Planning for College

Deciding to go to college and then choosing the right one can be a daunting task. Here you’ll find some helpful ideas to keep you on track during your high school years. If you’re interested in additional resources, be sure to check out It has resources for students (elementary-college), parents and adults. It will even give you a “guideway” appropriate for your grade level.

9th Grade:

For you, college seems like it’s years away. And it is! But it will be here before you know it and the things you’re doing now can impact your college choices later. To stay on track:

  • Make a list of all of your activities and extracurriculars. Update that list throughout your high school career. This way, 3.5 years from now, you won’t have to try to remember all that you’re doing right now.
  • Make a list of your community service time too. Do you volunteer to coach a youth sports team? Help out a nursing home? Serve at a food bank? There are tons of activities that count as community service. Remembering these (especially if it’s only a weekend project like Habitat For Humanity) are especially hard to recall years from now. Just track your hours, activity and date on spreadsheet and you’ll be set. Be sure it’s just the volunteer hours. Being paid for your time doesn’t count.
  • Document awards or honors you receive. Applications are your place to shine to the admissions staff. Be sure you list everything you’ve earned and achieved so you can show them how great of person you are. It may seem insignificant or like you’re bragging, but your college application is not a place to be humble!
  • Take notice of what classes interest you. Recognizing that you really like science (or math or literature) can help you narrow down your high school elective classes. It can also help you start looking at which colleges and universities have good programs in your interest areas.
  • See what careers interest you. You don’t have to decide on a profession now, of course. But if watching Criminal Minds has you thinking that working for the FBI could be a cool job, then you can start planning ahead. Some careers are very competitive so knowing that you need a great SAT score or an awesome G.P.A., let’s you work towards those goals. Plus, some companies offer job shadowing so you can see first-hand if it’s a good fit for you.

10th Grade:

For you, it’s time to be more focused in your college planning. This year you should start seriously considering schools and begin taking pre-college exams. To continue on your college journey:

  • Begin meeting regularly with your guidance counselor. This doesn’t mean weekly. But at least once a semester, you should schedule an appointment to discuss your course schedule, academic performance, college interests and possible career ideas. Your counselor can answer questions about schools and scholarships and offer advice to keep you on track for your life goals.
  • Explore colleges using the internet. It’s easier than ever to see what a specific college is all about. With the power of the web, you can see the programs offered, school size, campus life, class size and more. You can also research the city/town where the school is located. You won’t spend all of your time on campus, so knowing what’s around the school is important too.
  • Narrow down your college selection factors. As you review your list from freshman year, you might decide your taste in classes has changed. Or that going to school in Hawaii isn’t financially possible, even if you are crazy about Marine Biology. Now’s a great time to look at things like campus size, cost, and other factors to pick a college that will work for you.
  • Keep your various lists up-to-date. Each time you add an activity, an award or community service to your schedule, add it to your list. You should update it at least once a semester.
  • Take the PLAN test. This is a pre-ACT test to help you prepare for taking the ACT a year later. It will help point out your strengths and weaknesses. Plus – it gives you the practice of taking a standardized test. You can learn more about the PLAN test online.
  • Visit colleges in the spring and summer. Taking a little time to actually visit some colleges that are high on your list can help you decide if you’re on the right track.

11th Grade:

For you, this is when the final college planning really takes place. Next year, you’ll be ready to start applying, so there’s not much time for additional planning. To use this year to its fullest:

  • Begin creating a Top Colleges list. Work with a parent, guardian, guidance counselor, and/or mentor to beginning choosing your top colleges. These people can give your real feedback on whether some schools are an option based on location, cost, grades, programs available and more.
  • Visit the schools on this list. Now that you’ve got your top schools picked out, visit them. This way you’ll know if they are everything you thought they’d be. Plus you can schedule an appointment with department heads in your interested fields to see if you’d like the programs offered.
  • Continue updating your lists of awards, activities and volunteer efforts. If you haven’t done much volunteering, now’s the time to start! Pick an organization you have interest in to help keep you motivated.
  • Check out the scholarships you could apply for next year. Knowing what’s available let’s you see deadlines and eligibility. All of that can help you win one (or more!).
  • Keep meeting with your guidance counselor. As you’re narrowing down your schools, your counselor can help make sure you’re on track with your high school classes to meet admission requirements. They can also recommend elective course ideas.
  • Take the PSAT. This test helps prep you for the SAT. Even if you don’t plan on taking the SAT, it also can earn you the chance to be a National Merit Scholarship finalist. This is a very prestigious honor and would look great on your college applications.
  • Take the ACT or SAT. These tests can determine a lot about your future. Study materials can be found online or purchased at bookstores. By taking these tests now, you can always retake them in the summer after your junior year or the fall of your senior year if you’re unhappy with your score. Study hard and good luck!

12th Grade:

For you, planning is over. It’s time to apply! You’ll be doing a lot of applying this year from colleges to scholarships. Good luck! To have a successful transition to college:

  • Take the ACT or SAT. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to take one (or both) of these tests. Most colleges will require a score for admission.
  • Start applying to schools in the fall. It may seem early, but it’s the best time to apply. Here’s why: your housing options will be better, you won’t be waiting on a decision all senior year, you can start thinking about roommates and many more reasons! Use your lists documenting all of the things you did the last four years to help make applying for school an easier process.
  • Choose a school. Once you’ve applied and receive your acceptance letters, it’s time to choose. While this can seem like the most difficult part, remember to relax. Pick the school that you think will fit you and your goals the best. If you don’t like it, you can always transfer.
  • Apply for scholarships. Lincoln offers tons of scholarships so be sure to check them out and apply for them. Plus look for other scholarships online or through your chosen college. When writing essays, be sure to let your personality shine through. You can often reuse essays, but just be sure they fit for the scholarship.

*Sources: and GEAR UP Iowa


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