College Prep Checklist: What you need to do next

If you’re planning on going to college there are about a thousand things you have to start thinking about. Because not only do you have to prepare for college years–yes, years–in advance, you have to be smart about it!

In the end, things like taking the ACT and applying for the FAFSA matter a whole lot more than you might think. But don’t worry, because it’s all a part of a single process. And we’ve outlined that that process for you in easy, sequential steps.

The readiness checklists below are sorted out by high school grades, and outline things you should be working on each year in school to get ready for college.*** Take a look and see if you have met your requirements for this year, or if there is something you need to start working on ASAP!


9th Grade Students

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 using FAFSA4caster 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, and/or participating in academic enrichment programs, summer workshops, and camps with specialty focuses such as music, arts, or science. Remember—it’s quality (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:

Check out KnowHow2Go: The Four Steps to College, which suggests some actions you can take as you start thinking about education beyond high school.

Learn about managing your money.

Explore reasons to consider college and ways you can get help preparing.

Parents of 9th Grade Students

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.

To Explore:

Address your concerns about whether your child can or should go to college.

Get tips from Help Your Child Improve in Test-Taking.

Read “Parent Power” to access ideas for remaining involved in your child’s progress.


10th Grade Students

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 check out the ACT Aspire exam “sandbox.”

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 with your interests and goals based on your results from the U.S. Department of Labor’s career search.

To Explore:

Learn the differences between grants, loans, work-study, and scholarships.


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.

To Explore:

Learn about the standardized tests your child will be taking during 10th through 12th grades.

Get a brief overview of financial aid from Federal Student Aid at a Glance


11th Grade Students

To Do All Year:

  Explore careers and their earning potential with the Occupational Outlook Handbook search tool. Or, for a fun interactive tool, try this career search

  Learn about choosing a college and find a link to our free college search tool.

Go to college fairs and college-preparation presentations hosted by college representatives.

To Do in the Fall:

Take the 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.

Use a free scholarship search to 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:

Create a username and password called an FSA ID that you’ll use to confirm your identity when accessing your government financial aid information and electronically signing your federal student aiddocuments. Learn about the FSA ID, and create yours. Note: You must create your own FSA ID; if your parent creates it for you, that’ll cause confusion later and will slow down the financial aid application process. (By the way, you can watch a video about creating your FSA ID. View accessible version (wmv) here.

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 for admission under a particular college’s early decision, early action, or regular decision program. Be sure to learn about the program deadlines and requirements.

  Use the FAFSA4caster financial aid estimator, and compare the results to the actual costs at the colleges to which you will apply. To supplement any aid FAFSA4caster estimates you might receive, be sure to apply for scholarships. Your goal is to minimize the amount of loan funds you borrow so you have less to pay back later.

To Explore:

Find out what government financial aid you can apply for, and how, in Federal Student Aid at a Glance.

Learn how to avoid scholarship scams and identity theft as you look for financial aid and then attend college.


To Do:

 Create your own FSA ID if you don’t have one yet. (The FSA ID is a username and password that you’ll use for such purposes as signing your child’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) Note: You must create your own FSA ID. If your child creates it for you, or if you create your child’s, that’ll cause confusion later and will slow down the financial aid application process. (Need help? You and your child should watch the “How to Create Your FSA ID” video above.)

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 him or her 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 whether scholarships are available for employees’ children.

To Explore:

Get in-depth information on the federal student aid programs.

Find out how the federal student aid application process works.

Learn about student and parent loans in Federal Student Loans: Basics for Students and Federal Student Loans: Direct PLUS Loan Basics for Parents.


12th Grade Students

To Do:

All Year

Work hard all the way to graduation—second-semester grades can affect scholarship eligibility.

Stay involved in after-school activities, and seek leadership roles if possible.


 As soon as possible after its Oct. 1 release, complete and submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), at, along with any other financial aid applications your chosen school(s) may require. You should submit your FAFSA® by the earliest financial aid deadline of the schools to which you are applying, usually by early February. Refer to the FAFSA: Applying for Aid section of this site as you go through the application process.

 After you submit the FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within three days to three weeks. This document lists your answers to the questions on your FAFSA and gives you some basic information about your aid eligibility. Quickly make any necessary corrections and submit them to the FAFSA processor.

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 DEADLINES!

Well before your college application deadlines, ask your counselor and teachers to submit the required documents (e.g., transcript, letters of recommendation) to the colleges to which you’re applying.

 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 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:

 Understand the FAFSA better by watching the videos in the “FAFSA: Apply for Aid” playlist at

 Follow or like the office of Federal Student Aid at and to get regular financial aid tips.

Make informed decisions about student loans; the following resources are important at this point:

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, ask your school counselor about getting the fee waived.


To Do:

  Work with your child on filling out the FAFSA.

To Explore:

 Make sure your child’s personal information is safe when he or she applies for financial aid. For tips, read Federal Student Aid and Identity Theft.

 Read IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education to see how you might benefit from federal income tax credits for education expenses.

 Understand the benefits of federal student loans.

  Help your child learn about the responsibilities involved in accepting a student loan by reviewing “What should I consider when taking out federal student loans?” with him or her.

  Look at communications from schools to which your child sent FAFSA information. If a school has offered you or your child Direct PLUS Loans, the Federal Student Loans: Basics for Students and Federal Student Loans: Direct PLUS Loan Basics for Parents booklets might be useful to you.


***All of this information was taken from