend this school?
  • What are the housing options at this school?
  • Can I see myself thriving and being happy while attending this school?

By taking some time to research schools, you’ll have a better idea of which ones you want to actually apply to when it’s time. Learn more here about other things to consider before applying to a college.

Stay organized during your search

Staying organized is key to making sure you submit all of your applications and any supplemental materials on time! Use our free college application requirements tracker to help.

Talk to school advisors and mentors

Now that you have an idea of what kinds of schools you’re interested in, the next step is to meet with your school guidance counselor or staff at the college and career office. They are there to support you throughout your college application journey, from researching schools to enrolling in one! When you meet with them, be sure to talk about the schools and majors you’re interested in and anything else that came up during your research that you’d like to know more about. They can also connect you to college fairs, campus tours, and give you some information about colleges they think might be a good fit for you.

We recommend meeting with your guidance counselor or advisor at least once during your junior year, and then multiple times throughout your senior year to check in with them about your progress on college applications, personal statements and essays, and other supplemental application materials. They’re there to help you stay on track and get all of your necessary materials in to finalize your applications, so don't forget to check in with them!

Note: If your school doesn’t have a guidance counselor, we recommend talking to a trusted educator or parent/guardian about your college goals and choices. You can always talk to us, too! Text #Hello to 33-55-77 if you have any questions about getting to college.

Attend a college fair

College fairs, which are usually free and held by school districts or local cities, give prospective students a chance to meet with admissions counselors and learn more about a specific school. Be sure to come prepared with a few questions to ask representatives of schools that interest you. This is a great way to make a connection with someone from the school in case you have any further questions during the application process! 

Register for the PSAT, SAT, or ACT and start studying

PSAT

If you are a junior, you need to take the PSAT to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Taking the PSAT can also help you get a feel for what taking the SAT is like!

SAT

Read more about registering for the SAT here, and read more about free study resources you can use to prepare for the SAT.

ACT

If you want to register for the ACT, read more here. Want to manage your time on both the SAT and ACT? Read more here.

Build your college application

Academics are an important element of your college application, but they’re not everything! The colleges you’re applying to want to see you demonstrate that you are a well-rounded person who has other interests outside of school. Here are some things you can add to your applications to help colleges get to know you better:

Want to make your college application stand out? Click here!

A person sits at a table and writes on a paper with pen - How to Start Planning for College

Start drafting your essay

A student’s college application essay is one of the most important components of their application. It’s their time to share a significant moment, event, or story from their life that not only gives schools better insight into who they are, but helps them display personal growth and dedication to their futures.

Your essays don’t need to be finalized or submitted until you’re a senior, so your junior year is the perfect time to start brainstorming and drafting them! Check out the most common essay prompts that you’ll find on college applications, choose a few that you think would best help you tell your story, and start writing. When you have your first draft, send it to us for free review! We’ll have it back to you within a week with actionable feedback and advice.

Finalize your college list

Now that you have gathered information about the colleges you're interested in, it’s time to finalize your list of schools you plan to apply to. You can organize your list into categories:

  • Reach schools are the ones you dream of going to, but are a bit more competitive to get accepted to, due to things like small acceptance rates and minimum GPAs or test scores.
  • Solid schools are schools you feel confident about getting accepted to, even if they’re not necessarily at the very top of your list.
  • Target schools are schools you have a strong chance of getting admitted to. Your test scores, GPA, or coursework typically match those of other incoming students at these schools.

You can evaluate this list based on the kind of experience you want to have in college, the size and location of your school, and of course, the academic programs available at each. Applying to multiple schools can be expensive, but fee waivers are available!

Ask for letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation are another important addition to your college application. They show that you are a hardworking and dedicated student, employee, teammate, and friend, and that you would continue to work hard at the schools you’re applying to. Ask an educator, coach, boss, or another important adult in your life if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. Be sure to give them enough time to write your letter (at least a few weeks) and provide them with a list of your leadership roles, community service, awards, and extracurricular activities (also known as a brag sheet) to make the writing process easier for your recommender. Not sure how to ask for a letter of recommendation? Read our tips here!

Research different financial aid options

One of the most important things you will need to take into consideration when you begin to research and apply to colleges is financial aid. Spend some time researching different financial aid options, like scholarships, loans, and grants, to familiarize yourself with them before you begin applying to colleges.

The most important thing you can do to receive financial aid is to complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA must initially be completed during your senior year, and then renewed each year you're in college. Most forms of financial aid are only awarded once a student has completed and submitted their FAFSA. This is a crucial step in receiving aid that can significantly cut down the cost of attending college, so be sure to complete your FAFSA during the fall of your senior year. 

It’s important to note that FAFSA eligibility is based on whether a student has a social security number. If you're an undocumented student, a student that doesn't have a social security number, or are otherwise ineligible to complete the FAFSA, you can still receive financial aid for college! Learn more here about states in the U.S. that offer financial aid to undocumented students, and be sure to check out our list of scholarships for undocumented students and DACA recipients.

Have any questions about preparing for college? Text #College to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors. If you're using a mobile device, click here to have the text message set up for you!

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