The Ultimate College Planning Guide

College Planning Guide

Planning for college is all about playing the long game. Many students and parents wait until their senior year of high school to start planning for college. The sad truth is that if you wait until your senior year, you’ve really put yourself in a tough spot. Fear not! Lucky for you, the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC) is on the case. 

The truth is that it’s actually never too early to start thinking about college. Whether you’re looking at saving, getting into good schools, or applying for scholarships, you should always be making your decisions with a clear goal in mind. That said, we know college planning is a whole lot easier when you have a clear idea of what you need to do. That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate college planning guide for students and parents. Our guide will fill you in on what you need to know during high school to ensure that you’re prepared for college. 

Freshman Year College Planning: Set Your Sights on College

group of high school freshmen leaning against lockers

group of high school freshmen leaning against lockers

While it’s important to be thinking about college as far back as the 7th grade (an excellent time to apply for scholarships, like the Victor E. Bell Scholarship), things really kick into high gear once you reach high school. It’s during this time that it’s crucial students start to lay the foundations for a successful high school career. These are a few of the things you need to make sure you do during your freshman year. 

Freshmen Need to Consider Future Careers

Some of you have known what you want to do for a career since you were five and have never wavered. Other students may fall on the spectrum of having a million career thoughts to having none at all. All of these things are okay! Start doing research now to solidify your career choice or start looking from scratch. You can use to take career assessments and learn about what it will take to get there. This can help you determine what college you go to and how long you’ll be there. 

Take Courses That Challenge You

Colleges want to admit students that are hard workers. They want students that are willing to challenge themselves, especially in areas where they excel. These are the sorts of students that any college would be happy to have on campus. Think you’re ready for that advanced math course? Go for it! 

Meet With Your School Counselor

Your freshman year is a great time to meet with your high school counselor and start developing a relationship with them. Your school counselor can help to fill you in on educational and course options that are available. Also, your counselor might think of you when they come across scholarships that you are a good fit for. 

Check out AP, Honors, Career, and College Promise Courses

There’s a strong chance that your high school offers a wide variety of different courses and curriculums you can pursue. Speak with your parents and your school counselor to determine which course of study is right for you and your goals. Advanced placement courses can give you a head start on college. These courses allow you to earn college credit while in high school, saving you money in the long run. They also show the admissions office that you can handle college-level work! 

Create Your Free CFNC Account

Your freshman year is also a terrific time to sign up for your free CFNC account if you haven’t already. You can use your CFNC account to do all kinds of things. These include saving your courses and extracurricular activities, discovering career interests, and much more. Your CFNC account is also a tremendous resource when it comes to researching how to save and pay for college. 

Sophomore Year: Stay Focused!

group of high school sophomores sitting at a table reading

Sophomore year is a fun time for high school. This is a terrific year for students to expand their interest in extracurricular activities like clubs and sports. Here are some of the things you need to start focusing on when it comes to college planning during your second year of high school. 

Sign Up for Clubs and Sports

Colleges and universities absolutely adore a well-rounded student. An excellent way to show off just how well-rounded you are is to sign up for all kinds of extracurriculars. Not necessarily an athlete? No problem! There are all sorts of groups that are centered around community service, leadership, languages, and other fun activities and causes. Find something that you enjoy and stick with it. Colleges are more interested in quality over quantity. Just be sure not to bite off more than you can chew. You still need time to study! 

Start Getting Ready for the SAT and ACT

It may seem like you have plenty of time, but you actually need to get cracking on studying for the SAT and ACT. Thinking of attending community college? The SAT or ACT can help you test out of their placement testing! Many schools have you take the PSAT during your sophomore year, and it’s much more than practice for the real thing. The PSAT can determine your eligibility for important scholarships later on, like the National Merit Scholarship. CFNC has all kinds of test prep resources to help you practice. Whether you’re looking at the ACT, SAT, or just want to build your vocabulary, CFNC is here to help. 

Research Colleges

Some of you might have been dreaming about the same college ever since your parents wrapped you as a baby in a blanket for their alma mater. Some of you may still be deciding which school is right for you and best aligns with your own dreams. Whatever the case, now is the time to get serious about researching schools. 

Talk to your parents, friends, teachers, and counselors about what you’re looking for in a school and what you’d like to study. The college search tool at CFNC is a great way to discover and learn more about colleges and universities across North Carolina. 

Junior Year: Time to Get Serious

group of high school juniors taking a selfie in front of their school

Hopefully, by the time your junior year rolls around, you’ve already been following our guide for your first two years of high school. That means you’re ahead of the game when it comes to college planning. Now, it’s really time to get down to work. Your junior year is going to be one of the most pivotal years in your pursuit of higher education. Think about it. By the time you apply your senior year, you’re not going to have new grades. Schools will be looking at your junior year and everything you’ve done up to that point. That’s why it’s so important to make your junior year count

Take the SAT and ACT

You’ve been preparing, now it’s time to put all that practice to work. The first step is making sure you register for the test date. In the United States, the SAT is offered seven different times per year. It’s the same with the ACT. While you can take the SAT as many times as you like, you can only take the ACT 12 times (time permitting). Be sure that you don’t overdo it, but taking these tests more than once may strengthen your admissions package. 

Most schools will allow you to super score your test (combine the best scores from multiple tests), but not everyone does it. Be sure to ask your counselor about whether or not your college lets you super score. Don’t forget that North Carolina juniors get to take the ACT for free, usually around February or March. This is another great chance to save money. Talk to your school counselor to know the date and be sure to study! 

Finalize Your List of Schools and Check Admissions Requirements

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of which schools you’d like to attend. Try to narrow down your list to your top choices. Once you have your list set, peruse the admissions requirements for each school and make sure that you’re checking all of the boxes. If you can, visit these colleges during the school year, so you can get a full picture of what life will be like with plenty of other students and instructors around. 

Begin Researching Scholarships and Grants

Your junior year is the ideal time for you to start looking at scholarships and grants. Your high school teachers and counselors can point you in the right direction. CFNC’s list of scholarships can give you a good idea of what’s out there, the amounts, eligibility requirements, and deadlines. There are a lot of scholarships and grants available. Much of it is just a matter of applying. Don’t miss out on your opportunity for free money! 

Ask About Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges and scholarships require letters of recommendation. You’re going to want to speak to counselors and teachers that know you well. You need to be sure they will speak highly of you to whatever college you’re applying to. We hope you’ve been on your best behavior during high school! Many teachers and counselors, especially popular ones, can have a lot of requests for letters of recommendation. 

Get a head start by knowing who you’ll ask senior year. You should also create a simple resume of everything you’ve done while in high school to share when asking for recommendations. Your math teacher might not know that you also volunteer in your community and work part-time. This will allow them to write a well-rounded letter! 

Senior Year: Finish Strong!

group of high school seniors in their caps and gowns holding a photo frame prop

Senior year is finally here! You’re almost at the finish line. That doesn’t mean you can start coasting just yet. It’s time to start applying to colleges and getting everything ready for financial aid. These are the college planning tips you need to know so you can finish high school strong. 

Choose Your Schools

Last year, you narrowed down your list of schools. Now, you should have a pretty clear idea of where you’d like to go to college. It’s best for you to choose three to five different schools to which you’d like to apply. Select a reach school that would be at the top of your list, a safety school that you are fairly confident you’ll get into, and at least one school in between. 

Apply to Colleges

This might seem obvious, but it still needs to be said. Don’t forget to apply to college! The fall or winter of your senior year is when you want to begin applying to colleges. Stay on top of your deadlines and be sure you get your applications in on time. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can hear back. 

Don’t forget about College Application Week the week of October 21–25. During this week, many North Carolina colleges and universities will waive their application fees. This could save you a lot of money if you plan on applying to multiple N.C. schools. 

Complete RDS

Are you planning on getting in-state tuition at a North Carolina college or university? In that case, you’re going to need to complete RDS. RDS (Residency Determination Service) will help to determine your eligibility not just for in-state tuition, but also for available grants. You’ll need your parents’ information, so have them help you with this process. 

Complete the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your ticket to applying for federal and state financial aid. That’s why it’s so important that you fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. If you need help with filling out the FAFSA, you can check with CFNC to see if there is a FAFSA Day event happening near you. Your school counselor can likely help answer basic questions as well. 

Take Your AP Exams

Remember how we talked about taking courses that challenge you? Here’s where that advice comes in handy. If you’ve taken advanced courses (like AP classes), you’re going to complete unique tests for those classes at the end of the year. These tests can really help young college students. Your AP tests can determine where you’ll be placed in certain college classes or allow you to skip certain requirements entirely. Make sure you study! 

Send Your Transcripts

You’ve worked your tail off for three and a half long years. It’s time to show what you’ve been up to. Your transcript is your record of all academic accomplishments and will be a key factor in the admissions process. Be sure to talk to your high school counselor and make sure your transcript is up to date. CFNC can help you send your transcripts and keep track of everything. 

Remember the College Redirection Pool

Even with the best planning, you might not get into your top school. Sometimes colleges just run out of admissions slots. If this happens, don’t panic! There are still plenty of colleges out there, and they’re looking for students like you. The College Redirection Pool connects students with schools that still have open admissions slots and gets the schools to recruit you. 

Use CFNC to Keep Track of Deadlines

That’s a lot of info that we just dumped on you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s okay. But you don’t need to be stressed. Applying for college should be a fun and exciting time. CFNC is here to help. You can use your CFNC account to keep track of deadlines for applications, scholarships, and more. With CFNC in your corner, you can focus on school and ensure that you finish high school strong. 


You made it! The most important part of getting to college is making sure you graduate from high school. Stay focused, study hard, and end high school on a high note. Colleges are paying attention. You don’t want to jeopardize your hard-earned admission because you came down with a bad case of “senioritis.” 

The Best College is the One YOU Attend

We hope that this advice will help you on your path to higher education. College planning can be easier said than done, but we’re here to help along the way. There’s also a downloadable college planning checklist for you to reference so we can help you every step of the way. Congratulations on getting this far, and good luck! 

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