High School Freshman Guide to Prepare for College

As you begin high school, it’s a good idea to think ahead and be deliberate about the choices you’ll make during the next four years: the clubs, classes and study skills you select will all become part of your college applications and subsequent future.

I’ll walk you through some of the best strategies to increase your chances of getting into your dream school, and to figuring out where exactly that might be.

As a freshman, it may be hard to think about college since it is 4 years away. We want to make it easy so this article will review everything you need to consider as a freshman in high school.

As a high school student, planning for college can seem daunting, so I highly recommend meeting with your guidance counselor as a first step. They can help you decide what kinds of majors you are interested in and how to tailor your high school experience accordingly.

Make a meeting early on to sit down with them and talk, maybe take a personality test, and ask some of the following questions:

Begin by discussing what your favorite and strongest subjects are in school, and how that might translate to college majors and future careers.

Ask Yourself the Following Questions:

  • What extracurriculars would support my interests and college applications? Make a list to map out a plan.
  • What classes should I take to explore my interests further? Talk with your counselor and take a Career Aptitude Test to see what career you might want to pursue.

High School Academics

  • How can I stay on schedule for graduation? How many credits will I need to take each year? The counselor at school can help you with both of these.
  • What goal GPA should I strive for during my freshman year? 4.0 is what you strive for but don’t stress yourself out.
  • How can I maintain a high GPA? Plan your time ask your parents how to do this or read a time management book.
  • What should I do if I’m struggling in a class? What resources are available? Talk with the teacher and get with the school guidance counselor. I wished I asked for more help in high school.
  • Should I take AP classes during my freshman year? How does taking AP classes help me for college? Talk to your parents and the school counselor.
  • Would taking honor classes my freshman year help with college? How many classes and which ones should I take? Talk to your parents and the school counselor.
  • Are there classes I can take my freshman year that give me college credit? Talk to your parents and the school counselor.

Standardized Testing

  • What are the best ways to prepare for standardized tests, and which should I take? This is where learning good study habits really help.
  • When should I start taking the SAT/ACT? You can take it freshman year just to get a practice test in and most do not take it till the sophomore year.
  • Should I take the ACT or SAT my freshman year as a practice to see how well I do? Yes
  • How many times do students typically take the SAT/ACT? 3 to 4
  • How much does it cost to take the test and report scores? Free if you take it at your high school but outside the school, it can be $50 to $400 to take it.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

  • What is financial aid, how do I apply, and what is the deadline to apply? This is something you would do your junior or senior year in high school but it does not hurt to think about the question.
  • What scholarships might I be eligible for, and how do I apply? How can I research scholarship opportunities? This is the same thing as above. You can wait till your junior year or senior year but it would be good to have the information now.
  • Scholarships we recommend MyScholly to find the scholarships you would be eligible for and it is easy to use.

Choosing a School and Applying

  • Your freshman year these are good things to consider but you will be doing school visits your junior year and applying for schools your senior year. You can track items or make a list until you become a junior but it is not necessary to pick a school or apply as a freshman.
  • When should I begin researching possible schools? What factors should I consider?
  • How do I choose between an in-state and out-of-state school? What are the pros and cons of each?
  • When should I visit campuses, and how do I plan a visit? Most students start their junior year but you can go visit some colleges in your freshman year.
  • How can I evaluate my likelihood of getting into a certain university? Thi si tough your freshman year or any year. Look at the college’s requirements to see your chances.
  • When should I begin working on my college applications? When are they typically due? This is something you would do your senior year, not freshman year.

A guidance counselor can also help you navigate which classes are best, as you choose between standard, AP, college prep, honors, etc.

AP Classes are intended to simulate the difficulty of intro college-level classes, and students can often substitute AP scores for required college coursework. AP classes can help you skip freshman requirements at your university, and also show that you are able to handle college-level coursework.

While other advanced and honors classes reflect well on your transcript, they generally don’t translate to college credit.

Overall, demonstrating that you pursued challenging opportunities can help your college applications. However, this will only benefit you if you not only take harder classes but do well in them. Make sure to balance the benefits of an impressive transcript with the benefits of good grades. 

Grade Point Freshman Year

Grades are a central factor in college admissions. The average student admitted to most major universities has at least a 3.5 GPA, though it’s certainly not the only factor. While one bad grade won’t tank your chances of getting into your dream school, it’s important to demonstrate consistently high achievement.

There are many strategies for maintaining a high GPA — an important and easy one is to be realistic about your course load.

While it may seem like a good idea to take all AP classes, if you are too overwhelmed to do well, that will show in your GPA. Challenge yourself, but don’t lower your chances of success by attempting to do too much.

Once you’re in a set of classes, good grades are earned through note-taking and study skills, which you will use throughout your life.

Note Taking Freshman Year

High school is the right time to perfect note-taking, so when you get to college you can keep up with the more difficult lectures and readings.

When you take notes, you have to figure out what method works best for you: I like to use outlines, but you can play around to figure out what style you prefer and when to use one over the other.

Regardless, good note-taking comes from active listening, boiling down complex material to its main ideas, and organizing information in a way that’s quick to both write and review. Just as important as taking good notes is keeping them organized—even if you wrote everything down, it will be very hard to study for an exam if you can’t find or read your notes, or aren’t sure which notes are from which dates. 

Note taking High School

Study Habits for Every Freshman

When it’s time to study, you will need more sophisticated strategies than just reading over notes again. Depending on what kind of material you’re studying, you can use some of the following techniques:

  • Quiz yourself when reading: when you’re reading something for the first time, close the book or PDF every once in a while and test your recall. What have been the main ideas so far? This simple exercise can make studying later much easier.
  • When reviewing notes, read them out loud: this adds the experience of hearing your notes to the experience of visually reading them, which increases retention.
  • Study with a friend. Having someone to talk through difficult concepts with, and keep you accountable to your study goals, can make a big difference. Additionally, a great way to test your knowledge is to attempt to teach the other person the material. Explaining all the parts of the cell to your friend will help your brain process it too!
  • Make flashcards. These can be handwritten or digital through websites like Quizlet. Digital flashcards can be used again in the future, whereas you’re likely to throw away or lose handwritten ones.
  • Turn the information into a story: if you have to memorize a long process or timeline, making up a humorous or interesting narrative to lead you through the steps can help memorization.
  • Come up with a mnemonic device: This is a common study method, in which you take the first letter of each word and turn those letters into a word or phrase — so if you were memorizing the lines of musical notation, EGBDF, a popular mnemonic device is “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”

You will also have to study for standardized tests, the scores of which are another essential part of college admissions. At some schools, test scores are even directly related to the amount of financial aid you receive.

When I was in high school, taking a prep course helped give me strategies to raise my score over time. 

However, this was only helpful because I planned to have enough time to take tests more than once, which is why it’s ideal to begin taking the ACT and SAT as soon as you can.

When you take these tests early, it gives you time to learn from the experience, make adjustments, and take them again. Overall, my ACT score went up 4 points from my first attempt to my last. 

Your school should offer ACT or SAT testing. Find out when they offer the test and take it your freshman year to gauge where you are at in scoring. You do not need to study just take the test so you see where you are at with the test score.

I have a friend that during her freshman year scored a 21 on the ACT the first time taking the test with no studying.


Another way to prepare for standardized tests is to take the PSAT. The PSAT is typically taken by high school juniors, as a way to practice for the SAT and gauge your progress. Beyond that, taking the test and receiving a high score can also make you eligible for scholarships.

Extracurricular Activities as a Freshman

Outside of academics, extracurricular activities can help explore potential career paths, develop important skills and add depth to your college applications.

Significant extracurriculars include:

  • Volunteer service
  • Student government
  • Sports teams
  • Theater
  • Music groups
  • Debate clubs
  • School newspapers
  • Arts
  • Culture organizations

While it can be good to demonstrate an interest in more than one area, extracurriculars are most beneficial to an application if you can distinguish yourself as a leader within a group. Serving as captain of the soccer team or the treasurer of the service club can help you stand out from the many applicants who also play soccer or volunteer, for example.

When I was in high school, I participated in theater, and my eventual position as stage manager fostered leadership skills and organization, which was clear on my application.

Some college essays even ask students to reflect on extracurricular experiences or a role that defined them: an essay I wrote about my role as a stage manager got me into the honors program at my undergraduate university.

You will want to take a career aptitude test online to see what may be of interest to you. We have listed several below but you can also check with your high school to see if they provide the testing free.

Career Aptitude Testing

You should take this your freshman year to get a sense of what fields and occupations you may be interested in pursuing.

  • 123 Career Test.
  • Princeton Review Career Quiz.
  • My Next Move O*NET Interests Profiler.
  • MyPlan.com.
  • MAPP Career Test.
  • Career Strengths Test.
  • PathSource.

Freshman to Do List

Summary of what you need to do as a freshman in high school:

  • Summer before freshman year make sure you have talked with a counselor to understand what classes you should take your freshman year of high school. Which AP or Honor classes should you take in 9th grade.
  • August to October – Just get used to being a freshman and the routine. You should meet with your counselor if you can within the first three months. You will need to sign up for extracurriculars as soon as possible. Some are seasonal so make sure you know when the sign-up time frames are for the activity. Your school should have all the information you need.
  • October – Make sure you know when the PSAT test is and see if you can take it as a freshman.
  • November – Sign up for ACT or SAT so you can take the test and get a baseline score. The school may offer the test a few times a year it just depends on your high school. You can do this in your sophomore year so if you miss it as a freshman do not panic.
  • December – Have fun for the holidays
  • January to March – Meet with a counselor and make sure you are on track with grades. You will also need to take a Career Aptitude Test.
  • March – Start thinking about the classes you want to take your sophomore year. Improve your note-taking and studying skills as we mentioned earlier.


Overall, you write your college application essentially every day of high school, not just in your senior year. By starting to strategize and plan in your freshman year of high school, you can make sure to get the most out of high school and its resources. Begin by talking to your guidance counselor, and then take things one step at a time!

Use our college guides to help you to navigate through your sophomore, junior and senior years in high school.

You can also check out our other guides:

High School Sophomore Guide to Prepare for College

High School Junior Guide to Prepare for College

High School Senior Guide to Prepare for College