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The Student Guide to College Planning

A high-level overview of the steps involved for students preparing to apply to college.


Welcome to your college planning journey!

Knowing what lies ahead—and planning accordingly—can give you a tremendous advantage as you prepare to apply to college. The following guide links to some of our most popular resources to help you move confidently through college planning.

Self-reflection: tips for discovering your interests


The process of finding a college, and ultimately a career, that is a good fit for you starts with understanding who you are, what you enjoy, and what your strengths are. Depending on where you are in the process, the questions you reflect upon as a college-bound student might be simpler or more complex. Considering some of the following questions might help you get a start: 

check-circle   What school subjects do I enjoy most? Why?

check-circle   What are some things I do well?

check-circle   What do I like to do for fun? Why?

check-circle   What am I challenged by? Why?

check-circle   When I think of the future, what kind of impact do I want to have?

If you're looking for more guidance, here are our tips for finding your path for college. 


An important note

Keep in mind that the process of self-reflection doesn’t have a concrete end. That is to say, it shouldn’t be viewed as something to be checked off of a list. Self-reflection is a lifelong endeavor, but by starting this practice early in high school, you can become better at identifying what people, places, and things fit you, complement your strengths, and uplift you. If you’re just getting started, rely on your friends and trusted adults to help you find answers and identify your purpose. If you're a parent, here are some tips on helping your high schooler take ownership of their college search. 

Understanding your options: college 101


You know about colleges and universities. Add online universities, community colleges, and technical institutes into the mix. Season them all with regional identities. Some are funded privately and others with money granted by their respective state legislatures. The resulting menu includes options for students with wide-ranging needs and interests. The key is to know the difference—and then make choices that represent a good fit for you.


What classifies a university?

Universities are typically larger and more complex institutions comprised of degree-granting entities at different levels of study: 4-year undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and professional degree.


What classifies a college?

By contrast, a college (independent of a university) offers a relatively simple institutional structure. It does not have multiple levels of study nor divisions within its program of study. More importantly, all of its resources are devoted to undergraduate education. The liberal arts college is an example of such an institution.


Other types of institutions

  • State colleges and universities

  • Public flagship universities

  • Private institutions

  • Research universities

  • Technical institutes and specialty schools

  • Community and junior colleges


Learn more about the types of colleges →

Paying for college


For most college-bound students, researching and applying for financial aid is a necessity. As if the work needed to gain admission to the college of your choice isn’t enough, putting together the pieces of the puzzle in order to afford that college can be daunting, to say the least. So, what is financial aid, how can you get your hands on some, and when do you need to start researching it?


Understanding what you're paying for

College expenses typically include tuition, room, board, and other fees. In addition to these, you should consider your out-of-pocket expenses for any extracurricular activities and extraneous items. Here is a breakdown of all the specific terms you'll want to understand about financial aid, including examples. 


The five sources of college funding

After you understand what you're paying for, it's crucial to understand how you can make that payment. Listen in to our webinar where we review the graphic below, talk in-depth about sources of funding for college, and walk you through understanding the complexities of financial aid. 

5 Sources of College Funding Graphic-1



Be sure to understand FAFSA and the CSS Profile

If we're talking about financial aid, we can't forget to cover the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Filling out these 2 forms can help qualify you for different types of financial aid. Learn more about the differences between them, when you should complete these forms, and more in our in-depth blog post on the FAFSA and CSS Profile, complete with examples. 

Preparing to apply to colleges


After months, and sometimes years, of research and preparation, when college application season rolls around, it's natural to feel a bit uneasy. You may have some questions floating around your mind, such as:

  • “Should I apply early decision?”

  • “Will applying early action help my case?”

  • “When is the best time to apply to regular decision schools?”

  • “Would it hurt to apply to few extra colleges to see if I can get in?”

  • “When is it too late to apply ED?”

We want to help you overcome any uneasy feelings. So, let's review the college application process, some deadlines, and how to optimize your applications. 


Different admission processes require different deadlines

Deadline-Driven Admission

Early decision and early action are much different from rolling and regular decision applications, and have many nuances. Should one of the colleges on your list emerge as your absolute first choice, you might want to entertain applying ED or EA. Be prepared to apply in November, with decision letters being received by December. 

Rolling Admission

Colleges with rolling admission will evaluate applications as they are received, and continue to do so until they've filled their incoming class. 

Regular Decision

Regular decision deadlines usually occur in January and February, with decision letters being received by April. 


Optimizing your college applications

  • Target no more than 8 college applications. Focus on the quality of your applications, not quantity (learn more about reach, safety, and level schools for context)

    • No more than 3 colleges where you probability of admission is 40% or less (a reach school)

    • At least 2 where you probability of admission is 60% or greater (a safety school)

    • 2-3 where you probability of admission is between 40%-60% (a level school)

  • 6 critical components of your college application. 

    • A well-prepared application itself

    • A thoughtful essay

    • Impactful letters of recommendation

    • Strong senior year academics

    • Continuous interactions

    • Successful interviews

Read more about the critical components of a college application →


High School To-Do's by Grade

To help you stay on-track towards your academic goals from 9th grade through to 12th grade, we've put together the following list of to-do's. This isn't a comprehensive checklist of your year-to-year responsibilities, but rather a high-level overview of what's important as it relates to your college journey!

9th grade to-do's

10th grade to-do's

11th grade to-do's

12th grade to-do's


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