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Preparing for College - Introduction

IntroGrade 8Grade 9Grade 10Grade 11Grade 12

Prepare for College Early
Plan a Career
Find the College That's Right for You
Take the Necessary Assessment Tests
Visit the Colleges of Your Choice
Discover Your Payment Options

Are you thinking about going to college? Whether the decision has already been made or is still years away, please browse through our Planner Timeline, which we have designed to help you prepare for college. Please note that although you can complete most of the necessary tasks in your junior or senior years of high school, you should start planning as early as the eighth grade. Not only will this improve your chances of getting into the college of your choice, but it will also make applying much easier.

Below is a general guideline of steps you should follow while preparing for college. Each step contains links to sections of Student Aid on the Web that contain tools and information to not only help you plan for college, but help you select colleges, apply to them online, and fund your college education. To go directly to the Planner Timeline, click on your grade level above.

1. Prepare for College Early
Vague advice, perhaps, but invaluable. Preparing early for your college education will help you position yourself to get into the college you want. We recommend that you start as early as the eighth grade, and start using the Student Planner in your freshman year of high school. Even if you are in your junior or senior year, however, you can still choose, apply, and get accepted to the college best for you, if you plan carefully. Regardless of the grade you are in now, there are some general notes to remember and rules to follow:
  1. Pay attention to deadlines and dates.
  2. Keep in mind that even though they may not be required for high school graduation, most colleges require at least three, and often prefer four, years of studies in math, English, science, and social studies.
  3. In addition to this, most colleges require at least two years of the same foreign language.
  4. Your grades are important but the difficulty of your coursework can also be a significant factor in a college's decision to admit you. In general, most colleges prefer students with average grades in tougher courses than students who opt for an easy A. You should also note that most high schools grade Advanced Placement courses on a 5-point scale rather than the 4-point scale used for other classes, essentially giving students a bonus point for tackling the extra difficulty (e.g., a B in an AP course is worth as much as an A in a non-AP course).
  5. College admission officers will pay the closest attention to your GPA, class rank, college credit, AP courses, and scores on standardized tests.
  6. Participation in extracurricular activities is also a good idea in high school. Activities that require time and effort outside the classroom (such as speech and debate, band, communications, and drama) indicate a willingness to cooperate with others and put forth the effort needed to succeed.
  7. Computer science courses or courses that require students to use computers in research and project preparation can also help aid your future college performance.
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Plan a Career
Choosing a career and a corresponding major will help you decide which colleges are right for you.
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Find the College That's Right for You
There are three ways you can select a college on this site.
  1. By name
  2. By preference: Use the College Finder to identify campuses using preferences such as college type, location, size cost, campus life, academics, etc.
  3. By wizard: Using the College Matching Wizard allows you to explore the advantages/disadvantages and definitions of various factors affecting the college selection process.

Get information online about the school of your choice. Some schools have online admission applications for you to complete.

High School Seniors should complete the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) on or after January 1st. To learn about ways to Get Money for college go to the Funding Your Education area.

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4. Take the necessary assessment tests
Most colleges in the U.S. require that students submit scores from standardized tests as part of their application packages. The most commonly accepted tests are the ACT Tests, SAT Reasoning, and SAT Subject Tests. For information about which you should take, talk to your high school counselor or to the admissions office(s) at the college(s) to which you will apply.

The ACT Tests
For detailed information about the ACT Tests, registering for these tests, how to prepare for the tests, what to take with you on test day, and understanding your scores, visit

The SAT Tests
For information on and registering for any of the tests described below, visit

SAT Reasoning (formerly SAT I). The SAT Reasoning Test is a three-hour test that measures a student's ability rather than knowledge. It contains three sections: writing, critical reading, and math. Most of the questions are multiple-choice.

SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II). The SAT Subject Tests measure knowledge in specific subjects within five general categories: English, mathematics, history, science, and languages. The specific subjects range from English literature to biology to Modern Hebrew. SAT Subject Tests are primarily multiple-choice, and each lasts one hour.

Both the SAT Reasoning and SAT Subject Tests are offered several times a year at locations across the country.

Other common tests
For information and registration for any of the tests described below, visit

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, commonly known as the PSAT, is usually taken in the student's junior year. It's a good way to practice for the SAT tests, and it serves as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation's scholarship programs. The PSAT measures skills in verbal reasoning, critical reading, mathematics problem solving, and writing.

The two- to three-hour Advanced Placement (AP) Program exams are usually taken after the student completes an AP course in the relevant subject. (Speak to your high school counselor about taking AP classes.) A good grade on an AP exam can qualify the student for college credit and/or "advanced placement" in that subject in college. For example, if a student scores well on the AP English Literature exam, he or she might not have to take the college's required freshman-level English course. Most AP tests are at least partly made up of essay questions; some include multiple-choice questions. The tests are offered each spring; each test is offered once, with a makeup day a few weeks later.

The College-Level Examination ProgramĀ® (CLEP) offers students the opportunity to gain college credit by taking an exam. Usually, a student takes the tests at the college where he or she is already enrolled. Not all colleges offer credit based on CLEP tests, and different colleges offer different amounts of credit for the same test, so do your research before committing to an exam. Your best source of information is your college.
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5. Visit the Colleges of Your Choice
Visit the college(s) of your choice through Campus Tours. Once you have narrowed your selection, arrange to visit the campuses in person. This is an important step in the decision process, so whenever possible, plan a visit to the schools.
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6. Discover Your Payment Options
Discover your payment options. You should look into scholarships, student loans, and other financial aid options before you apply to a particular college or university. The Federal government has $80 billion available for funding education beyond high school.

Apply online. If you currently are a high school senior, you should complete the FAFSA as early as possible, but no earlier than January 1.

Source: U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid (FSA)
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