College Prep Checklist: Things that High School Students Need to Know

college prep checklist

Higher education is the key to future success and preparing for college early is the best way to begin. Quality education via a bachelor’s degree program introduces students to new people, expansive knowledge, and new experiences. This can stand them in good stead in their careers. College degrees also lead to higher salaries and chances of career growth. Students ​​preparing for college should get help from their:

  • advisors
  • guidance counselors
  • parents

It also helps for high school seniors to have a detailed checklist ready to refer to it and check the boxes for items completed as they go. 

Students should begin planning for college applications as early as they can. This article outlines the most important things to do in each school year as part of our college prep checklists series. We hope that these are of use to students. We have researched and collated the most important items needed. Students should:

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  • pay attention to standardized tests and application deadlines
  • financial aid deadlines
  • other things like completing the application essay on time

Among the things to keep in mind for the college prep checklists, students should know that colleges look for extracurriculars on applications. They should choose activities that demonstrate their interest as well as leadership skills. Preparing for college can seem daunting, but with some help, it is a more straightforward process. This checklist will tell you how to prepare early and navigate the college application. The preparing for college checklist is applicable to all students and parents undergoing the college preparation process. The four-year plan will set students up for success as they apply to the college of their choice. 

​​Preparing for College: Freshman Year

College Prep Checklist: 10 Important Things You Should Do in High School to Prepare for College

Ideally, students should start thinking about college majors and save themselves a lot of stress by starting early. They should follow a checklist for college preparation for high school students. This gives them have enough time to adjust their plans or finalize them down the road. With a clear plan and potential colleges and college majors, they don’t have to worry about juggling school work while preparing for college. Following this checklist will help students keep track of essential tasks to complete in each year of their high school journey. 

Freshman year is the best time to start the college admissions and decision-making process. Students can start meeting with their counselors to begin to:

  • evaluate how they are doing academically
  • learn about graduation requirements
  • learn extracurricular activities and how to get involved in them
  • learn the courses they can take over the summer to earn extra credits for college

Preparing for college checklist:

  • Meet with your school counselor and find out what the graduation requirements are and how to prepare for college in high school
  • Find the top things to do in the 4-year plan and print out online resources for reference
  • Work with the school guidance counselor to perform an assessment or evaluation. Based on the results, students can start their test prep
  • Start exploring various extracurricular activities to get involved in and choose a few electives to help narrow down the choice of majors and career goals
  • Take a look at all tests and decide whether you want to take the SAT, ACT, or both
  • Take the ACT Aspire exam or SAT assessment to evaluate your academic strengths
  • Volunteer or intern during your summer break
  • Begin brainstorming potential colleges and how to pay for college

Preparing for College: Sophomore Year

College Prep Checklist: 10 Important Things You Should Do in High School to Prepare for College

Preparing for College: Sophomore Year

Sophomore-year students will find that the whole process of college prep begins to speed up. Academic workloads increase with every progressing year. It is important to keep track of the college application process over the course of all four years. One of the most important things to do is to choose the right subjects, electives, and levels. A good mix of CP, honors and AP classes will help students balance the workload better. Students should check in with their counselors to see how they are doing academically and whether they’re on track with the yearly college prep checklists. 

Sophomore year is also good for students to take the PSAT/Pre-ACT tests. They can familiarize themselves with the ACT and SAT testing formats and get some insights into where they are and what they need to know to prepare. Taking these tests will provide students with a head start on:

  • estimating their college readiness
  • getting feedback on what they know
  • browsing scholarships to pay for college early

A couple of other recommended sophomore tasks include thinking of what they might want to do professionally and beginning the college search.

Preparing for college checklist:

  • Meet with your school counselor for a follow-up on your grades from freshman year
  • Plan for academic success and implement any advice from the school counselor into the four years plan
  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT® or PSAT™ 10 to get familiar with the testing format and time constraints before taking the SAT/ACT your junior year. Find online resources to prepare for these tests.
  • Decide on SAT vs. ACT, depending on which test highlights your strengths more. Some students take both. Keep in mind that some schools won’t require test scores.
  • Draft your high school resume, which highlights accomplishments, personally and academically, and have it reviewed by the guidance counselor.
  • Get more involved in extracurricular activities that match your interests. 
  • Try to think of a career you would like to go into and learn its education requirements.
  • Add electives along with the areas of study that interest you and take them up in your academic plan. 
  • Research colleges online and start touring them online and check out videos to get an idea of each campus’s culture.
  • Evaluate your post-secondary education options, whether you want to go to a four-year university or college, a two-year community college, a vocational-technical school or career college, or a military college. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the colleges you’re interested in. Research and develop a list of 20 colleges that offer your major and fit those needs you’d like to attend
  • Review their acceptance/graduation rates and tuition costs as you learn how to prepare for college in high school.
  • Start researching financial aid and begin the scholarship search to pay for college.
  • Request information from those colleges and browse academic majors and class sizes. 
  • Discuss college costs with your parents about paying for college and review the FAFSA4Caster. This will give you an early estimate of the financial aid package and other remaining costs of attendance, giving you an idea of what you will have to pay for college. 
  • Also, discuss costs with your counselor and ask how to request test fee waivers and create a target college long list. 
  • Try to take up a job, get an internship, join a summer camp, or take summer classes to grow and learn because colleges like to see how you utilize your summers. 
  • Look for leadership opportunities in various extracurriculars, sports, or community service activities. These will help with college applications as well as your scholarship search in the future.
  • Put all these experiences on your resume and your personal statement in preparation for college applications to stay on track. 
  • Start earning money for college and begin saving to pay for college.
  • Register for the SAT/ACT and begin studying for it. Explore and review the SAT subject tests and AP tests and take them in the spring if prepared. 
  • Ask for letters of recommendation (LOR) since most schools require them to apply.
  • Start visiting college campuses and embark on exciting college tours. Most schools organize a tour given by a student tour guide for groups of students. One can also request an interview with an admissions member to gain more information for the college search. 

Preparing for College: Junior Year

College Prep Checklist: 10 Important Things You Should Do in High School to Prepare for College

College prep gets intense in the junior year, and classes get tough, making the junior year usually the most difficult. Students should continue to meet with their counselors and continuously evaluate their academic readiness to graduate high school. This is also the year when colleges start visiting the schools and presenting their offerings. There are also numerous college fairs that students can attend. They can visit and tour them, learn about the academic requirements for the colleges and universities, and see if they are academically secure for those. These will help them narrow their choices, and apply for scholarships and other requirements. 

By the end of their junior year, students should have a pretty good idea of their top colleges and desired careers. Junior year is also when you can take and/or retake the ACT and SAT, so prepping for those to get a good score is very important. If students have taken up a job or internship, those should be added to an updated resume to stay on track.

Preparing for college checklist:

  • Meet with your school counselor at the beginning of each 9-weeks and review your grades from the previous year. Evaluate current GPA and take steps to improve 
  • Ask if you’re on track to graduate and decide when to take the ACT or SAT
  • Enroll in test prep, take your practice standardized test, and decide on SAT vs. ACT
  • Take the SAT and/or ACT (each more than once)
  • Revisit your college list and try to narrow it down
  • Attend college fairs, visit colleges from your list, and start contacting admission counselors for more information 
  • Start searching for scholarships and start applying for some scholarships
  • Brainstorm college essay topics and create outlines—brainstorming and creating the first draft during the summer before senior year will set students up for success
  • Learn more about colleges and their affordability
  • Discuss finances with parents to talk about finances and commitments
  • Make summer plans, try getting a summer job, intern at a non-profit, or earn community service hours by volunteering 
  • Update your activity résumé at the end of the year
  • Complete your financial aid forms. Remember to fill out your home state’s financial aid form and apply for scholarships. Apply for the FAFSA and consider applying for the CSS Profile if your college requires it
  • Apply early since many early decision (ED)/early action (EA) deadlines are in November
  • Start applying to colleges that have regular decision dates. Remember that most colleges have regular decision application deadlines on January 1 or 15, or March 1. But some schools also have rolling deadlines, so stay on track
  • Many students may expect their early college acceptance letter(s) by the time spring comes around. After that, they may get their regular decision admissions which will help them decide which college they will attend
  • Once accepted, it is time to provide additional documentation, final transcripts, and official test scores
  • It is also time to evaluate the financial aid offer(s) from the various colleges so that students can compare costs. If the offers aren’t enough to cover tuition, then students may have to request a financial aid appeal letter for additional financial aid
  • Consider ways to help fill the gaps and come up with a plan to add funds for costs of attendance with a summer job, a work-study job, student loans, federal grants, or additional scholarships. 
  • Research Military ROTC scholarships and start applying if applicable 

Preparing for College: Senior Year

College Prep Checklist: 10 Important Things You Should Do in High School to Prepare for College

High school is a tough challenge, but most students come out of it well-prepared for the future. By senior year, college preparation for high school students is almost complete for most students except for the final steps. It is essential for high school seniors to finish both school and college preparations strongly. Those who haven’t opted for early college admissions can keep applying to colleges that they have narrowed their choices down to. Students who are unhappy with their scores can continue to retake the SAT or ACT. It is also essential to keep in touch with the guidance counselor or advisor to ensure they are on track for graduation.

Preparing for college checklist for seniors:

  • Meet with the school guidance counselor to review your current GPA or academic standing and try to improve your final transcript. 
  • Retake the SAT/ACT, if needed.
  • Find out if there are any new scholarships available and research deadlines for the FAFSA, and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) in October.
  • Also, research the State Financial Aid and apply for it before the Deadline.
  • Narrow the college list down to the top 5 or 7 and find out about their deadlines, application forms, and enrollment requirements. 
  • Ask for letters of recommendation if not already there and start writing the final drafts of the college admissions essays. 
  • Begin applying to the colleges that are top on the list. 
  • Finalize activities resume to submit to colleges 
  • Complete college applications and submit them. 
  • Review financial aid packages offered by the schools that accepted applications
  • Find and apply for local and national scholarships.
  • Revisit the offers of top colleges before accepting and comparing what they have offered. 
  • Make the final college choice and enroll and also finish your senior year strong.

A clear plan is important as high school can go by really fast. With the kind of heavy workload that students have, college prep may take a backseat which is not ideal. High school seniors may end up rushing through their college search and applications and make grave mistakes in the college admissions process. With a college preparation plan in place, it will be easier to enjoy the journey. There are many resources available that detail college preparation for high school students. These include, as stated above, what documents they need to submit, what the deadlines are, and how to prepare for tests, among many other important items on the agenda for preparing for college in high school. We have also listed some resources below that are known for preparing students for college admissions.