7 College Planning Steps for Teens

August 14, 2023

Getting prepared for college can be both exciting and overwhelming for a high school senior. What might your goal-oriented peers do that will help them succeed as they set out on a new path?

The key to successful college preparation is to establish an efficient and structured plan. Having a clear roadmap to guide your planning can make the process smoother and ease any worries that you might have as you move on to the next phase of your life.

Let’s look at some important steps that can ease the stress and uncertainty that often accompanies the transition to college life.

7 boxes to check

According to Sallie Mae’s Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-Secondary Education 2020, 94% of high school students are likely to continue their education after high school. Although not everyone will attend college or obtain a two- or four-year degree, developing a plan and establishing goals can increase the likelihood of making the right choices. If you can check off these seven boxes, you will be well on your way.

1. Research the schools that capture your attention

Just under half of high school seniors have researched potential colleges. So, what are you looking for? Is it a state university or a private college? Do you prefer a large or small school? Do you want to stay near home, or would you prefer an out-of-state college? Is there a specific career or major area of study that will influence your choice?

The top three factors students reported when researching and choosing a college are:

  • Does the school offer a program that matches their desired career or major?
  • Where is the school located?
  • What type of financial aid is offered?

2. Rising costs are real

It’s no secret that the cost of college has soared. According to BestColleges.com, on average, tuition and fees rose 5.1% a year at public four-year colleges and 3.9% a year at private four-year colleges between 2000 and 2020. But there is some good news, as the pace has slowed.

If you need some extra cash to attend university, taking out a student loan could be a viable option. There’s no shame in borrowing for your education. However, it’s important to remember that loans must be repaid. Don’t overextend yourself. You don’t want to end up with a burdensome repayment schedule that lasts long after graduation. It is also important to consider scholarships and grants. According to Online College Plan, scholarships are often overlooked as a valuable resource for funding. It’s a missed opportunity that may leave free money on the table.

There are three different types of scholarships offered:

  • Need-Based Scholarships, based solely on financial need
  • Merit-Based Scholarships, based solely on academic excellence or extracurricular achievements
  • Special Scholarships, based on a variety of factors and are usually offered to students of a specific race, gender, chosen field, and more

Consider these resources:

While we want to get you pointed in the right direction, please supplement our ideas with your research.

In addition, let the treasure hunt for local money begin at your area’s Department of Education or youth and family government agencies. Even if they don’t have grants, they can get you pointed in the right direction.

3. FASFA is key

About 60% of high school seniors have filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for their upcoming freshman year by April. The FAFSA costs nothing to complete, but it can unlock thousands of dollars of financial aid for college. Some of the monies are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so don’t put it off. The clock is ticking.

The opening date for the FAFSA application is usually October 1. However, due to new changes in the application, the opening date for this year only has been moved to December 2023. Consider completing the form even if you have no intention of taking out student loans. Otherwise, you could inadvertently forfeit scholarships, grants, and work-study opportunities.

4. Test-taking wanes in influence

The SAT or ACT is becoming less of a requirement nationally, and many colleges and universities are now test-optional. If you’re considering the SAT or ACT, there are test prep classes and practice exams available online.

5. Essays and letters of recommendation increase your odds

There is no shortage of resources for writing college essays, as a quick Google search will reveal. Here’s one to consider from U.S. News and World ReportHow to Write a College Essay. The most important thing to do is to get started. In addition, ask for and collect letters of recommendation from teachers (in and out of the classroom), guidance counselors, and even your principal that highlight your strengths and contributions. Some teachers write so many letters that they may unintentionally seem generic. Therefore, you may consider providing them a “tip sheet” that highlights your best work and accomplishments.

6. Take a trip

That’s right, visit the school or schools you would like to attend. No two campuses are alike. The admissions office at your school of interest can help you plan your visit. An on-campus tour allows you to explore the school, the dorms, the library, the classrooms, the dining hall, the student union, recreational facilities, campus hangouts, off-campus life, and much more. During your visit, you may conclude that this could be your home away from home for the next four years—or you may decide that what you thought would be a favorite just doesn’t fit.

7. Your guidance counselor is there for you

Applying to colleges can seem overwhelming, but you can seek assistance from your high school guidance counselor, who can offer valuable advice that simplifies the process. Did you know that school counselors can nominate students for scholarships? It’s a great idea to build a relationship with your counselor early on, as it could potentially lead to financial assistance.

How do you climb a mountain? Put one foot in front of the other.

If you’re heading to college next year, or even in the next couple of years, breaking up your prep work into smaller tasks can help reduce stress and give you a sense of achievement. Start your prep work today, and you will be amazed by what you’ll learn and the challenges you’ll overcome.