A College Prep Checklist for High Schoolers + Tips & FAQs

College prep checklist
April 26, 2024
10 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Preparing for college applications can really be a hustle. But your worries are over because this article will serve as your ultimate guide for college preparation!

If you’re in your last year of high school, you might come across the option to further extend your education. If you’ve chosen to go to college, there are quite a few things you must do before you can apply to a program you’re interested in. 

Keep in mind that the application process is certainly not an easy task: there are lots to prepare for, and the process requires lots of work, dedication, and good decision-making. But before you get discouraged, here is an ultimate college preparation checklist that will give you all the information and helpful tips you need to apply to the colleges of your dreams!

The Importance of College Preparedness

Preparing for college is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and careful planning. There are many documents that schools need to look at when evaluating an applicant. These documents can include your:

  • High school transcript
  • Standardized tests scores
  • Recommendation letters
  • Personal statements

Creating a college preparation checklist can help you stay on top of your admission requirements. 

This is especially true for recommendation letters and academic-related documents, such as your transcript and test scores. For standardized tests, you will need to manage the registration, test-taking, and sending your scores, ensuring the whole process goes well. 

Whereas for recommendation letters, you need to connect with your teachers, instructors, or counselors so they can provide glowing, informed letters.

Making your application as competitive as possible requires even more time and effort. Keep in mind that you are competing for a limited amount of open spots amongst countless other qualified applicants. So how effectively you prepare for applications will make the difference between an offer or a rejection.

What Does Preparing for College Look Like?

Many people have the false impression that preparing for college is simply locking yourself in your room and spending every waking moment of your life studying as hard as you can. 

While academic performance is certainly important, and you do need to spend lots of time to raise your grades and maintain them throughout your school years, colleges care about much more than simply how well you can study. 

Getting ready for college is very multifaceted. In addition to academic prowess, colleges evaluate candidates’ experience, extracurricular activities, achievements, and awards and honors To prepare sufficiently for your college applications, you must spend time away from your desk, and manage that time wisely. 

Below is a list of everything you need to keep in mind when it comes to preparing for college applications.

The Complete College Preparation Checklist

Download a free checklist below! We’ve got custom checklists for Grade 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, & 11 students!

Sophomore Year

Sophomore year is the recommended time to begin your college prep so you can build the most competitive profile. Here’s our suggested college prep checklist for sophomore students: 

Prepare for the PSAT or Pre-ACT Exams

The PSAT and pre-ACT provide students with an opportunity to practice test-taking strategies, identify areas for improvement, and get a sense of their potential performance on the SAT or ACT. 

Begin preparing in your sophomore year by taking these exams to identify your strengths and weaknesses and develop good study strategies.

Conduct Research on Colleges Online

There are more than 1,000 colleges in the United States, and you need to make choices. Set goals and guidelines for yourself as you begin your research. What career do you want to pursue? Which schools offer the best programs in your field? Where do you want to study?

Consider acceptance rates, median unweighted or weighted GPAs, and average SAT/ACT scores. See which courses your desired schools expect students to take and plan the rest of your high school career accordingly. 

It’s best to sort your college list into three categories: ideal schools (or reach schools), like the Ivy Leagues, target schools that match your profile, and safety schools that you’re almost guaranteed admission to. Keep organized by creating an Excel sheet of the tuition costs, application requirements, and deadlines for each school you’re interested in. 

Initiate a Conversation With Your Parents About College Financing

Part of preparing for college is having a realistic idea of how much it’ll cost and having a financial plan. Luckily, many schools offer financial aid and scholarships to help alleviate the burden of tuition. 

Involve your parents and explore options such as scholarships, financial aid, and savings plans together to make informed decisions about how to fund your education.

Create a High School Resume to Showcase Your Achievements

While you may not have many experiences to add to your resume in your sophomore year, be proactive by creating a template that you can fill in as you do gain more experience. Include any achievements you have or are expected to have in the near future. 

Your resume should include extracurriculars, internships, work, community service, research, summer programs, and notable academic or professional accomplishments. 

Start Earning Money for College Expenses

As we stated, college is expensive! To kill two birds with one stone, consider picking up a part-time job your sophomore year or during the summer to start saving up for some of your college expenses and begin building your resume!

Junior Year

The junior year stands as a pivotal stage in your college application journey. Let our junior year college preparation checklist guide you this crucial year!


Join Your Final Extracurriculars

While you’ll ideally be part of extracurriculars during throughout high school, junior year is essentially your last chance to join them and show your dedication.

Selecting the right extracurricular activities for you demonstrates self-awareness, maturity, and smart decision-making; whereas excellent performance shows passion, drive, skills, work ethic, and capabilities. Stick to these extracurriculars until you graduate!

Prepare for the SAT/ACT

You’ll want to write the SAT/ACT in your junior year in case you have to retake it. Create a comprehensive study schedule that incorporates content-learning and practice tests. Regardless of if you take the ACT or SAT, it’s essential you begin your studies as early as possible to give yourself the best chance of scoring high!

Begin Applying To Scholarships

You want to stay on top of every part of your application. It can be easy to forget about scholarships and miss their deadlines. Begin the application process by writing your essays and submitting them as deadlines come up. 


Write the SAT/ACT

If you didn’t take the SAT/ACT in the fall, the winter is the perfect time to do it! 

Continue Applying to Scholarships

Depending on the scholarships you’re applying to, you may have to submit applications throughout your junior year. External scholarships have varying deadlines, but you can expect some to be due around December-February. 

Reflect On Your First Semester

When your first semester of classes are complete, reflect on the term. Think about what you did well and what you can improve on. Your fnal semester of your junior year is your last chance to bring up your GPA, so assess your performance and set goals for the next term!


Determine Your Summer Plans

Make the most out of your final summer before your applications are due by pursuing useful prograns, jobs, or extracurriculars that can further strengthen your application.

Begin Thinking About Letters of Recommendation

Students typically begin asking for letters of recommendation at the end of their junior year to avoid stressing about it their senior year. Think about the teachers you connected with most, the classes you excelled in, or the ones you showed the most growth in! These are the experiences the admissions committee will want to hear about!

Finalize Your College List

Take a final look at your college list and ensure you feel confident in your choices. Feel free to adjust them if you’ve changed your mind about your major or preferred location. Now is the time to modify your list, because you’ll have to start submitting applications sooner than you think!


Participate In Useful Extracurriculars

Pursue programs, internships, community service opportunities, or other extracurricualrs to keep busy and add to your resume.

Start Your Personal Statement

Your personal statement may seem like it won’t take long, being only 500-700 words, but it will! You’ll need to take time to brainstorm ideas, find inspiration, and pinpoint the exact experiences you want to share before even typing your first word. Begin the brainstorming process near the end of your junior year while your memories from it are still fresh!

Attend College Tours

Consider attending summer tours offered by the colleges you plan to apply to. These visits will help you confirm your choices and provide a more immersive experience of their campus atmospheres.

Retake the ACT/SAT

If you received a score on your ACT/SAT that was lower than anticipated, use the summer to hone in on your studying, rectify your weaknesses, and retake and ace your test!

Senior Year

Here’s a checklist for college prep for seniors:


Secure and Finalize Your Letters of Recommendation

If you haven’t already, reach out to a few teachers for your letters of recommendation and have them completed in the early fall. 

Complete Your Essays

Begin the writing phase of your personal statement and any other supplemental essays and spend a few weeks perfecting each one. Revise your essay several times until it’s perfect and consider getting feedback on it from teachers, peers, or counselors. 

Remember to stay true to yourself. Too many applicants worry about if they’re writing “what schools want to hear,” so they put on an act in hopes to impress the admission committee. 

However, for personal statements, schools only want to hear your true, honest voice. Listen to your heart and express your true self. There’s an old adage you should consider: “No one is better at being you than you!”

Apply Early Decision

If you’ve decided to apply Early Decision to a program, the deadline will likely be in November. Review your application a few times before submitting it and pat yourself on the back! You’ve just sent out your application to your dream college!

Apply For Financial Aid

Complete any FAFSA or other financial aid documents early, even if they aren’t due for a few months. These applications tend to take longer than expected and you may be asked to provide additional information. If you are struggling financially, consider also contacting your schools to ask for any accommodations.


Refine Your Application

Put the final touches on your essays and Common Applications. Refine them until you’re absolutely content with them and are confident they portray your best, most authentic self. 

Finalize Your Resume

Add in any last extracurriculars or achievements you received on your resume and edit it one more time before getting ready to submit it. 

Apply Regular Decision

Complete your regular decision application on time and take a deep breath! This is the final step in the application process, now all that you have to do is wait (which is probably the hardest part!)


Celebrate Your Acceptances

Hopefully by the spring time you’ve received several acceptance letters from the colleges you applied to. Take the time to celebrate these acceptances and the hard work it took to receive them!

Provide Any Additional Documents

You may be asked to submit your final transcripts or additional essays/addenda to the schools you applied to, so ensure you do this on time. 

Prepare for The Next Stage In Your Life

By this last step you’ve officially completed the college application process and will be nearing the end of your high school career! While it will be a bittersweet moment to leave behind your childhood and enter your new adult life, rest assured this next chapter will be exciting and promising!

FAQs: Ultimate College Preparation Guide

Still got questions? This section will provide the answer to the most frequently asked questions when it comes to preparing for college!

1. Where Can I Find the Testing Dates for the Sat and the Act?

The testing dates for the SAT can be found on the official College Board website, while the testing dates for the ACT can be found on act.org. For each testing date of both tests, you can also find the registration deadline there. 

2. Is Community Service Worth It as an Extracurricular Activity?

Yes, community service tells colleges that you don’t just want to improve yourself, but also your environment and the people around you. It gives you valuable experience and many universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, value students that have a sense of civic responsibility.

3. What Are Some Examples of Early Application Restrictions?

The biggest restriction for Early Applications is that they’re binding. If you’re accepted, you’re obligated to enroll and must decline any other acceptances. You will also be restricted from applying for Early Action anywhere else.

4. Any Tips for Balancing Studying and Extracurricular Activities?

Time management is key. Try to build a schedule that will maximize your efficiency. Experiment to see what works best for you. Can you focus on the same task for hours, or do you need to switch it up?

Another tip is to focus more on extracurricular activities during your grade nine and grade ten school year, as your grades during that time are relatively less important. Once you move into grade 11, shift your focus more on studying. Above all else, remain realistic. Don’t overcrowd your schedule! Extracurriculars are great, but you only need a few!

5. Do Colleges Care About Final Grades For Grade 12?

Even though colleges won’t see your final grades for your grade 12 school year, they are still important. Once you’ve graduated, they will request you to send in your final transcript. If no major discrepancy is found, you will maintain eligibility to attend the program you were admitted to, otherwise, they can withdraw admission.

Final Thoughts

It might feel like you have a lot on your plate. And while college application is certainly complicated and time-consuming, there’s no need to feel overwhelmed! As long as you manage your time correctly and be sure you can complete everything on your checklist. 

Starting early really is the best option an applicant can take; it’s also the best way to alleviate stress. And remember: when you’re in doubt, always ask for help. This can be parents, friends, student assistant departments of your school, and so on.

Remember: the purpose of the college application is to let the schools know who you are, so think of it as showcasing yourself and your profile and have fun with it!

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