College Planning Checklist for Students and Parents

A college planning checklist from CFNC.

High school seniors are not the only people who should be thinking about college. Beginning freshman year of high school, there are many things that students and parents can start working on. From grades, activities, and courses to college applications and financial aid, we have you covered with the college planning checklist.

Freshman Year

Focus on grades.

A student’s grade point average begins cumulating on day one of high school. For some kids, middle school may have been a breeze, but they struggle in high school because teachers go faster and expect more. Other students may have struggled in middle school, but plan to stay organized and work smarter in high school. Either way, start by developing good study habits:

  • Designate a study area at home that’s free from distractions, such as TVs and cellphones.
  • Pay attention in class. Half of learning is just being present. You’ll also be listening when the teacher says, “This will be on the test.”
  • Become a pro at creating Quizlets or other online study tools.
  • Find out when teachers offer extra help during lunch and before and after school.

Embrace academic challenges.

If a student is doing well in an academic class, they can ask the teacher whether an Honors or Advanced Placement course might be a good choice next year. Taking higher-level courses helps develop critical thinking skills. The classes look good on college applications and some can earn the student college credits.

Join a club or sport.

Teens will have fun and learn valuable skills about teamwork. This could also be a good opportunity to seek out leadership positions to gain valuable experience that also looks good on college applications.

Explore potential careers and majors.

This might seem a little early on the college planning checklist, but freshman year could be a good time to start talking about post-high school plans. Check out online planning tools to help set academic goals right now that will help teens get the best high school education and be prepared for college.

Sophomore Year

Grades. Grades. Grades.

Keep up those great study habits that students mastered freshman year! Take advantage of interesting elective classes their high school offers. Try everything from computer science to theater — it could inspire a future career.

Stay active with clubs and sports.

If joining the debate team freshman year turned out to be too much work, don’t sweat it. Try something new. Activities are about learning and growing. The key is to stay involved once you find a good match.

Start researching colleges.

This is also the time to think seriously about what kind of college the student would like to attend after graduation. Is a large university far from home appealing, or would they prefer a smaller college close by? Research schools and keep a list of those that match a student’s interest. They should also take into account what kinds of programs and majors schools offer that might be of interest.

Junior Year

Take the ACT or SAT.

A major task to complete on the college planning checklist is taking a standardized test. Most North Carolina public school students will take the ACT for free during the spring semester of their junior year.  Check with your school to see what’s available for free test prep. If students don’t take the ACT or SAT in school, they can sign up online.

Some students will take standardized tests multiple times to improve their scores. Remember, there is a fee for each exam, unless you qualify for free or reduced lunch. Talk with your school counselor for more information. Don’t forget to visit CFNC.org for free test resources.

Start scheduling college visits.

Register ahead of time for campus tours. Most tours are scheduled during the week, so look ahead to see what works best for your family’s schedule. Many colleges also offer self-guided tours that can be printed from their website or followed on an app. Your high school may also allow these visits to be excused absences, so be sure to talk with your school counselor before you go.

Secure letters of recommendation.

Some colleges will require one to three letters of recommendation to accompany your college application. Check out the requirements of the schools you may want to attend to determine what you’ll need. Letters are usually written by teachers or school counselors and they get a lot of requests. Ask early, so they have time to write the glowing letter you deserve!

Also, be sure to give them a personal resume or list of accomplishments, both in and out of school. They may only know that the student is great in their math class, and not that they also participate in two clubs and help watch younger siblings at home while mom works late. Give the recommender a holistic view of the student.

Get an FSA ID.

Each student and one parent should apply for an FSA ID. The ID is needed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. It’s a username and password that allows you to legally sign the FAFSA, connect to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, and other processes necessary for financial aid.

Get a job.

It’s never too early to start saving for college with a part-time job. Set a goal that students get to spend half of their paycheck on anything they want (within reason) if they also save half for college. Juggling a job while in high school also shows initiative and responsibility to college admissions counselors.

Find an internship.

Getting real-world experience before college is a valuable addition to any high schooler’s resume. By finding an internship, you’re showing colleges that you have initiative and are willing to put in the effort to develop career skills before school.

Internships are also incredible networking tools that can make a big difference when you’re applying for your first job after graduation.

Senior Year

Write your personal essay.

Since many students believe that “Senior Year” begins as soon as junior year ends, we’re taking advantage of that! Summer is a great time to begin the personal essay. Even if a student is attending summer school, they have a lot of free time. Once senior year begins in the fall, there is less and less time to focus on this very important task.

The personal essay is an incredible opportunity to show college admissions counselors why you belong on their campus. Take advantage of online college essay writing tips to choose a winning topic and create the perfect essay. Once school starts in the fall, ask a teacher or counselor to review the essay for grammar mistakes and misspellings.

Finalize your list of schools.

The summer going into your senior year is an important time to start finalizing your plan for applying to college. That means narrowing down your list of schools and settling on the three to five colleges where you know for sure you want to submit applications.

Once you’ve settled on a selection, it’s time to take note of any and all application deadlines and get organized so you can hit the ground running by the time fall rolls around.

Consider early action and early decision deadlines.

Students planning to take advantage of early action or early decision deadlines will need to have their essays and applications completed soon after school starts. These deadlines are usually between November 1 and November 15. Check each school’s website so you don’t miss an important deadline.

Regular decision deadlines are usually around January. However, nothing says you can’t send in the applications early. Many North Carolina colleges waive application fees during NC Countdown to College week in October. That could save your family hundreds of dollars in application fees!

Complete the FAFSA.

College is expensive. Completing the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important step to qualify for grants, loans, and scholarships. The FAFSA opens on October 1, and all families of seniors should complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. Remember, you’ll do the FASFA each year of college, not just once. Parents and students should work on this together.

Complete Residency Determination Service (RDS).

North Carolina residents should complete the online residency form. This will qualify students for in-state application consideration, in-state tuition, state grants, and certain financial aid. Parents need to be involved in this step, as it requires a good amount of parent information.

Apply for scholarships.

Every little bit counts when students are heading off to college. Apply for as many scholarships as possible to help offset some of those costs. Most applications are easy to complete and may even let you repurpose your personal essay. Collecting a few scholarships for $500 each could pay for books for a year or more.

Enjoy senior year!

Look at all the hard work you’ve completed to get ready for college! Enjoy senior year and know that when the college acceptance letters start rolling in, it’s because you set a goal and achieved it. Good luck!