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How To Prepare For College — College Readiness Guide

What does it mean to be ready for college? There are some important steps to take during high school. Here are 11 tips to help you to be prepared academically and personally for your college education.

  1. Start Planning for College Now!
  2. Take the Right High School Classes to Prepare for College
  3. Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities
  4. Keep an Extracurricular Record
  5. Get to Know your High School Guidance Counselor
  6. Build Relationships with Mentors
  7. Work on College Readiness Life Skills
  8. College Visits - Schedule a College Campus Tour
  9. College Entrance Exams - Make a Plan
  10. Create an Organization System
  11. Apply for College Admission, Financial Aid and Scholarships

High School is a great time to learn, explore, develop, and dream. When you start your freshman year, you may not know where you want to go to college or what you want to study. But there are things you can do that will move you towards being ready to select, apply, and be accepted to a great college. You need to be prepared for the challenges you will face once you arrive and start your college education. The following tips and details can help you prepare for academic success in college.

students walking outside on University of Portland campus

1. Start Planning for College Now!

If you are a high school student, or will soon be a high school student, now is the time to start preparing for your post-secondary education. College may seem like it’s far away, but in some ways, it will be here before you know it! Preparing for a college education takes time, effort, and dedication.

When should I start preparing for college?

High school provides many opportunities, but it is up to you to take advantage of them. You can make the most of your high school years by thinking ahead and learning how to prepare for the future. Take the first step and make up your mind that you will make the most of the coming years, knowing your diligence will pay off later!

2. Take the Right High School Classes to Prepare for College

Plan to work hard in high school. Taking the most challenging classes available (AP, IB, Dual Enrollment and Honors classes) will benefit you in multiple ways. In addition to learning the course content, such as Algebra, Chemistry, or a foreign language, college preparatory classes will also develop your skills in note-taking, studying, writing, test-taking, time management, critical thinking, and more. These important skills will prepare you for the rigor of college classes.

How do I prepare for college academically?

Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and some offer International Baccalaureate (IB) courses or Dual Enrollment opportunities, which have the added benefit of allowing you to earn college credit. Dual credit for IB and AP courses is based on taking the corresponding IB Higher Level test or AP exam at the end of the course. The required score to earn dual credit will vary from college to college. Depending on your score and your intended major, the awarded college credit may allow you to waive a class, start in the next course level, or fulfill elective credits.

Some high schools will add “weight” to your Grade Point Average (GPA) for advanced classes such as AP or Honors, so taking these classes can boost your GPA. Another advantage to taking AP, IB, Dual Enrollment, or Honors level courses is that the class is listed as such on your high school transcript and colleges will know that you chose to challenge yourself academically. This motivation shows a college board that you are better prepared for the college classroom. 

One word of caution: These kinds of classes are difficult. Know yourself! Don’t take a class if you are not prepared to do reasonably well with hard work and effort. It is especially important to take Dual Enrollment classes seriously, as these college credits and good grades will be a part of your college transcript.

There are so many choices of classes. How do I choose between them?

Develop your academic interest. Especially during your junior and senior years of high school, you can often choose courses that will prepare you for the college degree program of your choice. For example, if you are considering nursing school, it can be helpful (or even required for acceptance) to take classes such as Anatomy, Physiology or Statistics in high school.

Thinking about an engineering degree? Load up on math and science courses. You don’t have to know exactly what major you will choose but taking classes in your main area of academic interest will best prepare you to build upon that knowledge in college.

3. Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities

Involvement in activities outside of schoolwork makes high school a lot more interesting and fun. These extracurricular activities also provide opportunities to gain proficiencies you couldn’t learn through textbooks and tests alone. Through extracurricular activities, you can develop important skills, such as teamwork, public speaking, creativity, leadership, and self-awareness.

What extracurricular activities should I do in high school?

The first step is to explore. As you start high school, you will find you have many new opportunities—sports, theater, music, art, debate, and computer science, just to name a few. While you can’t do everything, try to get involved in as many clubs, teams, and activities that you find interesting. There is not a required one-size-fits-all list of activities—what matters is that you find clubs and programs that interest you!

You won’t know if you like something if you don’t try it. Keep an eye out for clubs that may specifically help you prepare for a particular college major. For example, if you think you might be interested in earning a business degree, find out if your high school has a DECA chapter or similar association. If you think you’d like a career in politics, check to see if your high school has a Young Democrats or Young Republicans organization.

While you want to appear “well rounded,” it is important that you don’t take on too much. Allow yourself enough time to excel at the activities you care about most. It can be helpful to see freshman year as the time to try a lot of things. In your sophomore year, you can begin limiting your involvement to your most important activities. This will allow you to spend more time on fewer things.

Ask yourself these important questions: What is most important to you? How can you develop that area into a true passion? How can you take your involvement to the next level? How do you become an expert, a leader, or develop community awareness in that area? This is what makes you unique and allows you to shine on a college application or qualify for a scholarship. Developing an interest into a passion may also direct you towards an area of study and choice of career.

4. Keep an Extracurricular Record

Keep a record of your extracurricular activities. You can be asked about them in a few different ways on college applications. Your high school will keep track of your classes, grades, and credits. It is up to you to keep track of everything else.

In order to be prepared for college applications, create a document that records your involvement in sports, clubs, volunteer work, community service, and part-time employment, etc. and keep it in one place. Begin with the summer after eighth grade (you were a high school student at that point) and continue through your senior year. Keep track of the time you spent on each activity and look for trends that highlight your involvement in meaningful activities. Don’t forget to document all awards, honors, and leadership positions. This list will be extremely helpful—not only when you are applying to colleges, but also for scholarship applications or building a resume. If you wait until your senior year, it is really difficult to remember everything you accomplished. As the Chinese proverb states, “Your memory is only as good as the paper you write it on.”

students walking outside on University of Portland campus

5. Get to Know your High School Guidance Counselor

You likely have a high school guidance counselor assigned to you. Make an appointment with him or her! You don’t need to wait until they reach out to you. It is important to connect with your guidance counselor regularly, starting with your freshman year.

Who can help me be prepared for college? 

Your guidance counselor knows your school offerings and opportunities, including visits from college admissions counselors, college fairs, test prep classes, scholarships, and much more. Your guidance counselor is also a great resource for social and emotional support as well as career and college readiness.

Unfortunately, most guidance counselors are extremely busy and overworked. Make their job as easy as possible. Come to your appointment with your questions ready and don’t expect to take too much time at each appointment. Thank your guidance counselor for information, help, and advice. Remember that you may need a letter of recommendation from your guidance counselor. To write a good letter, your guidance counselor needs to know your best characteristics and as what stands out about you.

It can be helpful to think of your guidance counselor as you might think about your doctor. They are busy, they care about you, they know a lot, and they give you advice. It is important to follow their advice—though when in doubt, it’s always good to get a second opinion.

6. Build Relationships with Mentors

Coaches, teachers, employers, and religious leaders are all potential mentors who can provide valuable support. Look for people that make you say, “I want to be like that when I grow up!” or “I want to do that job when I graduate.” Get to know them and find out about their lives. Learn from their mistakes and their successes. Share your dreams and concerns with them and ask for advice about choosing a college and career. 

Mentors can open up opportunities for you, and can help you identify your strengths (and weaknesses!). A mentor will suggest ways to improve and provide wisdom when making decisions. You can also ask your mentor to write a letter of recommendation. Building relationships with mentors is a skill you will develop throughout your life. Start now. And hopefully, you can be a mentor for someone else someday!

7. Work on College Readiness Life Skills

How can I get ready for college life?

Make a list of the life skills you would like to learn, then keep adding to it. Think through the best way for you to learn about each skill. Can your dad teach you to cook your favorite meal? Can your neighbor teach you how to check your oil or change a tire? Can your mom teach you the basics of doing laundry? Can your teacher or mentor help you set short term goals and make a plan to achieve them? What about grocery shopping, money management, and personal safety? Some things you can teach yourself, like remembering to set your alarm clock so you wake up on time. Many skills you can learn by watching a tutorial online. Depending on the number of life skills you want to learn, make a plan and set a goal— such as learning and practicing one new skill every month.

8. College Visits - Schedule a College Campus Tour

Try to visit as many college campuses as possible early on during your high school years. Don’t wait to do every visit during your senior year. While it is best to visit during the school year when campus life is active, a visit in the summer is better than no visit at all, and a campus visit can be easily added to most summer vacation trips. Campus visits can range from a few hours to a whole day, but typically plan to spend an afternoon.

How do you get the most out of college visits?

To make the most of your visit, spend a little time preparing. If you are vacationing in Portland, OR and want to visit the University of Portland, contact UP Admissions to register for a campus tour. You can also attend an information session. These official offerings give potential students a lot of important information about what the school has to offer and what makes it unique. 

You can also make an appointment with the Office of Financial Aid. This is a great chance to ask about scholarships and learn how to apply for financial aid. You may want to learn more about a particular degree or program. For example, if you want to become a teacher, it is helpful to meet with someone in that department and possibly sit in on an education class. Keep in mind that while campus tours are a great way to gain a lot of information, be sure to walk around the college campus on your own as well. To get a true feel for the school, take some time to talk to college students and explore, using a campus map as your guide.

9. College Entrance Exams - Make a Plan

Make no mistake, colleges and universities consider college entrance exams to be one of the most important new student benchmarks. Familiarize yourself with standard college entrance exams and what is required or recommended by the colleges that interest you. U.S. schools will generally accept the ACT or the SAT, but some may prefer one over the other. Some colleges also recommend or require the optional writing portion of the exams. You will need to decide which test you will take, and some students take both standardized tests. It is best to take college entrance exams during your junior year, although some motivated high school sophomores will take the tests just see how they do and as part of their preparation.

How do I prepare to take the SAT or ACT test?

There are no easy shortcuts. The best way to prepare for college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT is to take challenging coursework while in high school and to learn the material well. For example, the best way to prepare for the math section in the ACT or SAT is to study math! Beyond that, it is helpful to practice and learn tips to help you do your best. Ask your guidance counselor for suggestions that are specific to you and how you test. He or she may be able to recommend specific test prep classes or tutors helpful for the SAT and ACT exams.

Many students need to learn strategies for pacing themselves since the tests are timed. If the first test doesn’t go as well as you hoped, don’t give up. Many students choose to take the entrance exams more than once. You can use your prior results to focus your preparation for the future test. For example, if math was your lowest score, spend time reviewing for that portion of the test.

Set a goal to complete your last SAT or ACT test by the summer after your junior year. That will allow you to send your test scores to the colleges at the beginning of your senior year.

10. Create an Organization System

How to stay organized researching colleges?

As soon as you start meeting with college reps and visiting colleges, you will gather important information you’ll need to keep organized. If you can’t visit a campus in person, you can learn a lot by “visiting” a college online and reviewing their website.  Information aggregation websites like U.S. News, Niche, Chegg and others can also be used to learn about different colleges and universities. Create a document where you can record important information, so you don’t forget. If you learn about a school that offers a particular major, write it down. If you hear about a Study Abroad program that sounds amazing, add this to your notes. If you had a great campus tour, be sure to record your experiences. Make a note of everything that excites you and is important to you so you don’t forget.  Include notes about scholarships, internship programs, professors, research programs, outdoor opportunities, campus clubs, and more.

As you move towards your senior year, you will narrow your list of colleges that you think are the best fit for you. All the information you have gathered—as well as all the self-discovery you have gained during high school—will help you make the best decision.

11. Apply for College Admission, Financial Aid and Scholarships

Once you’ve made a list of your favorite colleges, create a new document (or re-organize the document you used to record important college information) to help you during the application and admissions process. Make notes of all application deadlines, guidelines, and any other requirements. If you asked teachers and mentors for letters of recommendation, create reminders to follow up and confirm the college has received them.

Plan time into your schedule during the start of your senior year so you can properly focus on your college applications, as well as pursue financial aid and scholarships. Remember that financial aid can include not only scholarships and grants (money you don’t have to repay) but also loans (that you do have to repay). If you’ll need a part-time job, you can browse university jobs to find many opportunities. This vital research will help you develop a plan to pay for college.

students sitting at table laughing and talking

College Readiness

The high school years provide an abundance of opportunities to develop problem-solving skills and maturity needed for success in college. Take challenging courses that allow you to expand your academic focus and build on your future education goals. Get involved in extracurricular activities, discover your passions and pursue your dreams.

What is College Readiness?

College readiness encompasses all aspects of your academic preparation, including the basic skills of note-taking, reading texts, studying for exams, and writing essays and research papers. It involves developing life skills, such as time management, goal setting, and managing money. In addition, college readiness requires a level of maturity that will allow you to successfully navigate the abundance of freedom, responsibilities, and opportunities that college life provides. Part of that is knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses and taking the initiative to work on areas that you need to develop. This is an exciting time as you grow in understanding of your core values and main interests. Your ability to build healthy relationships will allow you to grow, collaborate and communicate effectively with others.

Ready for College?

Make every effort to meet with and learn from your guidance counselors, mentors and other role models in your life. Allow these trusted and influential role models help you develop your strengths and find creative ways to work on your weaknesses. Stay organized and take notes as you research colleges and apply for admissions. Once you get to college, you will continue to grow, learn and advance in all of your academic goals. The time you put into college preparation and work you put in now will lay the foundation for academic success and a lifetime of learning.