High school seniors: Prepare for college with our college checklist

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Six things to do before you start school 

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. Understanding how your peers are preparing for life after high school can help.

Here are six 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.

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.

Use online resources, like College Board’s Big Future or collegedata.com, to answer 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. File the FAFSA®

Research shows that only about 6 in 10 high school seniors have filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) for their upcoming freshman year by April. The FAFSA® is a free application 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.

NOTE: The FAFSA® typically opens October 1 every year, but due to new changes in the application, the opening date has been pushed to December 2023 for this year only.

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 scholarshipsgrants, and work-study opportunities.

3. Visit campuses IRL or 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 them, but when they do, an interview can help you learn more about the school—or help determine whether you might get accepted.

4. Meet with your 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 definitely 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. There’s plenty of free money out there to help make college more affordable, just waiting to be claimed.

Contrary to public belief, scholarships aren’t just for valedictorians and quarterbacks; there are opportunities for everyone. 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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You’re on your way!

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 FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

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