High School Senior Guide to Prepare for College

Senior year of high school is the final home stretch for college preparation and application you’ll earn the final grades on your transcripts, turn in applications, visit schools, and decide where you’ll spend the next few years.

While this last year of high school is incredibly high pressure, don’t forget that you’ve already built a foundation and a strong application over the last three years of work.

Make sure to take time to relax, have a support system to talk with when you’re stressed, so keep organized, on top of deadlines and schedules.

This list we put together will help you do just that!

While we’ve created this checklist for you, once you’ve got your own personal deadlines and goals, make one of your own.

Make sure you add important dates to your calendar it will help you stay on top of things throughout the busy year.

SUMMER BEFORE SENIOR YEAR

Finalize your prospective school’s list and begin scheduling visits. You don’t have to wait to be accepted to visit a school, but you can start with nearby ones and save any long-distance trips for after you know more.

Begin researching and applying for scholarships. Depending on your demographics, there are a lot of opportunities out there.

Try searching MyScholly for scholarships.

Don’t forget to talk to your guidance counselor and see if there are any scholarships they can recommend as well.

Make a list of admissions deadlines, and either place it in a prominent place in your house (like the kitchen fridge) or make digital calendar events and set reminders. You need plenty of time to proofread materials and deal with any submission errors that might come up, so don’t wait until the last minute.

FALL

College Applications

This is the time to begin writing your application essays. It takes a long time to choose topics, edit and receive and implement feedback from teachers or friends. Start brainstorming and drafting early.

Start working with your parents/guardians to fill out the FAFSA and talk about financial aid.

Some “early admission” deadlines are in November. If there’s a particular school you know is your top choice, it’s a good idea to apply for early admission–it demonstrates a strong interest in the school and can put you ahead of the curve.

Make sure you read the guidelines for each school, as early admission is binding for some.

Begin making visits, especially to your top choice schools or schools within a convenient radius. Visiting before the application is due can be beneficial, as you can draw on what you learn and observe there when writing or talking about why you’d like to attend.

Visits should include a campus tour, a class visit in the department you might study in, a meal in a dining hall, and a peek at a dorm room. At least two weeks in advance, reach out to the admissions team online, through email, or over the phone to set something up.

Grades

It’s important to finish strong with your grades this year, as a serious downturn can lead to a revoked admission offer.

Start by setting yourself up to succeed: while it is important to finish all your required coursework, don’t overload yourself as finishing applications, conducting visits and making decisions will take up a lot of mental space.

Make sure you have a manageable workload and are taking classes you can do well in.

Tutors

If you get through a couple of weeks of class and you’re starting to struggle, look into getting an online or local tutor.

Start by asking your teacher or counselor for a local tutoring recommendation.

Working with another student or local program will ensure that your tutor knows your curriculum and your requirements, however, you can also look for a tutor online. Consider what best fits your needs out of websites like Chegg and Wyzant.

Standardized Testing

You should be done taking standardized tests by this time. Don’t forget to schedule your last test date with plenty of time to receive and send results by your application deadlines.

Finish your prep and studying it’s best to study a handful of hours a week, not 10 hours straight the night before the test. Here are some good resources for test training and studying:

A practice book or website courses you can work with at home is good for individuals studying week by week. I highly recommend getting one made by the companies who help with the tests, like PrepScholar.

While using a prep book is a great way to study, it’s important to also get tips from professionals and learn special test skills in a prep class.

Talk to your guidance counselor about local opportunities, and make sure to do it in the fall, so you have time to use the things you learn for your final test scores.

Most schools only require that you report an ACT score or an SAT score, not both. So, you technically only need to take one.

However, taking both at least once helps you know which you’re better at, and gives you a better chance at reporting competitive scores. Also, if you can demonstrate high scores on both tests, that’s not going to hurt your application.

Assess how you’ve done on practice tests and previous test dates from last year, and register to take the ACT or SAT again accordingly.

Some schools will take composite scores (combining your best scores on different sections of the ACT into one top score, for example).

Even if you were to do worse you can always choose which score to report, so taking the test as many times as possible will always benefit you.

Don’t forget that you need to register in advance, so look over the upcoming year and your admissions deadlines, and plan ahead.

This is your last chance to improve your scores, so plan well and give yourself the opportunity to earn more scholarship money–it never hurts to take the test again, unless you’ve already received a perfect score.

Extracurricular

Hopefully, you’ve spent the last few years getting involved in extracurriculars. It’s time to move into leadership positions if you haven’t already. As you finish high school, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re driven, well-organized, and responsible enough to lead other students.

Leadership positions make great topics of college application essays. For example, one of my successful applications included an essay about my time stage managing theatre productions in my junior and senior years.

Pursue experiences that will not only look good on your resume, but that gives you an opportunity to talk about yourself as a leader.

Seek out roles that relate to your potential major or career: for example, if you want to be in politics, go out for student body president.

If you’re an athlete, make sure to make the most of your coaches: talk to them about the best way to prepare information and video highlights for college coaches. 

WINTER

Grades

Now’s a good time to assess your grades and adjust as necessary. Talk to your guidance counselor and discuss how you can improve or maintain your GPA.

Most colleges expect applicants to have a GPA of at least 3.0, and around a 3.5 to compete for scholarships.

The higher your grades, the more schools you’ll get into, and the more financial aid you’ll receive. At my undergrad, merit scholarships were directly correlated to test scores and GPA. 

If you’re struggling, consider cutting back on challenging coursework, unnecessary extracurricular commitments, or getting a tutor.

College Applications

Most application deadlines are either January 15th or February 1st but consult your individual list frequently.

Now is the time to get final feedback on essays from guidance counselors, teachers, and parents, and to proofread and consolidate materials. The sooner you can submit the application, the sooner you can be done stressing out about it!

If you haven’t already narrowed down some possible career paths, you need to at least come up with some potential options to discuss in your applications. It will help to take a career aptitude test, which you can find both online and with your guidance counselor.

Career tests can help you narrow down and select possible future majors.

These potential fields of study can help you choose between colleges. If you have a major in mind, investigate each school’s program in depth, and compare and contrast them.

For example, when I was applying to study creative writing, I made sure that all the schools I was applying to, and all my top choices, offered a senior capstone. I did this so I would get to complete a longer writing project.

Be specific!

Here are some questions to help you figure out which are your top-choice schools:

  • Would I prefer to be at an in-state or out-of-state school?
  • Public or private?
  • How will tuition costs affect these decisions for me?
  • How was visiting impacted my feelings about the distance from home?
  • What are the admission standards for different schools, and which of my schools am I most likely to be admitted to?

Be realistic and keep a few safety options at the top of your list.

You should have at least 4 to 6 schools on your list, with 2-3 top choices beginning to emerge.

Visit as many as you can, as this can really impact your decision about where to go.

SPRING

You have a little while to wait before hearing back from schools: most admission decisions are sent in March. However, there’s a lot you can do to stay busy and make sure your high school record finishes strong:

Hopefully, you’ve already been volunteering, but if not, make sure to get some hours this year. Many high schools have service clubs that can help you find volunteering opportunities.

If not, think about what you’re passionate about:

  • Helping the homeless?
  • Libraries?
  • Mental health?
  • Plus seek out volunteering possibilities where possible.

Begin planning and budgeting for any potential moves you may make in the fall.

You need to make a list of things you’ll need if you’re going to be living on campus and start thinking about what kind of roommate you will want.

Here is the ultimate college dorm checklist that we created so you would not forget anything when leaving for college.

Start making a list of summer job prospects–you’ll probably want to save up for your first year at school.

Once you start receiving admissions offers, congratulate yourself! You’ve worked hard to get here.

Hopefully, you’ve been weighing the pros and cons of each school, and you can talk with parents, friends and guidance counselors to make a final decision about which institution is right for you.

If you can, visit your final choice once more to walk around as an admitted student and start thinking more seriously about how you’ll get involved there.

Don’t forget to decline offers you’re not accepting in a timely manner. There may be students on a waitlist hoping for that spot.

SUMMER

As you transition into being a college student, it’s important to continue using your summers strategically. This can mean adding professional value to your resume, saving money for tuition, or if you’re lucky, both.

Internships

Doing an internship is a great way to test out career fields, gain professional skills, make connections, and demonstrate seriousness on a college application.

There are tons of programs for high school students, so ask around and look online with organizations or businesses you’d like to work for one day. Though many of them are unpaid, they carry a lot of weight on a college application and future job resume.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to save up, a summer job can help secure some financial stability when you begin school. Seek out places that may be interested in hiring you for future summers, and which may carry some transferable skills over to your potential major and career.

  • For example, when I was in high school I worked at a bookstore and a library, and my eventual career goal was to study English and pursue publishing, so not only did I make some money but I also demonstrated a thorough interest in different facets of my field.

While you’re not taking classes, this is also a good time to dive into planning. You need to strategize with your parents about your financial plan.

Research and apply for some of the following different financial aids, if you haven’t already:

Scholarships

  • Scholarships are typically merit-based and include monetary gifts you do not have to pay back. Scholarships are highly competitive as they are often the most impactful and least inconvenient financial aid form. You can begin searching for scholarships at How2WinScholarships.

Grants

  • You can also look at grants which are another kind of financial aid that does not have to be paid back.
  • Grants are often given under specific parameters or for specific projects. Learn more about undergraduate-level grants such as Pell grant, Smart grant, NSF grant or Teach grant.   

Loans

  • You can also get loans which are sums of money you can borrow to pay for school but must pay back over time, with interest.
  • There are different kinds of loans, and you can learn more about all the different options by reading how do college loans work.

ROTC

  • ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program that offers college scholarships in exchange for post-graduation military service.
  • Each branch of the military has its own program, with its own application process and activities, including Army ROTC, Navy and Marine Corps ROTC, and Air Force ROTC. Learn more through our article on how to get an ROTC scholarship.

Search for a roommate

Your freshman year roommate will impact your initial college experience in a big way, so it’s a good idea to have some criteria in mind.

  • Do you prefer the room to be clean all the time, or are you more laid back and need a roommate who will be too?
  • Are you introverted, or extraverted?
  • Do you plan to participate in parties or not?
  • It’s important to find someone who you will get along with and who can become a potential friend.

Most schools help facilitate this process through their website or through social media.

Check-in with the school and see how you can contact and search for other incoming students. You can also use third-party apps like in this article how to pick a college roommate.

Complete and prepare your packing list if you’re moving into a dorm room or out of your parents’ house, there’s a lot you will need.

Don’t stress out too much but do make sure you check in on the requirements and regulations for your dormitory, such as bed size and items that are banned.

Get your shopping done early in the summer, so you can focus on packing and enjoying your free time before school starts.

In the fall, you’ll finally arrive at the school you’ve worked so hard to get into. Congrats!

College is a time of newfound freedom and responsibility, so enjoy it! There are a lot of resources on campus to help you with the transition, and a great place to start is always with your RA if you live on campus. Good luck!!