Preparing for college requires understanding your goals and planning. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to getting ready for college such as where to go, what to study, how to apply, how to pay for it all, and more.

It’s never too early—or too late—to learn about your options for college or career school. We’re sure you have a ton of questions and the information is daunting. To help you prepare, this article will sort out the massive amounts of info to help you get to the answers to your questions.

Why Go to College?

Here’s a simple equation: a college or career school education = more money, more job options, and more freedom.

There are arguments on one side that college education isn’t necessary, but data from research by the Federal Reserve of New York shows those with a college education earn more money. The findings discovered college-educated workers earn on average $30,000 more.

As you get more education, you’ll make more money and have more job opportunities. A college education is a long-term investment. With careful planning, you can find the school and funding options that work best for your situation and put you on the path to success.

Now, what can you to do prepare for college?

High School Year

Use the high school preparation checklists:

Taking Required Standardized Tests

Many U.S. colleges require that undergraduate and graduate students submit standardized test scores as part of their application packages. Standardized tests provide a consistent way for a college to evaluate you and sometimes even help you choose the right courses.

For information about which tests you should take, talk to your high school or college academic counselor, or to the admissions offices at the colleges you are interested in attending. In the meantime, here’s a summary of most standardized tests.

Some standardized tests for undergraduate admissions include SAT, ACT, AP Exams, CLEP. In addition, for graduate admissions required tests include GRE, LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT.

Find a College

  • College Navigator by US Department of Education or Big Future by the CollegeBoard. Search for schools by location, degree programs, tuition and fees, and much more.

Find a Career

The US Department of Labor provides a career search tool to find potential careers using keywords. Use the tool to help you uncover potential careers based on your interest.

College Checklist: 9th Graders in High School

Are you a ninth-grader? It’s not too early in your high school life to start preparing for college.

Here’s your to-do list for your first year of high school.

9th Grade Checklist To Do

  • Take challenging classes in core academic subjects. Most colleges require four years of English, at least three years of social studies (history, civics, geography, economics, etc.), three years of mathematics, and three years of science, and many require two years of a foreign language. Round out your course load with classes in computer science and the arts.
  • Work with one of your parents to estimate your financial aid and be sure to save for college.
  • Get involved in school- or community-based activities that interest you or let you explore career interests. Consider working, volunteering, or participating in academic enrichment programs, summer workshops, and camps with specialty focus such as music, arts, or science. Remember, it’s quality and not quantity that counts.
  • Ask your guidance counselor or teachers what Advanced Placement courses are available, whether you are eligible, and how to enroll in them.
  • Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s career search tool to research your career options.
  • Start a list of your awards, honors, paid and volunteer work, and extracurricular activities. Update it throughout high school.

To Explore


To Do:

  • Talk to your child about college plans as if he or she will definitely go to college.
  • Keep an eye on your child’s study habits and grades—stay involved.
  • Encourage your child to take Advanced Placement or other challenging classes.
  • Add to your child’s college savings account regularly, and make sure you are fully aware of the provisions of the account.
  • Get familiar with the Financial Aid process.

>> Read the College Checklist: 10th Graders in High School

College Checklist: 10th Graders in High School

Here’s your to-do list for your sophomore year of high school.

10th Grade Checklist To Do

  • Meet with your school counselor or mentor to discuss colleges and their requirements.
  • Consider taking a practice Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) or the PLAN exam.
  • Plan to use your summer wisely: work, volunteer, or take a summer course (away or at a local college).
  • Go to career information events to get a more detailed look at career options.
  • Research majors that might be a good fit for your interests and goals based on your results from the U.S. Department of Labor’s career search tool.

To Explore


To Do:

  • Find out whether your child’s school has college nights or financial aid nights. Plan to attend those events with your child.
  • Help your child develop independence by encouraging him or her to take responsibility for balancing homework with any other activities or a part-time job.
  • Learn about the standardized tests your child will be taking during the 10th through 12th grades.

College Checklist: 11th Graders in High School

Are you an eleventh-grader? It’s crucial to actively prepare yourself for college.

Here’s your to-do list for your junior year of high school.

11th Grade Checklist To Do

All Year

  • Explore careers and their earning potential online or the U.S. Department of Labor’s career search tool.
  • Learn about choosing a college and create a list of your dream and target schools.
  • Go to college fairs and college-preparation presentations by college representatives.


  • Take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). You must take the test in 11th grade to qualify for scholarships and programs associated with the National Merit Scholarship Program.


  • Register for and take exams for college admission. The standardized tests that many colleges require are the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests, and the ACT. Check with the colleges you are interested in to see what tests they require.
  • Find scholarships for which you might want to apply. Some deadlines fall as early as the summer between 11th and 12th grades, so prepare now to submit applications soon.

Summer Before 12th Grade

  • Narrow down the list of colleges you are considering attending. If you can, visit the schools that interest you.
  • Contact colleges to request information and applications for admission. Ask about financial aid, admission requirements, and deadlines.
  • Decide whether you are going to apply under a particular college’s early decision or early action program. Be sure to learn about program deadlines and requirements.
  • Start calculating the actual costs at the colleges to which you will apply. To supplement any aid be sure to research and apply for scholarships. Your goal is to minimize the number of student loans you’ll need.

To Explore:

Remember: Register for all tests in advance and be sure to give yourself time to prepare appropriately! If you have difficulty paying a registration fee, see your school counselor about getting a fee waiver.


To Do:

  • Take a look at your financial situation, and be sure you’re on the right track to pay for college.
  • Talk to your child about the schools he or she is considering. Ask why those schools appeal to your child, and help clarify goals and priorities.
  • Attend college fairs with your child, but don’t take over the conversation with the college representatives. Just listen, and let your child do the talking.
  • Take your child to visit college campuses, preferably when classes are in session.
  • Make sure your child is looking into or already has applied for scholarships.
  • Ask your employer, bank, credit union about scholarships.
  • Ask your church or other associations about grants and financial aid help.

To Explore:

>> Read the College Checklist: 12th Graders in High School


College Checklist: 12th Graders in High School

Welcome to your 12th-grade college checklist to prepare you for college next year.

Senior year will be a busy time and it’s crucial you stay on track to ensure you meet all the required deadlines to attend college.

Here’s your to-do list for your senior year in high school.

12th Grade Checklist To Do

All Year

  • Work hard all year—second-semester grades can affect scholarship eligibility.
  • Stay involved in after-school activities, and seek leadership roles if possible.


  • Meet with your school counselor to make sure you are on track to graduate and fulfill college admission requirements.
  • If you haven’t done so already, register for and take the standardized tests required for college admission. Check with the colleges you are interested in to see what tests they require.
  • Apply to the colleges you have chosen. Prepare your applications carefully. Follow the instructions, and pay close attention to the deadlines.
  • Well before your application deadlines, ask your counselor and teachers to submit required documents (e.g., transcript, letters of recommendation) to the colleges to which you’re applying.


  • Encourage your parent(s) to complete income tax forms early. If your parent(s) has (have) not completed tax forms, you can provide estimated information on your federal student aid application, but remember to make any necessary changes later.
  • As soon as possible after Jan. 1, complete and submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), along with any other financial aid applications your school(s) of choice may require. You can complete the FAFSA online or on paper, but completing the application online is faster and easier. You should submit your FAFSA by the earliest financial aid deadline of the schools to which you are applying, usually by early February.
  • After you submit the FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within three days to three weeks. Quickly make any necessary FAFSA corrections and submit them.
  • Complete any last scholarship applications.


  • Visit colleges that have invited you to enroll.
  • Review your college acceptances and compare the colleges’ financial aid offers.
  • Contact a school’s financial aid office if you have questions about the aid that the school has offered you. In fact, getting to know your financial aid staff early is a good idea no matter what—they can tell you about deadlines, other aid for which you might wish to apply, and important paperwork you might need to submit.
  • When you decide which school you want to attend, notify that school of your commitment and submit any required financial deposit. Many schools require this notification and deposit by May 1.

To Explore:

Remember: Register for all tests in advance and be sure to give yourself time to prepare appropriately! If you have difficulty paying a registration fee, see your school counselor about getting a fee waiver.

How to Pay for College

Are you planning how to pay for college? As you do your research, you’ll find how the cost of attendance is much higher than the advertised tuition. There are costs that must be factored in when calculating the true cost of going to college.

Many schools have gone virtual or partial long-distance learning due to coronavirus. In response, some schools have decreased tuition or provide discounts to students impacted by the pandemic.

You can read more about the basics of financial aid.

Calculate the actual cost of attendance

There are other expenses that need to be factored into college expenses. These are other expenses that relate to your college life including room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, transportation, and miscellaneous.

  • Room and board: dorm or apartment costs, water, electricity/gas, cable, Internet, phone, groceries, snacks, and eating out.
  • Books and supplies: books, school supplies, lab fees, and computer.
  • Program fees: club dues, membership costs, and field trips.
  • Personal expenses: clothing, laundry, toiletries, haircuts, and entertainment costs.
  • Transportation: vehicle fees, parking, gas, maintenance, and travel (family and vacations) costs.
  • Miscellaneous: insurance premiums; monthly cell phone bills; or health expenses not covered by insurance.

Apply for financial aid to pay for college

To pay for college, you must consider financial aid offered at the federal, state, and university levels. Apply early with the FAFSA and update your information if necessary to reflect your economic situation. Learn how to get the most financial aid.

Keep a calendar with all deadlines

Have a calendar detailing all required tests, admissions, and financial aid deadlines. This can ensure you send all the paperwork requirements on time. Having a visual calendar can help remind you of key important dates. This large 6-month dry eraser calendar available on Amazon may be helpful. Or simply using Google calendar can work too.

Apply to FAFSA

  1. Apply to FAFSA early. The application is available after October 1st. You want to apply to FAFSA as soon as possible to increase the chances of a better financial aid package. Applying early can help you meet the federal, state, and school deadlines.
  2. Review the information on FAFSA. Accurate information is essential. If your situation changes, update your FAFSA to reflect the change.
  3. Ask colleges about additional applications. You might need to complete another application for school-specific financial aid.
  4. Ask about first-come-first-served financial aid. Some schools offer more aid to students who choose to accept admissions early.
  5. Research your state’s financial aid program. If you live and plan to attend a state school, explore your state’s program for scholarships, grants, and in-state loan programs.
  6. Follow-up on your financial aid offer. Make note of it on your calendar. Reach out to the college if you have not heard from them before or on that date.
  7. Negotiate. Your financial aid awarded letter isn’t the end all be all. Especially with changes in how college education is being delivered due to COVID-19, you may have an opportunity to negotiate lower tuition.

Search for Scholarships

  1. Apply for scholarships. Search your college’s website or through other sources. Get as much money from outside sources by completing as many scholarship applications. You can find scholarship opportunities in our marketplace.
  2. Speak with your high school counselor. Ask about scholarships offered to graduates that can help with paying for college. Many high schools have scholarships offered by past graduates.
  3. Talk to your parents. Find out about scholarships offered by your parents or legal guardian’s employer. Look at scholarships offered by credit unions, labor unions, and community organizations.

Learn more about finding ways to find scholarships.

Consider Loans

With your financial aid package, you’ll receive federal student loans. These loans can help pay for your college tuition and payments are deferred. Additionally, consider private student loans. Find the best private loans to help you cover the cost of attending.

Decrease the cost of attending college

College can be one of the most expensive purchases (or investment) you’ll make in your lifetime. There are a few ways to lower the cost of attending college. Consider the following:

Attend a community college for the first two years

Take all the necessary prerequisites at the local community college. In fact, many community colleges have agreements with state universities that help you transition as a junior to a 4-year university.

Compare housing options

Determine if living on campus, off-campus, or at home will save you money. It might sound tempting to live on campus but the cost to do so may be more than you can afford.

Use your plans and student discounts

If you have a meal plan, use it, or lose it. Keep yourself from spending on food outside of your meal plan and learn about the food establishments that offer discounts to students.

Buy used textbooks or rent

Don’t spend money on new textbooks and save by buying used or renting them online. Amazon or Chegg is a great resource.

Graduate on time

If you’re changing majors or flunking out of classes, you’ll end up staying in college longer which will cost you more. Take the classes you enjoy and need to get good grades and graduate on time.

Skip the car

Use public transportation or get a bike to get you to where you need to be. You’ll save money on parking, fees, gas, and frustration.

What else can you do to pay for college?

Consider a work-study program offered by your school. These programs help you earn money to offset the costs.

Work part-time with a company that offers tuition benefits. Many companies offer tuition assistance to employees.

Financial aid helps you pay or offset the cost of college. Aid to cover the cost of attending comes in many forms. From federal financial aid to scholarships, those seeking to attend college has many options but it requires a great deal of time and work to maximized your financial aid package. The first step is completing the FAFSA online at StudentAid.gov.

Financial Aid Categories

There are three basic categories of financial aid:

  1. Scholarships and grants which are called gift aid that is based on merit or financial need and does not need to be repaid. These types of aid is often given by state governments or private organizations.
  2. Loans in which loans require repayment of borrowed funds with interest. Student loans are offered by federal government and private lenders.
  3. Work-study which requires the exchange of your time for a paycheck to offset college expenses. These jobs are offered by the college attended.

Types of Financial Aid

There are various types of financial aid available to pay for college. The aid is offered by:

  • Federal government
  • State government
  • Private (community, religious, cultural associations, corporations, alumni groups, etc)
  • Institutional (high schools, colleges, universities)

The following financial aid is available to first year students to those seeking graduate level study.

Federal Aid Programs

Federal programs are based on financial need and are the largest single source of financial aid for college. These aids can be in the form of federal loans or grants. Learn how to maximize your federal aid package.

Student Loans

Funds loaned through the government, lending institution or college. Interest rates vary by program. For federal loans, qualifying is based on need. Loan programs also are available to eligible parents to help with college expenses of their qualifying children. For private student loans, your credit history and ability to pay is assessed. Learn more about private student loans.

State Aid Programs

Most states support various need-based and merit student aid programs. Generally, eligibility for state need-based programs follows the federal guidelines and typically given as grants.

Grants and Scholarships

These are awards based on merit or merit plus need and don’t have to be repaid. Learn best tips to search for scholarships.

Military programs

The military offers several options to help you pay for college.

Work-study programs

With work-study, students are given jobs to earn money toward their education while they are enrolled in school. Students can sometimes get jobs related to their program of study.

What are Your Next Steps

  1. Read more about how to complete FAFSA. The Federal Application for Federal Student Aid is the first step in determine your student aid eligibility.
  2. Learn about the differences between federal and private loans.
  3. Prequalify for private student loans to cover additional costs.

Getting the Most Financial Aid

Here’s what you can do to help you increase your financial aid package:

1. Submit FAFSA early

The first step is completing the FAFSA early. FAFSA stats on October 1st and earlier you apply the potential for better aid too. Even if you think you won’t get any financial aid, file anyway.

2. Prove accurate information

Make sure to submit the most accurate financial information. Many schools offer aid based on financial need. If there are changes to your financial situation or dependency status, correct your FAFSA with the school’s financial aid office. Provide any supplemental details in writing to explaining your circumstances.

3. File taxes soon

Financial aid is based on information from your filed tax returns. You’ll be required to provide tax return information from the previous year, but if your income has changed, it may benefit you to file taxes (or your parents’ taxes) early the following year. Then submit the new tax filing information to the financial aid office.

4. Enlist the help of an accountant

Find an accountant that specializes in college financing and FAFSA. They may help you and your parent understand how income, assets, and dependants can impact your financial aid package.

Contact the Financial Aid Office

From personal experience, the Financial Aid Offices can be a challenging department. They get hundreds if not thousands of students asking for more aid. Getting frustrated won’t help your cause but having a plan and being patient and persistent can go a long way.

For students who are sought by top tier schools, you could show the financial aid offered by that school and see if something can be done to match the aid. And remember to complete FAFSA for each academic year you need financial aid. This also means you’ll be dealing with the Financial Aid Office for 4 years or more.

Tips to Increase your Financial Aid Package

Here are a few more things you can do:

Ask for a reassessment

Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, the document determines your eligibility for student aid at the federal, state, and school. If there are changes to your economic situation, such as a parent lost their job or medical disability, explain the new circumstance to the financial aid officer. Make sure you have the documentation to support your new claim.

Explain money issues outside of FAFSA

FAFSA is a snapshot of your parents’ or legal guardians’ financial standing. But it may leave a few important details out such as taking care of an ill grandparent, bankruptcy, or any other situation that couldn’t be reported on FAFSA. Share the information.

Speak openly and candidly to the financial aid officer

Don’t get angry or adversarial. That’ll get you into the ignore pile. Ask about other ways of increasing your financial aid through work-study programs. It can be frustrating dealing with the department and they may seem uncooperative and inattentive to your needs. Most officers are assigned to specific students but that doesn’t mean you can’t request to speak to someone else. Just have a detailed timeline and issues that can support your request.

Ask about scholarships or grants even if you didn’t qualify originally

Many scholarships are offered to students who end up going to another school. This leaves that scholarship available for another student. In addition, to seeking scholarships offered by the college, do your own scholarship hunt. And do it throughout your entire college life.

Have any other suggestions or tips to increase financial assistance for college?

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