Most young men and women begin attending college in their late teens, but preparing for the costs and academic challenges of higher education is a process that should begin several years earlier. Parents can play a key role in their child’s future by recognizing all of the necessary steps for college readiness. This checklist (organized by different grade levels) will highlight the important deadlines and benchmarks young people will encounter on the road to higher learning.

Pre-High School: Savings Plans

Although the bulk of college preparation will take place during high school, there is one obvious exception that most families want an earlier start on: their college savings plans.

1. Anticipate Your Tuition Costs

The price of tuition nationwide rose by nearly 80% between 2003 and 2013, and American Student Assistance estimates there is as much as $1 trillion in outstanding student debt among today’s U.S. college graduates. According to CollegeBoard.org, students and parents accumulated the following expenses during the 2013-14 academic year:

Tuition Room and Board Total Costs % Change from 2012-13
Public two-year (in-state) $3,264 $7,466 $10,730 2.2%
Public four-year (in-state) $8,893 $9,498 $18,391 3.2%
Public four-year (out-of-state) $22,203 $9,498 $31,701 3.2%
Private nonprofit four-year $30,904 $10,823 $40,917 3.7%

Additionally, parents can roughly calculate their child’s total college expenses using the FAFSA4Caster survey tool on the official Federal Financial Aid website. Please read on for more information about student aid and other alternative means of obtaining financial support for college.

2. Start a 529 Account

Few people can afford college costs out-of-pocket, so it’s important to choose a dedicated student savings plan early. 529 Plans (also known as a “qualified tuition plan”) are one of the most powerful college savings vehicles available to parents. The 529 is a tax-sheltered savings account specifically reserved for college funds.

Parents can choose a prepaid tuition plan, allowing them to purchase credits from higher-learning institutions in advance of their child’s attendance, or a college savings plan, enabling the plan-holder to set aside a portion of their salary and allow it to accrue until the monies are disbursed to the child. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission provides more detailed information about 529 plan options on the SEC’s official website.

3. Make College an Expectation

In addition to monetary savings, parents can also play an active role in their child’s college preparation by planting the idea of higher education in their minds and encouraging them to perform in school to the best of their abilities. The U.S. Department of Education recommends the following strategies for parents to use when introducing the idea of college to their middle school-aged kids:

  • Discuss different careers with your child and try to get a sense of the possibilities that interest them most; if applicable, inform your child they will have to attend college in order to pursue the careers they find most appealing
  • Encourage good study habits by helping the child establish a regular “study time” in the afternoon or evening, keep an organized study station, and adopt different strategies for test-taking (like rewriting notes or making flashcards)
  • Carefully review every progress report and report card your child receives and meet regularly with all of their teachers to monitor academic progress

9th Grade

As kids begin high school, they will be inundated with opportunities to learn more about higher education. Although freshmen are still four years removed from high school graduation, Patti Ghezzi of School Family notes that 9th grade is a crucial year for college preparation. “His grades will matter more than ever because they will be calculated as part of his grade-point average,” she writes. “And the courses he takes will matter more. If he is aiming for a selective college, he’ll need to convince admissions officers that he challenged himself during his high school years.”

1. Choose Courses Carefully

Specific course requirements for student admission will vary from school to school, but the U.S. Department of Education notes that most colleges and universities impose the same general requirements. These typically include:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of social studies
  • Three years of mathematics
  • Three years of lab science
  • Two years of foreign language

Students who begin to fulfill their college course requirements as freshmen stand to have a much more relaxed schedule during junior and senior years of high school. This may enable them to pursue other college prep programs and activities in their spare time.

2. Identify Interests In and Out of Class

Freshmen are also urged to start exploring potential colleges and careers. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains My Next Move, an occupational navigation tool that allows young people to browse specific careers within different industries. Once the student has a few careers in mind, they can begin researching colleges and universities that offer the most reputable programs in subjects related to these professions.

Parents can assist their child during these different steps by providing anecdotal advice about attending college and securing post graduation employment ― but impartiality is key. Jim L. Miller, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, tells School Family that mom and dad should avoid “overemphasizing” certain institutions or career paths, and should instead encourage their child to pursue whatever they are passionate about. The time to discuss colleges that are within (or out of) your family’s price range will come later.

Freshman Year Checklist:

  • Use the high school’s course guide to create a four-year study plan that includes all courses required for college acceptance
  • Research potential career paths

10th Grade

Sophomore year of high school is a period of transition, during which students should start to take formal steps toward applying for and attending college. The high school’s guidance counselors will be an invaluable resource for your kid starting in 10th grade. Counselors can highlight the requirements for attending each school on your child’s list of potential colleges and universities. For that matter, they will help your student come up with schools that most closely match their career interests. They can also elucidate on topics like financial aid, college applications, and different types of entrance exams.

1. Take Preliminary Entrance Exams

Most students will take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT) beginning in the 10th grade (although freshmen, and even middle schoolers, may be eligible to take the exam). As the official precursor to the SAT, the PSAT mirrors the other exam by testing students in three core areas: mathematics, reading comprehension, and writing/grammar; each section awards a maximum of 80 points, with 240 as the highest possible score for the entire exam.

According to College Board (the association that offers PSAT exams in conjunction with the National Merit Scholar corporation), the average PSAT score for high school sophomores was 129 out of 200 in 2012. The PSAT is always administered in the fall, specifically mid-October.

Unlike the SAT, the score a child receives on their PSAT exam will not impact their chances of college admission. However, The Princeton Review notes that relatively high scores may qualify students for a National Merit Scholarship or other financial aid awards. Students can also use the PSAT score to assess their readiness for the SAT, since both tests essentially use the same scoring formula. A PSAT score report will be issued once the test has been graded; this report will include the percentile in which the student scored and a comprehensive answer key, which the student can use to see which questions he/she missed.

While the PSAT is a precursor to the SAT, the material and format of the test will be of use to students who end up taking the ACT over the SAT. Both the ACT and SAT assess exam-takers in math and reading. Additionally, the ACT includes a scientific reasoning component that covers topics like biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, and meteorology. There is also an optional writing section (although many higher-learning institutions require students to complete the writing component). The SAT and ACT exams will be discussed in more detail later in the 11th grade section.

2. Concentrate on Academic and Extracurricular Interests

By the end of the 10th grade, college-bound students should have two years of English and one year of math, science, and social studies under their belt. Bill McClintick, board president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, tells School Family that adhering to a challenging curriculum is “the most important thing for a 10th grader to bear in mind.”

Rather than shying away from subjects and classes that cause them to struggle, students should work with teachers, guidance counselors, and their parents to overcome obstacles that will allow them to excel in college and in their careers. McClintick notes that math is a particularly sore spot for many young men and women.

Many high school students will become increasingly involved in extracurricular activities during their sophomore year. This is especially true of students in athletics and clubs that reserve varsity and leadership roles for upperclassmen.

Parents should allow their sophomores to take a proactive role in their future, but they should also encourage them to prioritize college prep tasks over extracurricular activities. If your child is passionate about pursuing an athletic career in college, urge them toward an intensive practice routine and help them research their sport or activity of choice at the college level, especially how it will affect their lifestyle. Otherwise, exams and good grades should take precedence.

The U.S. Department of Education also urges parents to investigate college nights, financial aid nights, and other school-sanctioned events that cover academic topics. These events can prove to be valuable learning experiences for both students and their parents.

Sophomore Year Checklist:

  • Study for and take the PSAT, treating it as a trial run
  • Attend college-related events at high school or within the local community
  • Continue to take courses that satisfy college entrance requirements

11th Grade

In terms of college preparation, the second half of high school will be much more intensive than the first. There are many different tasks for college-bound high school students to undertake during their junior and senior years. Of course, the more they accomplish during the junior year, the less pressure they will feel during the senior year.

1. Take College Placement Exams

The majority of students will take either the SAT or ACT exam beginning in the 11th grade. In the United States, most accredited colleges and universities view both of these exams in equal standing. The SAT assesses the student’s critical thinking skills, while the ACT measures the bulk of core knowledge the student has accumulated thus far. According to StudyPoint, some of the other similarities and differences between the two exams include the following:

SAT* ACT
Subjects Mathematics, critical thinking, and writing/grammar Mathematics, reading comprehension, English (grammar and mechanics),scientific reasoning, and (optional) writing
Test Breakdown Math: Three sections, 70 minutes total

Critical thinking: Three sections, 70 minutes total

Writing: Three sections (incl. one essay), 60 minutes total

Math: One 60-minute section

Reading comprehension: One 35-minute section

English: One 45-minute section

Scientific reasoning: One 35-minute section

Writing: One 30-minute section

Total Test Time Three hours, 20 minutes Three hours, 25 minutes
Score Range 200-800 points possible per section; maximum possible score of 2400 1-36 points possible per section; overall score averages all four sections for a maximum possible score of 36
Incorrect Answer Impact ¼ of a point is deducted for each wrong answer No penalty for wrong answers; score only considers correct answers
Available Exam Dates January, March or April, May, June, October, November, and December February, April, June, September, October, and December
Registration Deadline Usually four weeks prior to exam date Usually five to six weeks prior to exam date
Exam Administrator College Board ACT
Cost $51; additional fees may apply; qualifying students may have certain fees waived $36.50 without writing component and $52.50 with writing component; additional fees may apply; qualifying students may have certain fees waived
Score Submissions Students can take the exam as many times as they wish and submit their best score to colleges. Students can take the exam as many times as they wish and submit their best score to colleges.

*Parents and students should be aware that revisions to the SAT will take effect in 2016. Learn more here.

As we stated above, students can submit a score from either test in order to be considered for admission at most U.S. colleges and universities (including all accredited, four-year public institutions). For this reason, today’s juniors and seniors are encouraged to study for and take both exams. They may then submit scores from the exam on which they received the most points.

It should be noted that many high school students wait until their junior year to take the PSAT, and then take the SAT and/or ACT during their senior years. This timeline is also perfectly acceptable; the only disadvantage being less time to retake the exams if the student is not satisfied with their scores.

2. Consider Taking College-Level Courses

In addition to the SAT and/or ACT exams, high school juniors can prepare for college by enrolling in actual university-level courses. Many accomplish this by enrolling in AP courses, which are offered at most high schools in the United States. These courses rely on a college-level curriculum, and tend to be much more demanding in regards to homework and tests than typical high school classes. At the end of the school year, students will have the opportunity to take an AP exam, which tests their knowledge of all the material learned during the previous eight months.

Depending on the student’s AP exam score, he or she may receive up to five fully transferrable college credits that satisfy undergraduate course requirements. Available courses vary by school, but some of the most commonplace AP offerings include:

  • English Literature and Composition
  • U.S. History
  • Psychology
  • Calculus
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Foreign Language

Additionally, many high schools offer dual enrollment: the opportunity for high school juniors to enroll part- or full-time at a local college or university and earn official credits. When the student graduates, he or she may choose to continue attending that particular institution or transfer their credits to another school. Students interested in this option should speak to their guidance counselors for more information.

Furthermore, students should inquire with the school to see what sort of costs the school is willing to pay for. Many schools will completely cover the fees for such credit-earning tests, or, at the least reduce the price students and parents incur. Your son or daughter’s counselor is the perfect person to ask first.

3. Start Comparing Colleges and Financial Aid Plans

Although official applications won’t be submitted until the following school year, juniors should be ready to narrow down their list of potential colleges and universities as the 11th grade comes to a close. They can further prepare by researching student loans, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities, as well as compiling all of the materials required to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) the following winter/spring. The sites below feature comprehensive financial aid databases, tips for applicants, and other information that will be valuable during this process:

Parents should assist their high school juniors during the collegiate financial planning phase. If the student will take out federal loans, it’s important for parents to understand the interest rate, repayment options, and other fine points of this type of financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education offers a free online guide titled, ‘Your Federal Student Aid: Learn the Basics and Manage Your Debt.’

Parents should also encourage students to apply for as many scholarships as they can. Due to the high volume of companies that sponsor scholarship awards for their employee’s children, parents should also meet with their employer to inquire about financial aid opportunities.

If mom and dad are planning to pay for most or all of their child’s higher education, then they should meet with a financial planner and make a budget plan to ensure they can afford all the necessary college expenses.

Junior Year Checklist:

  • Study for and take the SAT and/or ACT exams; re-take if final scores seem inadequate
  • Consider enrolling in at least one AP course or pursuing dual enrollment opportunities at local colleges to receive official credit
  • Research financial aid opportunities
  • Finalize the ‘top schools list’

12th Grade

Senior year is a pivotal time in any young person’s life. For college-bound students, the 12th grade will also be consistently busy. There are still many steps to complete in order to be fully prepared to attend college the following year.

1. Prepare Application Materials

While the application deadline for most schools will occur the following spring, students are strongly encouraged to submit their materials to the top school on their list as soon as possible. The U.S. Department of Education notes that “a higher percentage of early applicants are accepted” at some colleges and universities. Every institution will require a different set of application materials. The most commonly requested items include:

  • At least one official high school transcript
  • Official SAT/ACT scores
  • An application form with the following components:
    • Personal and basic educational information (name, address, Social Security Number, high schools attended, etc.)
    • Extracurricular activities and student recognitions
    • Contact information for previous employers and volunteer coordinators
    • At least one personal essay or written statement of intent
    • Application fee
    • For certain colleges or major programs, the applicant may be required to submit samples or a portfolio of work
  • Secondary school report form from the student’s high school counselor
  • Mid-year report form (may be requested after admission has been granted)
  • Letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, youth leaders, or other non-relative adults who have spent time with the student

Students should schedule meetings with their guidance counselors if they have questions about how and when to submit college applications. Please note that volunteer services, community service projects, and internships should be completed by the summer prior to senior year if the student wishes to include these experiences on their college applications.

2. File Your FAFSA

The FAFSA is another item that should be submitted shortly after the forms are made available on January 1st. Let’s say the student is filing a FAFSA for the 2014-15 academic year. The federal deadline is not until June 2015, but state deadlines (which vary from state to state) will typically occur in Winter or Spring 2014.

Students and parents who submit the FAFSA ahead of the state deadline will stand the best chance of securing a sufficient amount of federal aid. In addition to federal loans, seniors should also be applying for scholarships throughout the school year. Please visit the 11th grade section for a list of comprehensive, web-based scholarship resources.

Parents will need to assist their children with the FAFSA form. Tax statements, account records, and other financial information will be required. Parents can also review IRS Publication 970 to learn more about tax benefits for education-related expenses. As seniors apply for scholarships and other student aid awards, it’s also important to ensure their personal information is kept safe; the U.S. Department of Education provides an online resource titled ‘Student Aid and Theft‘ to inform parents about strategies for safeguarding their child’s private data.

3. Compare Your Options and Commit

Once the student has received a response from all of the schools they’ve applied to, then the final decision process can begin. If the student has been accepted to more than one school, then their considerations should include institutional financial aid offerings, room/board costs and living arrangements, meal plans, and geographical distance from home. Most schools will not require accepted applicants to issue their final declaration until the following year, so students will have several months to reach their ultimate decision.

In the interim, students are urged to visit as many of these campuses as they can in order to scope out the environment and, if possible, speak to students, professors, faculty members, and financial aid officers. If in-person visits aren’t possible, then the student should take time to contact school officials via telephone or email.

Senior Year Checklist:

  • Apply for all colleges and universities on ‘top schools list’ during the fall semester
  • Visit/contact all schools that award acceptance
  • Contact final school-of-choice (as well as other schools that have awarded acceptance) once a decision has been made
  • Apply for the FAFSA on Jan. 1st or shortly after
  • Apply for scholarships and other financial aid awards throughout the year
  • Maintain good grades