The College Planning Process: A Handy Guide From Freshman to Senior Year

The College Planning Process: A Handy Guide From Freshman to Senior Year

College planning can be a challenging process for high schoolers. But with the right support and action plan in place, educators can help make the process a little less daunting.

With a lot on their plate, it’s not surprising that college planning can creep up on many high school students once they hit their junior or even senior year. So how can educators help better prepare students during the college planning process? By providing the right resources earlier in the game and empowering students to plan ahead for their future.

Let’s dive into the college planning process, from freshman to senior year.

Freshman Year: Ninth Grade

Most students are nervous when they enter high school. Their concerns are often social – meeting people, getting into friend groups, etc. – but they may also question if they can handle the workload. They are rarely focused on college. However, there are useful things they can do to help them when college is foremost on their mind. And high school educators need to help.

Class selection The concern over classes might encourage students to take easy courses, rather than push themselves. Although their classes might be arranged by the guidance counselor, family/student input should be part of the process. By pushing themselves to take more challenging classes from the beginning, students are setting themselves up for down the road. Many classes are sequenced, and the sequence starts in 9th grade. In addition, by taking challenging courses, students will be higher in the class rank.

Those challenging classes can include AP classes. They offer the double benefit of acquiring college credit (without paying college tuition) and improving the student’s class rank.

If the class is beyond the student’s capability, the guidance counselor will let the student know and steer them to something more reasonable. So, take challenging classes from the beginning.

Extracurricular activities
Extracurricular activities have many positives. They help the freshmen meet other students with similar interests, foster connections with faculty (who can write recommendation letters for part-time jobs, and scholarship and college applications), and makes high school more enjoyable.

Being involved with extracurricular activities also gives high school students a greater perspective of the school. This is particularly true if they join student government.

Finally, extracurricular activities can also help direct students to a career path. Clubs often bring in guest speakers who can be valuable connections that can give insights into college life and the working world.

Get to know me
Incoming students may find the high school building intimidating. It’s probably significantly bigger than their middle school. Getting used to the building size, not getting lost in classes, and adjusting to being the youngest on campus is a gradual process that will happen over time with minimal effort.

However, getting to know the people that will be helpful in terms of the college planning process in the building takes effort. High schools typically send college guidance counselors into each classroom including freshmen. Students should be encouraged to follow up with the counselor to ask college-related questions.

Those students who do follow up, stand out. When the student is more focused on college planning and needs more from the college guidance counselor, they will be comfortable interacting and stand out since they already have rapport.

Post ninth grade: The summer after freshman year is a great time to get a job and save money. However, summer employment may not be possible since many states require working papers which are only available upon turning 16. Another option is to do community service. Among the benefits of community service is it can be noted on college applications.

Sophomore Year: Tenth Grade

Tenth grade is often awkward for high school students. They’re not yet upperclassmen and they are no longer the youngest in the building. They’ve matured (hopefully) and may be ready to take on new and expanding roles.

Open to change
From those who had the best freshmen year to those who had the worst, sophomores need to be open to change. Whether it’s extracurriculars, test prep classes, etc., the first step for sophomores is putting themselves into a position to succeed. The success is in terms of good grades, the right extracurricular activities, etc., and ultimately college planning. They should not feel locked into decisions and actions that they took during their freshmen year.

This is especially important for those students who struggled during their freshmen year and got off on the wrong foot. Over the years, many students have had a rough freshmen year and have gone to a successful high school career and a good college. Guidance counselors are there to let students know they can turn the page, move forward, and be open to taking a new course.

Taking standardized tests
While many schools have dropped standardized test requirements or made them optional, some are still mandatory. High schools offer students the opportunity to take the PSAT. Often, juniors are required to take the test, but it’s optional for sophomores.

There are only positives to taking the test. Students can recognize what areas they need to work on most upon reviewing their test scores. The scores can also help guide students to particular classes or majors. Also, simply seeing how they compare to other students in tenth grade can be illuminating. It can encourage students to work harder and consider college planning in a whole new light.

Some may worry that colleges will see test scores. However, even the most select private colleges, do not ask students to reveal what they got on their PSAT. It does not go on any college application.

Move forward
Many colleges place greater emphasis on grades starting in tenth grade. Therefore, getting good grades and taking challenging courses should be a focus for tenth graders.

As the sophomore year progresses, students should strive to take more meaningful roles in their extracurricular activities. This can lead them to be leaders of clubs and teams when they become upperclassmen. Serving in positions of leadership looks great on a college application.

Continue meeting and developing relationships with people in the high school building. As students spend more time at school, they have a greater opportunity to stand out. By taking advantage of the opportunity, high school students are setting themselves up for future success.

Post-tenth grade: Families can make informal visits college campus visits. Although a full-blown campus tour is not necessary, a couple of casual visits can encourage students to start thinking further about what they want and don’t want out of college. In addition, it’s a good time for students to focus on studying for standardized tests.

Junior Year: Eleventh Grade

The junior year is when high school students typically start getting more serious about college planning. That may come in the form of them researching colleges online, seeking out the high school counselor, speaking to current students at colleges, and inquiring about financial aid.

Because juniors are more focused on college planning, they need more assistance from the high school staff. Here’s what can be done.

Standardized test prep
Challenging classes are helpful to prepare students for mandatory standardized tests. However, for students to maximize their SAT and ACT scores, they need to be trained in how to take the test. Schools that offer free test prep classes help to level the playing field as it allows all high school students to have the same opportunity. Having the classes at the high school also makes it more convenient. Students who are working to save money for college may find it easier to keep their job and still get the assistance they need.

Collaborate with local employers
High schools can work with local companies to the benefit of the students. The collaboration can come in the form of a job, internship, or even a tour of the facilities. This exposure may help a student determine what they want to major in and ultimately what type of higher education is best for them (vocational schools, private colleges, state colleges, etc.).

In addition, the engagement gives high school educators access to the ‘real world.’ This can impact what they teach which will help students be more college ready.

Campus visits and college fairs
Again, some high school students will have families that have the financial means to take them on a campus visit. While these students get exposure to campus life and current students, others might not be so fortunate.

The high school should step in. By inviting a wide variety of colleges to the high school for a college fair, students learn where they might best fit in. They make contacts, can start the application process, and be inspired to do further college research on their own.

High schools should take students to local colleges for campus visits. There’s nothing like being on the college campus, meeting with current students, sitting in on classes, etc., to get a real sense of campus life. A campus tour can make a student recognize whether a college is (or is not) for them.

Challenging high school courses
Offering AP classes can be beneficial. When students take AP classes and other high-level courses, they can quickly learn where their strengths are, what interests them, and also what really challenges them. This is a key to college planning since it can direct them to the major that is right for them.

Post-eleventh grade: High schools may offer test prep in the summer for students following their junior. There also may be courses over the summer. Students and their families should visit colleges (if they can) and start working on the college entrance essay.

Senior Year: Twelfth Grade

Senior year is the culmination – high school students have reached the end. Ahh, but there is so much to do regarding planning for college. Before students even return for the start of the year, they have decisions to make including deciding if they’re satisfied with their test scores, recognizing what the budget is for college, and so much more.

Financial aid planning
Filling out the paperwork for federal financial aid can be daunting. High school counselors should offer students and their families any assistance they can. Families of college-bound students need to complete their financial aid forms – including FASFA – as it can help determine what schools they can reasonably consider. It can save them the hassle of completing extra college applications.

However, financial aid can come in other forms. There are scholarship opportunities. Whether it’s the national merit scholarship program, private scholarships, etc, families need to be well-informed about scholarship deadlines.

The amount of paperwork and deadlines can be overwhelming. Counselors, who are well-versed in this sort of information, are a great resource for families of college-bound students.

Personal attention
School counselors are typically responsible for many students. To offer each personal attention is nearly impossible. Yet students need more attention during their senior year.

High school seniors need school counselors more than they even realize. The school counselor can offer students insights and advice on colleges, reminders about federal aid, and even encouraged to continue working hard to maintain good grades. They can review whether the student should apply for early decision or help weigh which college to attend.

On another practical note, the counselor can review transcripts to help students recognize what colleges may be a good fit. By having a discussion, students may get a stronger sense of what they want in a college or even recognize their career interests.

When high school students feel their counselor is in their corner, they feel empowered. They can help them deal with the challenges of senior and make college planning less stressful.


College planning is a long process. Students, families, and school personnel should work together to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. When this happens, students are more likely to end up in their best-fit college.