College Preparation Step-by-Step Guide

A diverse group of students on a college campus.

For many high school students, and some parents, college preparation can feel overwhelming. There is often so much to do that you don’t even know where to begin.

Lucky for you, CFNC is in your corner to help you plan, apply, and pay for college. Here’s your guide detailing everything you need to know about how to prepare for college from the high school halls to college campuses.

Start Prepping for College Early

This is a point that cannot be stressed enough. You can never start college planning too early. Knowing that, where are you supposed to start? There’s a lot that goes into the college prep process.

We’ve told you all about how important it is to start preparing for college early. You know to start thinking about college at the beginning of high school (and even before that). You’ve even been filled in on how to apply for college and what you need to know. But how do students actually prepare for college once they’ve been accepted? It’s a huge transition. It’s also an incredibly exciting one.

Still, as the mind races with the excitement of attending classes, meeting new people, and finally spreading your wings, few people take the time to tell students what they really need to know about how to prepare for college. We’re talking about the steps that students need to take during high school and their freshman year of college to set themselves up for success. By taking the time to start preparing early, you can ensure that your student will be ready for whatever college throws at them.

9th Grade: Taking the First Step Toward College

For many students, all of high school is an opportunity to prepare for college. From the day they start high school, every day is a chance to inch closer to the student they want to be by the time they get to college. That’s why it’s important that they start thinking about how to prepare for college the moment high school begins.

Start Thinking About College Early

High school is a cumulative journey. That means grades as early as freshman year can have a big impact on college transcripts. Also, freshman year is a terrific time for students to boost their GPAs and set themselves up for success later on. Making sure that your student does well in those early freshman year classes lays a solid foundation upon which they can build the rest of their academic career.

Take Tough Classes and Learn to Study

Among the skills students should learn in high school, developing sound study habits is right at the top. It’s important to remember that no matter how smart your student is, college courses can be tough. Even students that have been in honors classes or AP courses all through school may find themselves struggling in college. This is why high school is about more than taking challenging courses. It’s about developing the right study habits that can carry a student through a successful career in higher education.

10th Grade: The Push for Higher Education Heats Up

As your student moves into 10th grade, it’s important they stay the course while also planning ahead. Sophomore year is when many colleges really start looking at grades. It’s also the time when the difficulty in classes begins to ramp up.

Sign Up for Extra-Curriculars While You Have the Time

Sophomore year of high school is a prime time for students to get into extra-curricular activities. It’s smart to establish themselves in clubs and community organizations, especially if they plan to run for a leadership role later on. Sophomore year is also a terrific time to sign up for sports teams. Students should try out and see how things go. If your student doesn’t make the team, they have a whole year to practice and try out again.

Study for SATs and ACTs

Sophomore year is also the ideal time to begin studying for the SATs and ACTs. Junior year is when most students actually take the tests for real. That’s why it’s so important to begin studying for the tests now. Many students will take the PSAT during their sophomore year and have another chance to take it again their junior year. Remember that only the junior year scores will count toward the National Merit Scholarship Program. That’s all the more reason to start practicing now!

11th Grade: Getting Down to Business

Junior year of high school is when it’s really time to buckle down and get serious about college preparation. The junior year of high school will represent much of your student’s high school career by the time they apply to college. That makes it all the more important for students to do as well as possible to ensure they have the best GPA and class rank they can.

Take the SATs and ACTs

Remember how we were telling you about studying for the SATs and ACTs during your sophomore year? It’s time for all that hard work to pay off. Junior year of high school is when most students take their SATs and ACTs. Some students may squeeze in a final test or two the fall semester of their senior year, but it’s best to take care of tests now. Most juniors in North Carolina will take the ACT for free during their spring semester. Take advantage of this free test by studying hard so you may not need to take it again.

Schedule Campus Tours

Campus tours are an important part of the college application process. How is a student supposed to commit to spending years studying at a place they’ve never visited? The best time to schedule campus tours is while classes are still in session so students can get the complete college experience and see what campus feels like in action. Then, by the time senior year rolls around, students will know everything they need to make a fully informed decision.

12th Grade: Race to the Finish Line

By the time a student reaches their senior year of high school, they should have done their research, gone on some campus tours, and have a good idea of where they’d like to go to school. Now is the time to start applying to schools and start thinking about how you’re going to pay for it. This is what students need to take care of their senior year of high school.

Create an FSA ID and Complete the FAFSA

Of the tasks to be completed during your student’s senior year, creating an FSA ID should be one of the first things to cross off the list. The FSA ID replaced what used to be known as the FAFSA PIN. It’s a unique identifier that acts as a signature on electronic documents. Both parents and students will need to create one. It only takes a few minutes to create an FSA ID, but it may take a couple of days for it to process. This is why it’s best for parents and students to get it out of the way early.

Once you have your FSA ID, you’re ready to start the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Beginning October 1 of senior year, parents and students can complete the FAFSA to apply for federal and state financial aid. Remember that states have a limited amount of financial aid available, so if you want the best chance at getting your maximum financial aid award, fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible your senior year. The FAFSA will be done each year while the student is in college, so it’s not just a one-time-only form.

Fill Out Your Residency Determination

In-state tuition is one of the best deals you’ll find in higher education. The catch is that students and parents need to complete residency determination to qualify. Your residency determination (or RDS) does more than decide whether or not your senior gets in-state tuition, it also decides if they will be eligible for state grants. The process can seem complicated, and there’s a lot riding on it. Thankfully, there are resources available to help you do RDS.

Send Your College Applications

It’s the moment of truth. It’s finally time for students to start sending college applications. Ideally, each student should apply to at least three colleges. One college should be a “reach school.” This is a more selective institution where it would be a dream to attend. The second should be a “safety school.” This is another good school that a student is confident they will be admitted to. The third is a school somewhere in between.

It’s also important for students to consider the different college admissions deadlines when applying. Early action and early decision admissions deadlines can come as early as mid-October for some schools. While early applications don’t necessarily increase a student’s chance of getting accepted, it can get them priority when it comes to housing and consideration for specific scholarships.

Freshman Year of College: What to Do Once You’ve Made It

You made it! Congratulations on your student taking the first step in their college career. Freshman year is a thrilling time for incoming students. It can also be a lot to take in. As students adapt to new surroundings, new people, and new-found freedoms, it’s important to maintain focus and ensure they get to stick around!

Research Your Classes and Professors

We hope that your student has been researching classes and has an idea of what they’d like to take their freshman year. It’s okay if they don’t have a major yet, but this can be an excellent time to get required courses like a science or a math out of the way. Before they sign up for Biology 101, take the time to research the class and the professor. There may be a class more suited to your student that fulfills the same requirement.

Having the right professor can make a world of difference, depending on the course. In fact, a professor could be the difference between a “B+” and an “A.” There are professor review sites online where you can see what other students are saying and what their experiences have been like.

Get to Know Your Academic Advisor Early

Here’s a tip that many college students don’t realize until much later in their academic careers. Get to know your academic advisor! Academic advisors are here to point students in the right direction and keep them on track to graduate. A good advisor can provide valuable advice regarding classes and what they need to take in order to graduate. They can also help if students are experiencing academic difficulties or are looking for something like a semester abroad.

Have a Backup Plan

Many students have particular professors or classes that they’re looking forward to taking. It’s important to remember that there are many other students with the same idea. Classes fill up fast, and sometimes you just don’t get into the class you want. If this happens to your student, don’t worry. There are plenty of courses out there. Have your student pick another class that interests them, and try again next semester. When it’s time to pick classes, students should always have a backup plan for times and courses they want to take.

Study Hard and Have Fun!

We hope that you’re able to breathe at least a little easier now that you have more info on how to prepare for college. With this guide and other handy resources, you can find from CFNC, your student should have everything they need to roll into college with confidence! Create your CFNC Account today!