College  |  April 19, 2022  |  Alanna Smith

How to prepare for college in high school

What you'll learn
  • How high school seniors are preparing for college
  • How these steps can help improve students’ college experience

When you’re getting ready for your higher education journey, whether it’s a 2- or 4-year college, career training, or something else altogether, it can be hard to know where to start. Insight on how your peers are preparing for life after high school can help.

Below are seven steps high school seniors from across the country have taken to get ready for higher education. Use this as a checklist when preparing for college.

College Planning Checklist for High School Seniors

1. Research potential colleges

According to "Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-secondary Education," 48% of high school seniors have researched potential colleges. With more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, doing research to narrow down your options can be incredibly helpful.

That said, what are students looking for? And what’s helpful when choosing a school? Is it class size, the football team’s record, or the employment rate for recent grads? While all these factors (and many more) might be important, there are a few that rise to the top for most families.

Here are the top three factors students reported when researching and choosing a school:

  • Whether the school offers a program that matches their desired career or major
  • The location of the school
  • What financial aid they receive

You can start with the school’s website, but don’t forget about student-led communities online. You might be able to find a subgroup on Reddit or a student group on Facebook where current students are discussing what’s happening on campus, their favorite professors, or how they manage the financial aid process.

Look online, using resources like, to answer specific questions related to your prospective school. That said, you don’t have to limit your research to what you find online. Do you have family or friends (or even friends of friends) who’ve attended a school you’re interested in? They may be able to tell you the lesser-known secrets, like how good the cafeteria food is or what the best dorms are.

While you’re researching, make sure to compare across the board. Keeping a spreadsheet or notebook with answers you find for each school can help make your decision process easier down the road.

2. Filing the FAFSA®

According to research, as of April, 6 in 10 high school seniors had filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for their upcoming freshman year. The FAFSA is a free form, available every year on October 1, that can unlock thousands of dollars of financial aid for college and grad school.

Some of this federal aid is distributed on a first come, first-served basis, so the earlier you complete the application, the better.

It’s important to file the FAFSA even if you aren’t planning on taking out federal loans, or else you could miss out on scholarships, grants, and work-study opportunities.

3. Visit campuses, even if it's virtually 

Are you one of the 42% of high school seniors who’s visited a college or university campus? If so, congrats! You’re on your way to making a fully informed decision about higher ed.

Campuses vary wildly across the country. Some schools have huge campuses with shuttle services, others might be small enough to cross in 10 minutes, and other schools might be integrated into city blocks. By taking an on-campus or virtual tour, you can explore dorm rooms, classrooms, the dining hall, and other key campus spots—and you’ll be able to see if it feels like home away from home.

Another reason you might want to visit campus is for a college interview. Not all schools offer interviews, but when they do, they can help you learn more about the school—or help determine whether you might get accepted.

4. Meet with a high school counselor

School counselors are a fantastic resource, which is probably why 39% of seniors say that they’ve talked to one at their high school.

Applying to college is a huge step with a lot of moving parts, and a counselor’s job is to make the journey less confusing by giving you advice and guidance. If you’re having trouble deciding which academic path you want to follow, they can help you look at majors that match your strengths and interests. And school counselors can nominate students for scholarships, so forming a solid relationship with your counselor as early as your freshman year in high school can possibly translate into free money for college.

5. Get ready for the SATs or ACTs

Standardized tests like the SATs or ACTs are becoming less of a requirement nationally, and many colleges and universities are test-optional. That said, 36% of high school seniors have practiced for or taken these exams. If you’re considering the SAT or ACT, and you’re nervous about a particular test, there are many test prep classes and practice exams available online, from paid tutoring to free SAT practice tests on the College Board website.

6. Apply for scholarships

If there’s one thing you want to do to prepare for college, it’s looking for scholarships.

It’s a step that not many students take advantage of, since only 33% of high school seniors reported applying for scholarships. That said, there’s plenty of free money out there to help make college more affordable, just waiting to be claimed.

Use a free scholarship tool like Nitro by Sallie Mae to get matched to scholarships you may be eligible for. (By clicking this link, you’ll go to our trusted affiliate, SLM NitroCollege LLC. Any use of the site will be governed by SLM NitroCollege LLC’s terms of use and any information you provide will be governed by the terms of SLM NitroCollege LLC’s privacy policy.)

You might find scholarships that match up with your extracurriculars, intended major, heritage, and more. Applying might be as easy as answering a few questions or as involved as writing an essay or making a video, but it’s definitely worth it. You can start applying for scholarships in high school and keep applying all the way through college.

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7. Use a tool to help plan how to pay

Figuring out how to pay for college may seem like an overwhelming prospect. The numbers are high, there are a bunch of new terms you might not know, and it could be your first big financial decision.

With a tool like Nitro by Sallie Mae you can track your progress in securing scholarships, savings, financial aid, and student loans all in one place. Add the schools you’re considering to your profile and any financial aid offers you’ve received. Then you can compare school costs to help you make decisions. It even matches you to scholarships you can apply for so you get as much free money as possible. Check out Nitro by Sallie Mae. (By clicking this link, you’ll go to our trusted affiliate, SLM NitroCollege LLC. Any use of the site will be governed by SLM NitroCollege LLC’s terms of use and any information you provide will be governed by the terms of SLM NitroCollege LLC’s privacy policy.)

Have you completed all the steps on this checklist? If you have, you’re well on your way to being prepared for your college journey. If you have a few steps to go, be sure to check out some of the resources from the list; they might help make your college planning a lot more manageable.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

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.