College  |  February 16, 2022  |  Connor Peoples

How to Plan for College in High School

What you’ll learn
  • How to plan for college in high school
  • The importance of Advanced Placement courses
  • Where you can find college scholarships for high school freshmen

The transition from middle school to high school can be challenging. For the last year, you were viewed as one of the leaders in a smaller, more familiar middle school environment. As a high school freshman, you’re back to being one of the youngest students in a new and unfamiliar school.

As you try to ease your transition, just remember, your high school years can be some of the most fun and exciting times in your life. From going to your school’s homecoming games, tackling new classes with new teachers, attending proms, to meeting some of your lifelong friends, high school is a time of enormous personal growth.

While you embark on this new journey, it’s still important to keep your future self in mind. In another four short years, you could be a wide-eyed freshman again on a college campus somewhere. And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Where do I even start to plan?” That’s okay, you’re not alone! Research shows that 81% of freshman think that creating a plan for college is challenging. But with the right tips, tools, and resources, you’ll be ready to take on college like a true pro.

Here are a few steps to start you off on the right foot:

Meet with your high school counselor

Along with your teachers, coaches, family, and friends, you’ll soon find out that your high school counselor can be one of your most trusted resources in planning for the future. Our recent research report, “How America Plans for Post-secondary Education,” shows that 84% of freshmen agree that having a plan for higher education will improve the likelihood of them attending. Counselors can be key in helping you put that plan for college together. They know you, the classes you’re taking, your grades, and even your extracurricular activities. If you share your goals with them about life after high school, they can help set you up for success.

Your counselor can make sure you’re taking all the right classes needed to graduate, and they’ll definitely help you take the types of classes that will look good on your transcripts. By building a strong relationship with them as a high school freshman, they’ll help you go the extra mile when it’s time to prepare for, and apply to, colleges in your junior and senior years.

Enroll in Advanced Placement courses

Contrary to popular belief, Advanced Placement (AP) courses are not just for high school upperclassmen. Freshman year of high school is a good time to start building a strong academic transcript and challenge yourself by taking AP courses, especially in areas you’re passionate about. While you absolutely aren’t required (or expected) to take all 38 AP courses throughout your high school tenure, you should research the College Board’s website to find courses that best fit your skills and interests. Talk to your counselor, too, to see if they think AP courses are a good fit.

By completing AP courses, you’re showing potential colleges that you’re a determined scholar who’s ready for college-level schoolwork. Your future college may offer AP credits and allow you to earn college credits in high school, without paying any college tuition, if you score a 3 or higher on the final exam. There are some current college students that have actually skipped their entire freshman year curriculum because of their success in AP courses in high school. This cuts their college costs significantly!

Schedule a college visit

No matter the circumstances, there are resources out there, like YouVisit, that can help you explore colleges without leaving the comfort of your own home. If you’re able to tour a college campus in person, do it. There’s nothing like stepping foot on a college campus to get a good feel of the true campus experience. By starting your college visitation process early on in your high school career, you’ll get immersed by the college-going culture, and the extra work you’re doing in school will all start to make sense once you realize your end goal.

During your time on campus, visit the student centers, libraries, and dorms, and try to meet with a current student to see what their experience is like. Visiting colleges early will help you start to develop your college “likes and dislikes” list, too. Do you favor a large, suburban campus with giant lecture halls and historical buildings? Or do you prefer to attend a smaller college or a school within a larger city? By thinking about your list now, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about college later.

Apply for scholarships for high school freshmen

College scholarships aren’t just for the varsity athlete or the class valedictorian. And they're not just for seniors. You can start earning scholarship $$$ for college early in your academic career — sometimes as early as middle school! Sallie Mae has an easy-to-use scholarship search that has access to 5 million scholarships worth up to $24 billion. Here are a few scholarships for high school freshmen:

1. The Don’t Text and Drive Scholarship

According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, texting while driving makes drivers 23 times more likely to get into a “safety-critical event.” The purpose of this $1,000 scholarship is to help you understand the risks of texting while driving.

2. The Create a Greeting Card Scholarship

Submit an original photo, artwork, or computer graphics for the front of a greeting card to enter to win this $10,000 scholarship. 

3. Technology Addiction Awareness Scholarship

With technology always at the ready, it can be a challenge to unplug. Taking a break from technology is healthy for the mind and body. This purpose of this scholarship is to help students understand the negative effects of too much screen time.

Get matched with college scholarships

Our free Scholarship Search helps you find scholarships as unique as you are.

• Access to thousands of opportunities
• Email alerts for new matches

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Odds of winning depend on number of entries received. Ends 7/31/2023. See Official Rules.

An illustration of a boy doing homework on his bed with a cat on his shoulder

Remember how I said your high school counselor will be one of your greatest resources while planning for college? That’s true for finding scholarships, too! Counselors are scholarship experts, and if your potential scholarship requires an interview, they can help you practice and prepare. They can also help you pick and choose potential teachers to write letters of recommendation to boost your scholarship applications.

As Dr. Seuss wrote, “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!” A college education will unlock a door to endless opportunities. The college-planning process can be overwhelming at first, so don’t hesitate to ask for help along the way. And remember, it’s never too early to start building your future.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey financial, tax, or legal advice. Sallie Mae makes no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect Sallie Mae’s view or endorsement. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.