Preparing for College Checklist

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April 19, 2021

Going to college is a major event in anyone’s life. When preparing for college, this checklist can help make sure you’re ready for every aspect of the college experience will help you glide through this transitional phase in your life as smoothly as possible.

It’s likely the first time that you’ve moved out of your parents’ house and lived on your own. On top of the change in living situation, college is a big financial commitment. 

In this article, we’ll break college prep down into five phases, starting with what to do in your freshman year of high school. 

College Checklist Items for Your Freshman Year

As a freshman, you’re probably more focused on adapting to high school than planning for college. After all, college is four years away, so you have plenty of time to get ready, right?

While this is true, there are still some things to think about as a freshman that can help prepare you for college.

Think about your career goals and study plans

The most important thing for a freshman to do is to think about what they want to do in the future. Teenagers often have an idea of what they want to do for a career, but if you aren’t sure or if your goals yet, then now is the time to start trying to figure them out. 

Take the time to think about what you want to do in the future and think about how you can reach those goals. 

This can help guide the classes you take while in high school and help you start narrowing down the list of schools you want to attend.

For example, if you’re interested in becoming a doctor, you’ll want to focus on science courses in high school and look for a college that has a good pre-medical program. If you know that you want to live in a city, you can focus on applying to schools in a major city. 

Not sure what you want to do? Sign up for different elective classes, join recreational activities or start volunteering for causes that might interest you. 

Getting a taste of what’s out there will help you eliminate options you don’t enjoy and may open you up to career paths you weren’t previously aware of. 

If your high school has a college fair, it’s a good idea to check it out in each of your years at school. It can help you get an idea of what schools you might want to attend.

College Checklist Items for Your Sophomore Year

Once you have a year of high school under your belt, you can start thinking more seriously about college.

Start building a resume

The college admissions process can be highly competitive. College admission committees want to admit students that are intelligent and who have good grades, but they also want to build a well-rounded student body that is diverse and has many different interests.

You should strive to do well academically in high school, taking challenging classes and earning good grades. If your school offers Advanced Placement classes, dual enrollment, or other high-level classes, consider taking one or more of them. 

Beyond looking good on a college application, some of these classes will let you earn college credit before you leave high school, which can save you time and money. Your school counselor can help you learn about the classes that are available.

If you didn’t join any clubs in your freshman year, sophomore year is a great time to get involved. 

Admissions committees often like to see students that participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. Earning a leadership position in a club can also look good on an application.

Most high schools have lots of different clubs, so it’s almost certain that you can find one you enjoy. You might also want to choose a club that can help you build a skill, like joining the debate team to learn public speaking.

Take the PSAT or equivalent exams

There aren’t many people who enjoy taking standardized tests, but many colleges want students to submit scores from tests like the SAT or the ACT as part of their application.

One of the best ways to improve your performance on a standardized test is to practice for it. 

The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is a practice test that students can take to help them prepare for taking the SAT later during their high school career.

Scores from the PSAT are used to determine eligibility and qualification for the National Merit Scholarship Program, so doing well on the PSAT can also help you earn a scholarship that will pay for some of your college education.

If you prefer alternatives to the SAT, like the ACT, there are also practice tests available for it.

College Checklist Items for Your Junior Year

When you enter your junior year, you’re halfway through your high school experience. At this point, you should have a better idea of your goals for college and your future career and be ready to take more concrete steps toward reaching those goals.

Take the SAT or equivalent exams

The College Board offers the SAT seven times each year in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. The official recommendation from the College Board is to take the SAT for the first time in the spring of your junior year.

Before your test, it’s a good idea to do some test practice, even if you’ve already taken the PSAT in your sophomore year. 

There are many websites that offer free SAT practice questions and exam-taking advice, as well as SAT workbooks and other training materials. Your school may also have resources that you can use to prepare for the test.

Before your testing day, eat a good meal and get a good night’s rest. The next day, go to the testing site and do your best.

The SAT has three sections, math, reading and writing, and an optional essay (though some colleges require that you submit your essay score). 

The math and reading and writing sections are scored on a scale of 200–800, while the essay is scored on a scale of 24, with students earning between 2 and 8 points each for reading, analysis, and writing.

You can take the SAT multiple times, so don’t worry if you don’t do as well as you hoped the first time you take the test. According to the College Board, two out of three students earn a better score on their second SAT.

Think about paying for school

With college just a couple of years away, it’s time to deal with the reality that higher education costs money. As a junior, it’s time to start thinking about how you plan to pay for that education.

The first thing to do is to discuss paying for school with your parents. Talk with them about how much, if any, money they have set aside for college, and if they’re able to help you pay for school.

Most families can’t pay for the entirety of a college education out of pocket, but there are many other ways to handle paying for school.

One way to reduce the price of college is to spend less time in college. If you can take Advanced Placement classes that will let you earn college credits, you’ll have fewer classes you need to take, which can help you save on tuition.

You can also start setting money aside to pay for classes or living expenses while you’re at school. If you have a part-time job or a summer job, open a savings account or a 529 plan.

You should also look into grants and scholarships that you might be eligible for. 

Many schools will send a financial aid offer as part of their acceptance package after you apply, but there are lots of ways to get money for college outside of the aid offered by your school. 

Local community groups and national organizations offer scholarships for all sorts of reasons. For example, you might be able to get a scholarship for being left-handed or good at duck calling.

Look around for scholarships that you can start applying for or grant programs that you can take advantage of. 

Many students also use student loans to help pay for school. 

While you don’t need to get the loans yet, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how much you’ll need to borrow and how much it will cost. 

Different schools charge different amounts, and knowing how much you’ll have to borrow to go to a private school instead of a public one may help you make your decision.

Cost of college by school type

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College Checklist Items for Your Senior Year

Your senior year is your final year of high school, so you should be getting ready to apply to college and choose one from the schools that admit you. You’ll also want to finish high school strong so that you’re ready for the academic rigor of college.

Submit the FAFSA

One of the most important things to do near the beginning of your senior year is to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The government and schools use the FAFSA to determine how much financial aid, in the form of grants and loans, you qualify for.

Much of the aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you file your FAFSA, the better your chances of getting more aid. The start date for submitting FAFSA applications is October 1 of each year.

Take the SAT or equivalent exams

Even if you already took the SAT or another exam, like the ACT, in your junior year, you may want to consider taking it a second time as a senior.

If your initial score was not as good as you hoped, or you believe that you can do better, taking the test a second time can help you earn a higher score, which can improve your chances of getting into the college you want to attend.

Apply to colleges

Most colleges have an application deadline in the fall or winter of the year preceding admission. That means that unless you’re planning to take a year off, you should start submitting applications early in your senior year.

When choosing what colleges to apply to, there are a few things to consider.

Of course, you should apply to the schools you want to attend based on their location and the quality of the education they provide. 

However, you should also be realistic about your chances of admission, especially if you’re applying to some of the top schools in the country. 

Consider applying to a less prestigious “safety” school that you’re confident that you can get into, just to make sure you have options. This can also reduce your stress level while you’re waiting to hear back from your school of choice. 

Also consider how much the schools you’re applying to cost, and their reputation for financial aid. If you’re planning to borrow to pay for college costs, you may want to include a few less expensive schools in the list of schools you apply to.

Choose a school

Colleges usually send admissions decisions in the late winter and early spring. Once you’ve received decisions from the schools you applied to, it’s time to make the decision about the school you want to attend.

This is an important choice, so you should take your time and consider every factor, including the cost of the school, the financial aid package it has offered, and its reputation. 

If you didn’t visit the school’s campuses before applying, now is a good time to do so. It gives you a chance to see what the campus is like and to get a feel for the student body to see if you’d fit in.

College Checklist Items for The Summer After Senior Year

Once you’ve chosen a college and graduated from high school, it’s time to get ready for the big move.

Buy school supplies and get ready to move

Before you get to college, you should make sure you have everything you need for school. That includes textbooks, a computer, notebooks and pens, and other school supplies. But there are many other things you’ll need to bring as well.

For most people, college is the first time they’ll be living on their own, without their parents. You might be surprised at how many basic things you need to bring with you. 

You’ll need bedsheets and a blanket, storage bins to hold your things, a desk lamp, and toiletries. You’ll probably want a laundry hamper to keep your dirty clothes contained until you get around to washing them.

You might also want some equipment or decorations for your dorm room, like a TV, game system, posters, trash can, or dry-erase board.

Spend the summer thinking about the things you’ll want to have with you at college, make a checklist, and make sure they’re with you when you move.


College is an important part of your life, and preparing for the college experience can take years. You have to think about what you want your career to be, where you want to study, and how you plan to pay for the cost of your education.

Proper planning can help make the transition to college easier, putting you on the path toward educational success.

A good place to start:

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