How High School Students Can Financially Prepare for College

How High School Students Can Financially Prepare for College
Two high school students studying in library
By Kristen Kuchar

Preparing for college can seem overwhelming. The truth is, it’s never too early (or too late) to take steps while still in high school. There are plenty of things you can do to prepare both academically and financially for your big college adventure:

Take Challenging Courses and Choose Wisely

Many colleges prefer that you take more than just the basic math and science classes, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And your high school graduation requirements may be far different from college admission requirements.

The  Department of Education has a list of preferred courses for an idea of what to take if you’re headed to college. The department says many colleges prefer four years of English, three or four years of social studies subjects (history, geography, economics), three or four years of math, three or four years of science, and also a foreign language. And taking a language in high school may allow you to test out of a foreign language requirement.

For electives, take enriching and challenging courses: Skip the study period, and opt for art, journalism, or another course outside the usual curriculum.

If Possible, Enroll in AP Classes

Along with taking challenging courses, try to take Advanced Placement, or AP, courses. They can earn you college credit, which means fewer courses you’ll have to take in college — which can mean more savings.

Also, some colleges offer grants and scholarships to those who have completed AP classes, and such classes are likely to look impressive on a college admission application. Talk to your counselors and teachers about enrolling in AP courses.

Meet With Your Counselor Regularly

Finding challenging courses and enrolling in AP classes are just two of the ways your counselor can help you. Meet with your counselor for help planning a course schedule that will both satisfy your high school requirements and aid your college admission. Counselors can also be a good resource for learning about scholarships and other ways to fund your college education.

Consider Taking the PSAT/NMSQT

This exam can provide excellent practice for taking the SAT, while indicating how likely you are to succeed in AP courses. The exam is also used as part of the initial screenings for those interested in pursuing the National Merit Scholarship Program, which recognizes academic achievement in high school. For more information on the PSAT/NMSQT, visit their website.

Prepare for the SAT and/or ACT

You’re no doubt aware of how big a role college entrance exams play in determining whether you get into your preferred schools, and high scores can also qualify you for scholarships. But many students don’t take time to prepare for the tests.

Of the 1.8 million students who took the ACT college entrance exam in 2013, only one-fourth met the “readiness benchmarks” in all four core subjects (English, math, science, and reading), according to a report by ACT Inc. Those who meet those benchmarks are 75% more likely to pass the first-year college course in that subject, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Ask if your high school offers ACT or SAT prep courses. If they don’t, you can find other places for test prep, such as Kaplan.

Check out CollegeBoard.org, which offers free sample practice questions and other guides and courses for a fee. Visit Khan Academy’s free SAT prep, which offers real SAT questions and tutorials. There are plenty of books that offer tips for success, practice questions, and what you’ll need to know — check your local library.

Keep Your Grades Up

There’s truth to those lectures you’ve probably heard: Making the most of your classes will lead to good grades, which will help you get into college and land scholarships.

But focus on the content as well as the grade, so you’ll  understand what’s being taught, thus increasing your knowledge and helping you succeed on the SAT or ACT. Plus, this content can help you test out of basic classes when entering college. The fewer classes you need to take, the less money you may need to spend.

To keep your grades up, stay organized and create a schedule. If you’re struggling, ask your teacher for recommendations or see if you can find a tutor. If you can’t find a tutor at your school, find one through WyzAnt or another tutoring service.

Make Good Connections With Teachers

In addition to offering valuable advice, teachers may be willing to write letters of recommendation to use for college applications and scholarships. If you’re struggling with a subject, your teacher is your gateway to assistance. If you’re excelling in a subject, your teacher can introduce you to classmates who need a volunteer tutor, which can look great on a college application.

Apply for Scholarships

It’s never too early to start thinking about scholarships. Many scholarship deadlines can be as early as the end of junior year, according to the Department of Education. But you can start your scholarship quest as early as freshman year. Here’s how:

  • Start researching qualifications for scholarships early. Get an idea of what it’s going to take to earn scholarship money. What can you do now to improve your odds?
  • Make a list of different scholarship avenues to explore. You can find scholarships based on your ethnicity, talents, club and organization affiliations, from your parent’s employers and affiliations, and much more.
  • Talk with your high school counselor about scholarships. 
  • Search online. When it’s time, search for scholarships online with the U.S. Department of Labor Scholarship Search and other search engines such as Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com.
  • Ask the schools. When researching colleges, ask their financial aid departments about what types of scholarships they offer incoming freshmen.

Get Involved

Becoming active in high school is a great way to explore what you want to do and also make friends. Volunteering, joining clubs, participating in community activities, and playing sports can also help land you a scholarship and look great on your admission applications.

Start Researching Colleges

What majors do they offer? What resources are available for students (e.g., job fairs, internship support, on-campus outlets)? What’s the cost of living in the college’s metro area?

Attend college fairs to explore what different colleges offer. Request information from colleges, but also shoot any questions to an admissions counselor. Visit the campus, take the tours, and ask to shadow a student or sit in on a class.

Familiarize Yourself With Financial Aid and Student Loans

Start learning how the financial aid process works and about federal and private student loans.

For example, federal loans are generally a better option. They usually have a lower interest rate than private loans and can offer more benefits, such as the option for the government to pay the interest while you’re in school, income-based repayment plans, and even the ability to have the loans forgiven. Check out our Student Loans 101 article for a glossary of helpful terms.

Make a Financial Game Plan for College

Don’t wait until senior year to start thinking about how you’re going to pay for college. Talk to your parents about what, if any, preparations they made for your college education. You can use the FAFSA4caster, which can help estimate your eligibility for federal student aid.

Once you know what help you’ll get from parents and financial aid, you can see where you stand and plan accordingly. You can consider what colleges you can afford, such as opting for a school in your state so you can qualify for in-state tuition. Here are some more ways you can reduce your student loans.

Get a Part-Time Job

If you’re able to, work while you’re in school to earn money for college. But working part-time is also going to look great on college and scholarship applications. Your supervisor could be a good source for a letter of recommendation or reference. Working part-time will also teach you excellent time management and cooperative skills, perfect for succeeding in college.

Research Majors and Careers

Don’t wait to start thinking about what you want to major in and what you want to do for a living. These factors could ultimately determine the college you choose.

Plus, if you do your research in high school, it could reduce your chances of changing majors in college. Changing majors can extend your time in college and cost you more money. Visit MyNextMove.org, a tool provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, to help you decide what you want to do and explore career paths.

Create Your ‘Resume’

It’s never too early to start your resume. It can help when applying for jobs or summer internships, and will make writing college admission essays and applying for scholarships much easier. Update your resume regularly with skills you’re learning, awards, honors, any volunteer work and/or community involvement, sports you’re participating in, and any other clubs or extracurricular activities.

Fill Out the FAFSA

During your senior year, as soon as you can after Jan. 1, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This will determine what type of financial aid you can get, including grants (money you don’t need to pay back), federal loans, and work-study.

Utilize Your Summers

No one’s suggesting you don’t enjoy your high school summers with your friends, but don’t let the summer pass by without doing something productive. CollegeBoard.com suggests high school students spend their summers doing an internship (or creating your own internship), shadowing careers, or volunteering.

Many colleges offer summer programs for high school students. Columbia University in New York City, for example, offers the chance for high-achieving students to come live on campus for talks on the college application process, community outreach projects, and meet other students from around the world.

If you’re unable to work during the school year, summer is the perfect time to get a job. Search for part-time jobs on Snagajob.com.

Earn College Credits

Some colleges allow you to earn credits while you’re still in high school. For example, The Summer College at Georgetown University  in  Washington, D.C.,  lets high school students choose from more than 80 courses to take alongside other college students. With this specific program, you could earn up to six credit hours per summer. For more information on Georgetown’s summer course program, visit their website.

Check nearby colleges, including community colleges, to see what courses you could enroll in while you’re in high school. Just make sure they’ll transfer to the college you plan to attend.

You can also explore Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) to earn college credits. This allows students to take courses at local colleges while still in high school.

Ask if your high school is partnered with a college through the CIS program (College in the Schools), which offers college-level courses in high school.

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