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College planning for high school students involves much more than filling out forms, taking standardized tests, and asking teachers for recommendation letters. The process also requires self-reflection and spending time looking at public and private colleges, online learning, and other forms of higher education that you may not have considered previously.

The following sections highlight college planning fundamentals, which you can consider to create a custom college plan. Additionally, the embedded links that appear throughout the article present unique college planning services that can help you discover schools and programs that match your interests and goals.

Steps for Successful College Planning

Frequently Asked Questions

When should you start planning for college?

As college planning involves many steps, you should create a college planning checklist during your first year of high school. Starting early gives you ample time to select the best schools and make yourself a competitive applicant.

Why is it important to plan for college?

Not only do college students take four or more years to earn a bachelor's degree, but they also spend thousands of dollars on tuition, books, and housing. As college requires a significant investment of time and money, you need a plan to find a school that can offer you an excellent educational experience.

What should you consider when planning for college?

The answer to this question varies, as no two students have the exact same interests and goals. However, all high school students should consider how they're going to pay for college, the academic offerings of different colleges, and their personal career goals.

When should I start applying for college?

The application process involves submitting materials during the fall semester of your senior year. Application deadlines vary, but most are in December or early January. If you plan to apply to a school early decision, you should submit all materials in October or November, depending on the school.

How do I decide which college to apply to?

Consult a college planning guide. The rest of this article details how you can find a good school by considering your interests, researching different institutions, and engaging in financial planning. Additionally, the article's final section features a sample four-year college planning checklist.

How to Start Planning for College

Consider Your Interests

You may — or may not — already have an idea about potential college majors and career paths. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What am I interested in?
  • What do I want to study?
  • What career or careers do I want to pursue?
  • Will I want to earn an advanced degree?
  • Do I want to move to attend college?
  • Do I need to earn money while in college?
  • Is an alternative to a four-year college — such as online college or community college — right for me?

Coming up with answers may inspire more questions or reveal something about yourself that you didn't know. It is important to start this self-reflection sooner rather than later and turn to trusted adults for advice when necessary.

Starting early gives you two distinct advantages. First, you have time to change your mind and adjust your plans accordingly. Second, you can select high school courses and extracurricular activities that can make you a competitive applicant at your target college or university.

Research Different Types of Higher Education

Institutions of higher education may seem identical at first glance. All colleges and universities award degrees and offer a similar set of student services. However, the type of school you attend can have a significant impact on how much you pay, which degrees you can choose from, and your overall educational experience.

The following sections highlight the five most common types of colleges and universities, along with the kind of student who stands to benefit from each environment. If you need additional advice on which type of college fits your needs, speak to your high school's college counselor.

Four-Year Public College

Each state administers public colleges and universities. These schools receive state funding to provide residents with a good education at a lower cost than private schools. Out-of-state students can apply, but public schools often cap the number of out-of-state learners they admit each year. Also, out-of-state learners often pay a significantly higher tuition rate.

Due to potential cost savings, strongly consider your state's public colleges and universities when researching possible schools. Through lower tuition, you can avoid incurring as much student debt.

Four-Year Private College

Although they usually cost significantly more than public institutions, four-year private schools may offer a host of additional benefits, including more undergraduate research opportunities, world-renowned professors, and valuable networking opportunities. Networking can be very important when you're looking for an entry-level job or applying to graduate programs.

Keep in mind that although a private school may open more doors after graduation, your professional success still depends primarily on your work performance. In other words, as time passes after you earn a degree, your alma mater's importance diminishes.

Community College

A typical community college awards two types of associate degrees: degrees that prepare students for an entry-level career and credentials that help learners transfer to a bachelor's program. Full-time students can earn an associate degree in two years, and community colleges offer many of the same services as four-year schools, such as career counseling.

Community college is an excellent option for learners undecided about a career or major. Courses often cost less than they would at four-year public schools, which can give you the chance to explore different topics. Also, students who struggled in high school can attend community college to improve their academic skills.

Online College

Recent high school graduates and nontraditional learners can earn online degrees. The main advantage offered by online colleges is asynchronous learning, in which courses do not have set meeting times. This flexibility allows degree-seekers to continue working full time. However, online programs may not work well for students who thrive in a traditional classroom environment.

In addition to flexibility, online learning may offer financial advantages; for example, out-of-state learners may qualify for in-state tuition rates and distance learners can sometimes download free textbooks. Online students can still access many resources available to their on-campus counterparts, such as library databases and career centers.

Special Focus Institutions

Special focus institutions refer to colleges and universities that award degrees in a limited number of academic areas. Most of these schools are affiliated with a larger institution, such as Harvard University's Harvard Medical School or Vanderbilt University's Peabody College. Many students who earn a master's or doctoral degree enroll in a special focus institution.

Special focus institutions also accept undergraduates in fields such as engineering and the arts. Although some schools offer additional majors, they typically appeal to prospective learners who have clear academic and career paths in mind. As a result, if you want to explore different majors during your first year of college, a special focus institution may not meet your needs.

Understand the Costs of College

Tuition is the most significant college expense. However, other costs — housing, meal plans, textbooks — can add up quickly. Many college students also pay out of pocket for other things, like extracurricular activities, study abroad experiences, and car insurance. Together, these expenses make researching and applying for financial aid a necessity for most degree-seekers.

Financial aid comes in many forms. You should start by looking at scholarships. Most colleges and universities award generous scholarships to incoming degree-seekers who earned an excellent high school GPA.

In addition to pursuing financial aid opportunities, look into ways you can save money in college. Depending on where you attend school, you may discover that living off campus and buying groceries costs less than living in a dorm and purchasing a meal plan.

If these potential expenses exceed your means, consider earning an online degree. Online programs often charge lower tuition rates and may exempt students from certain fees.

Average Undergraduate Tuition and Room and Board
Public
Four-year, in-state tuition $9,037
Four-year, in-state room and board $11,013
Four-year, out-of-state tuition $25,657
Two-year, in-state tuition $3,243
Two-year, out-of-state tuition $7,971
Private
Four-year tuition $30,731
Four-year room and board $12,408

Source: NCES

Plan Ahead to Meet Important Deadlines

The overall process of applying to college involves numerous important dates and deadlines, some of which may start as early as your sophomore year of high school. These deadlines apply to college applications, standardized test preparation courses, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid. When you start college planning, make a calendar so you can stay on top of every deadline.

If you need help, consider visiting your high school's college planning center or making an appointment to speak with a counselor. A counselor can walk you through important deadlines and offer valuable advice as to what you can start doing now to prepare.

When to Start College Planning

College may seem like a lifetime away on your first day of high school. However, it is important to start college planning during your first year. Doing so gives you the chance to review the advice of different college planning experts and set long-term goals, all while earning good grades and staying involved with extracurricular activities.

Many students are fortunate enough to receive help from their parents during the college planning process. Your parents can keep you accountable to your academic and extracurricular obligations and help you start a college savings account. Just as importantly, your parents can provide you with valuable encouragement and advice.


College planning for high school students starts during their first year. The following guide can be used as a template, which you can expand upon during your high school experience.

College Planning Checklist

9th Grade

  • Choose high school courses carefully: As you review your high school's course offerings, consider challenging yourself in one or more subjects you enjoy by taking honors courses.
  • Research potential career paths: Throughout ninth grade, research relevant career paths that align with subjects in which you excel. Keep a list of career opportunities that grab your interest.

10th Grade

  • Study for and take the PSAT: The PSAT represents an excellent opportunity for you to stand out to potential colleges. Doing well on this test may qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
  • Concentrate on extracurricular interests: If the extracurricular activities you selected in ninth grade no longer match your interests, feel free to switch activities this year. However, you should commit to any new activities for the remainder of high school.
  • Attend college-related events: Your high school — or somewhere in your local community — likely hosts one or more college fairs throughout the year. Attend one to network with representatives and learn about colleges in your state and beyond.

11th Grade

  • Take the SAT and/or ACT: High school students take the ACT and/or SAT during the spring semester. Create a study plan at least three months before your test date to help you earn a good score.
  • Consider AP classes: AP classes allow you to earn college credit and impress college admissions offices. Talk to a teacher or advisor and consider taking 1-3 AP classes in your best/favorite subjects.
  • Research and compile a "top schools" list: As you research colleges, start compiling a "top schools" list that includes institutions that interest you the most. Your list should contain 5-10 schools. Feel free to modify the list as your interests and goals evolve.

12th Grade

  • Apply to and visit schools: An in-person college tour can help you decide whether to apply. Also, keep track of all application deadlines and application materials by maintaining a physical or digital calendar.
  • Fill out your FAFSA and apply for scholarships: As you research and apply for institutional or private scholarships, fill out the FAFSA. You can turn in this essential financial aid form as early as October 1.
  • Compare your options and commit: Receiving acceptance letters from colleges is a tremendous accomplishment. After celebrating, you need to weigh your options. Ask a parent or teacher for advice before you commit to a school.