College Planning

Informed and organized

Whether you are uncertain about going to college or you just need some reassurance you're on the right track, there are numerous good reasons to go to college.

Why Go To College

  • Every bit of education you get after high school increases the chances you'll earn good pay. Most college graduates earn more money during their working years than people who stop their education at high school earn.
  • The more education you get the more likely it is you will always have a job. According to one estimate, by the year 2028 there will be 19 million more jobs for educated workers than there are qualified people to fill them.
  • Continuing education after high school is much more important for your generation than it was for your parents' generation. Today most good jobs require more than a high school diploma. Businesses want to hire people who know how to think and solve problems.
  • Education beyond high school gives you a lot of other benefits, including meeting new people, taking part in new opportunities to explore your interests, and experiencing success.

Academic Preparation

These articles offer advice on which high school courses to choose, how to make the most out of high school, and where to go for help when you need it. Paying attention to your academic preparation in high school makes it more likely that you will be accepted to the college you really want.

Colleges care about which courses you're taking in high school.

The courses you take in high school show colleges what kind of goals you set for yourself. Are you signing up for advanced classes, honors sections, or accelerated sequences? Are you choosing electives that really stretch your mind and help you develop new abilities? Or are you doing just enough to get by?

Electives are courses students may select to meet total graduation requirements.

Colleges will be more impressed by respectable grades in challenging courses than by outstanding grades in easy ones.

Do your high school course selections match what most colleges expect you to know? For example, many colleges require two to four years of foreign language study.

Successful completion of the courses listed in below are commonly expected of prospective students. Of course, each college and university may have different high school course requirements. Be sure to check with the colleges you're interested in to see what they recommend or require.


EnglishFour years of English
MathematicsThree years of mathematics, including rigorous courses in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II
Natural SciencesThree years of science, including rigorous courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics
Social StudiesThree years of social studies
Additional CoursesSome colleges and universities require other classes as prerequisites for admission, such as two or more years of the same foreign language or courses in the visual arts, music, theater, drama, dance, computer science, etc.
*Specific high school course requirements vary from institution to institution. Be sure to check with the schools you're interested in to see what they recommend or require. 


Checklist for Making the Most of High School

  • Take classes recommended for college preparation. Talk to your counselor.
  • Use testing information. Examine your scores and take extra courses or get tutoring assistance for weaker academic areas.
  • Establish goals for each school year. Talk to your counselor about what you should be doing in light of your college and career plans.
  • Explore careers through research and experiences. Use a career counseling program and job shadow or do internships in careers you are interested in pursuing.
  • Surf the Internet for information on education and career planning.
  • Take a college entrance exam during your junior year.
  • Never stop learning. Education is a lifelong pursuit.


The GPA Myth

"It doesn't matter which classes I take in high school, as long as my grade point average is high."

If you're playing the GPA game and taking a light schedule that isn't challenging, it will catch up with you at the college level very quickly. One of the things admissions officers pay attention to, besides GPA, is course selection throughout high school and especially senior year. They like to see students have momentum going into the freshman year. If you sit back your senior year, it's hard to recapture that momentum.

Course selection can also affect admissions test scores. If you just go for a good GPA, you'll be less prepared for college and will score lower on entrance exams.

Strengthen Your Academic Skills

If you think your skills aren't quite up to speed for college, don't give up. Take time to prepare yourself. There are many ways to get a college degree. You just have to take the path that's right for you.

ACT offers these tips:

  • Take a summer or night school class.
  • Use test score information to see where you need work. Score information from the ACT, for example, can tell you what subjects you need help with and what you can do to raise your skills to the next level. Remember, a low score doesn't necessarily mean you're bad in a subject. It just means you haven't learned the subject yet.
  • Work with a tutor to learn what you don't know yet.
  • Check out study aids—books, videotapes, audiotapes and computer programs—at your public library or a local bookstore.
  • Ask your counselor or a teacher about ways you can build your academic skills.

Senior Year - No Time to Slump

Once you have a college offer in hand, you may get the urge to coast through the rest of the school year. Maybe you've already decided to slack off. It's your senior year and you deserve it, right?

Before you give in to senior slump, you should know that the college may be watching you.

Colleges, especially selective universities, have been known to withdraw offers of admission to students who drop college prep classes or begin earning uncharacteristically low grades. If you haven't slumped too far, colleges might send you a warning letter and add certain stipulations to your admission, such as requiring a 2.0 grade point average during the first year of college.

Taking an extended breather during your senior year can make your freshman year in college difficult. So have fun your senior year, but don't give up on your college preparation.

Applying to Colleges

Advice form ACT about what you need to do when you're applying to colleges.

Become Familiar with College Entrance Requirements

While particular requirements vary, every college sets some standard for evaluating prospective students.

Even colleges with an open admissions policy will look at your high school record and other factors to decide which courses you will be allowed to take. So it's worth knowing about admissions requirements before you start applying to colleges.

Open admissionsSome colleges' policy of admitting virtually all high school graduates, regardless of academic qualifications such as high school grades and admission test scores.

High school academic performance Your high school grade point average (GPA), class rank, and the types of classes you take are obvious starting points.

If you're a high school freshman or sophomore, keep in mind that the grades you're earning now will affect your overall GPA just as much as your later grades will. Don't wait to start buckling down!

Although a good GPA is important, don't believe the GPA myth and take easy classes just to pad your GPA. Most colleges require completion of certain high school courses for admission. Make sure you are taking the right courses so you'll be considered for admission to the school of your choice.

GPAComputed by multiplying the number of grade points earned in each course (generally, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0) by the number of course/credit hours, then dividing the sum by the total number of course/credit hours taken.
Class rankA rating that compares your cumulative GPA to those of others in your class. Class rank is often used as a college admissions and scholarship standard.

Standardized test scores Because grades may not tell the whole story about your academic ability, nearly all colleges will also ask you to submit scores from a national standardized test. The ACT test is one of two national exams used for this purpose.

Your ACT composite score, together with your high school grades, indicates how prepared you are for college. In addition, the scores from the various sections of the ACT will help your college place you in the right classes, matching your skills with course requirements.

The ACT is accepted or preferred by more colleges and universities—including all of the Ivy League colleges—than any other entrance exam.

Admission essay, interview, or other requirements Particular colleges may have additional entrance requirements such as admission essays or interviews. These additional requirements help colleges decide how likely you are to fit into their campus community and to succeed in their academic program.

Register for and Take a College Admissions Test

Many colleges require or recommend that students submit test results as part of the admission application process. The ACT is one of two national tests.

The ACT includes multiple-choice tests in four subject areas—English, mathematics, reading, and science. The tests measure students' current levels of educational development in these subjects. The Writing Test, which is optional, measures skills in planning and writing a short essay.

All colleges and universities in the United States accept ACT test scores as part of their application process.

Registration Tips

  • Plan ahead and allow time to register for the exam.
  • The earlier you take the test, the more chances you will have to retake it if your first scores aren't as high as you would like them to be.
  • Registration deadlines are typically four weeks before the exam date. There are six national test dates each year at test centers throughout the United States.
  • Registration packets are available at most high school guidance offices and college admissions offices.
  • International testing is available.
  • Set up your student account and register online.

Test Preparation Taking a solid academic program in high school is the best test-preparation strategy. Becoming familiar with the test will also help. Try reviewing ACT test-taking strategies and working through sample questions. If you plan to use a calculator during the mathematics section, know ACT's calculator guidelines, and don't forget to bring your calculator on the test day.

Should You Test Again?

Should I test again?

Many students test twice, once as a junior and again as a senior. You should definitely consider retesting if you had any problems during testing, such as misunderstanding the directions, or feeling ill.

You may also want to consider retesting if you don't believe that your scores accurately represent your abilities, especially if you see a discrepancy between your ACT scores and your high school grades, or if you have subsequently completed coursework in the areas covered by the ACT.

If you test more than once, you determine which set of scores are sent to colleges or scholarship programs. ACT reports scores from only one test date per report.

How will you do on a retest?

Research shows that of students from the 2015 graduating class who took the ACT more than once:

  • 57% increased their Composite score on the retest
  • 21% had no change in their Composite score on the retest
  • 22% decreased their Composite score on the retest

For students with an initial ACT Composite score between 13 and 29, the typical ACT Composite score from the second testing is about 1 point higher (see Table below).

  • The lower your initial ACT Composite score, the more likely your second score will be higher than the first score.
  • The higher your initial ACT Composite score, the more likely your second score will be the same as or lower than the first score.

How to read the table below
For students who received an ACT Composite score of 20 the first time they tested:

  • the typical ACT Composite score from the second testing was 21;
  • the middle 50% of students with an initial score of 20 received an ACT Composite score of 20, 21, or 22 the second time they took the test;
  • 56% of students increased their scores, 21% scored the same, and 23% saw their scores decrease.


Summary Information for Retesting Graduates By Initial ACT Composite Score
   Percentage of students whose scores change or remained the same from the first to second testing
ACT Composite Score from first testingACT Composite Score from second testingRange for middle 50% of studentsIncreasedRemained the sameDecreased
35**3534 to 35164737
34**3433 to 35363430
333332 to 34452728
323231 to 33482527
313230 to 33522326
303130 to 32532225
293029 to 31542224
282928 to 30552024
272827 to 29562124
262726 to 28562123
252625 to 27562123
242524 to 26572122
232423 to 25572122
222322 to 24572123
212221 to 23572122
202120 to 22562123
192019 to 21562023
181918 to 20562023
171817 to 19562023
161716 to 18572123
151615 to 17582121
141514 to 16622117
131413 to 15691911
121413 to 1581146
111312 to 148974

* Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding

** Results for these ACT Composite scores are based on a relatively small number of students with these scores.

Table based on: over 868,000 students from the graduating class of 2015 (45%) who took the ACT two or more times. The first two sets of scores for these students were used in the completion of this analysis.


Apply to "Choice" Colleges

Before you start applying to schools, find out the application deadline and fees for each school you are considering.

The application process at each school is unique. You'll find different requirements, prerequisites, and levels of selectivity. Some things remain consistent though, and we have advice to help you through the application process.

PrerequisiteCourse that must be taken before enrollment in another related course. (Example: French 1 is a prerequisite for French 2.)

Start early.
It takes time to get ACT scores tabulated and sent, and it takes time for school counselors and others providing references to gather information.

Follow the instructions and proofread.
The application form is often an admission committee's first contact with a prospective student. Make a good impression with a neat application free of spelling and grammatical errors.

Work with your high school to send transcripts & test scores.
Go to your school guidance office for help getting all necessary transcripts, records, test scores, and applications sent to prospective schools. If you decide to apply to schools that have not already received your ACT scores, you can ask ACT to send your scores to that college.

TranscriptThe official record of high school or college courses and grades, generally required as part of the college application.

Make the most of personal references.

  • Ask people who know you and can support the recommendation well.
  • Prepare a neat and legible reference form.
  • Give your references plenty of time—a school counselor isn't likely to write glowing recommendations for last-minute requests! Allow at least two weeks before application deadlines.

Write an outstanding essay.
Most college applications require an essay, so spend time crafting a good one. A great essay probably won't get you into college if you don't meet the other academic requirements. But if a student is a "possible admit"— one of the "maybes" the college may admit—it can move him or her higher up on the list.

Be ready to interview, audition, or submit a portfolio.
Some colleges also require a personal interview or examples of work in special areas such as art or music.

Keep a copy of all your application materials.

Top 10 College Application Mistakes

Senior year is hectic, but don't let that affect the quality of your college applications. Take your time, pay attention to detail and plan ahead so you can meet the deadlines.

Following are some of the top responses from counselors and admissions staff who shared the most common mistakes on college applications.

  1. Misspellings and grammatical errors—This is a big pet peeve of admissions people. Misspellings on something as important as the application shows that either you don't care or you aren't good at spelling. Some students even misspell their intended major. But don't stop with a spell check. Proofread for grammatical errors, too.
  2. Applying online, but the application isn't actually submitted—If you apply online, you should receive confirmation that the college or university received it. Confirmation could be an email message, a Web page response or a credit card receipt. Follow through and make sure that your application has been received.
  3. Forgotten signatures—Make sure you sign and date the form. Often students overlook that part of the form if it's on the back. Check that all spaces are completed.
  4. Not reading carefully—For example, if the form asks what County you live in, don't misread it as Country and write United States.
  5. Listing extracurricular activities that aren't—Those that make the list include sports, the arts, formal organizations and volunteer work. Talking on the phone and hanging out with friends don't make the cut. Make sure your activity information is accurate. Colleges may check with your high school.
  6. Not telling your school counselor where you've applied—Let your counselor know which colleges you're applying to, and ask him or her to review your high school transcript before sending it to colleges. Sometimes transcripts have errors.
  7. Writing illegibly—First impressions count, so take your time and use your best handwriting. It will make a better impression.
  8. Using an email address that friends might laugh about, but colleges won't—Select a professional email address. Keep your fun address for friends, but select an address using your name for college admissions.
  9. Not checking your email regularly—If you've given an email address, the college will use it. You don't want to miss out on anything because you didn't read your email.
  10. Letting Mom or Dad help you fill out your application—Admissions people know if your parents help, whether you have two different styles of handwriting or your admissions essay sounds more like a 45-year-old than a 17-year-old. It's fine to get advice, but do the work yourself.

Choosing a College

Choosing a college is one of the toughest choices you'll make in high school. Each of these articles offers some great tips for choosing a college.

Identify Important Factors in Choosing a College

In choosing a college, the first things you'll probably consider will be the type of academic program and the availability of the major—or majors—you are most interested in.

Here are some other things to think about as you compare colleges. How you rank these other factors will depend largely on your personal preferences and needs.

Number your top five factors by importance below.


  • distance from home


  • type of school (2-year or 4-year)
  • school setting (urban, rural)
  • location and size of nearest city
  • co-ed, male, female
  • religious affiliation


  • enrollment
  • physical size of campus

Admission requirements

  • deadline(s)
  • test(s) required
  • average test scores, GPA, rank
  • special requirements


  • majors offered
  • special requirements
  • accreditation—recognized by regional or national accrediting bodies as meeting its objectives
  • student-faculty ratio
  • typical class size

College expenses

  • tuition, room and board
  • estimated total budget
  • application fee, deposits

Financial aid

  • deadline(s)
  • required forms
  • % of student population receiving aid
  • scholarships
  • part-time employment opportunities


  • residence hall requirements
  • availability
  • types and sizes
  • food plans


  • academic
  • recreational
  • other


  • clubs, organizations
  • sororities/fraternities
  • athletics, intramurals
  • other

Campus visits

  • when to visit
  • special opportunities

Think About Your Reasons for Going to College

What do you want to be when you "grow up" and how will college help you get there?

Although college cannot be all things to all students, with proper planning it can meet your needs and expectations. High school is an excellent time to identify what you expect from college.

Use your interests, abilities, and preferences to help you choose a career and plan your education. As you decide which colleges and major(s) interest you, keep your long-term goals in mind. Decisions about college are part of the career planning process.

For example, if you like science and technology and want to work with various kinds of physical evidence from a crime scene, look for a strong biology or forensic science program. Decide what you want from life and use college as a tool to help you get there.

List, Compare, and Visit Colleges

It's time to narrow down your list of possible colleges. Collect information about colleges that might meet most of your needs. Then, identify potential choices for the next step—applying for admission.

Sources of information

  • College catalogs, information bulletins or videos
  • College representatives
  • Parents, students and alumni
  • School counselors and teachers
  • College websites and Internet searches
  • Directories and computerized information systems
  • Professionals in the field
  • College planning section of your ACT score report

Your high school counselor can lead you to other resources, maybe in a career/education center in your school or community.

Questions to Ask on a Campus Visit

  • What activities and services are available to help students get settled (academically and socially) during their first year?
  • How big are the classes?
  • (Ask students) How easy is it to meet with faculty?
  • (Ask students) Are you able to register for the classes you want?
  • What is the total cost of attending the college?
  • What types of financial aid does the college offer and how do I apply?
  • Are all freshmen assigned to an academic advisor?
  • Where do most freshmen live?
  • Can I take a tour?
  • What activities are available for students?
  • Who teaches the courses for first-year students?
  • How successful are the college's graduates in finding jobs?
  • What services (such as transportation and shopping) are available locally?

Make Final Decisions

Waiting for notice of college acceptance can be agonizing. Admissions materials and financial aid applications list the date by which decisions will be made. Don't expect to be notified much sooner. Many schools mail notifications to applicants by April 1, and most require acceptance by May 1.

Once admissions notices are received, the decision-making begins. Make your decision carefully and thoughtfully, and accept an offer that feels right. If that dream college doesn't extend an offer, remind yourself that it isn't the end of the world. A college education, regardless of the school where you earn it, is a valuable investment in your future.

Be sure you keep the lines of communication open with all of the schools extending offers. Once you make a final decision, let all who have extended offers know of the decision.

College Planning Checklist

There are specific things you can do during each year of high school to plan and prepare for college. Use this college planning checklist to keep track of your progress and important application deadlines.

Freshman Year

  • Make the Most of High School
    • Take classes recommended for college preparation. Talk to your counselor.
    • Use testing information. Examine your scores and take extra courses or get tutoring assistance for weaker academic areas.
    • Establish goals for each school year. Talk to your counselor about what you should be doing in light of your college and career plans.
    • Explore careers through research and experiences. Use a career counseling program and job shadow or do internships in careers you are interested in pursuing.
    • Surf the Internet for information on education and career planning.
    • Take a college entrance exam during your junior year.
    • Never stop learning. Education is a lifelong pursuit.
  • Plan challenging high school courses
  • Find out why you should go to college
  • Become familiar with college entrance requirements
  • Start thinking about reasons for attending college
  • Join/continue extracurricular activities
  • Attend summer camp at a college to experience a college-like atmosphere
  • Research college costs
  • Continue/start saving for college
  • Meet with your college/career counselor at least once a year
  • Explore careers on the Internet by visiting ACT's free interactive World-of-Work Map

Sophomore Year

  • Continue to take and plan challenging high school courses
  • Continue to meet with your college/career counselor at least once a year or by visiting ACT's free interactive World-of-Work Map
  • Take the PreACT -  a 10th grade multiple-choice assessment that helps students prepare for the experience of taking the ACT® test and provides information regarding their future performance on the exam
  • Think about what kind of education/training different careers require
  • Start collecting college information
  • Visit colleges and talk with college students
  • Be ready with a list of questions to ask on your campus visit
  • Use this list of college characteristics to decide how to evaluate different colleges
  • Begin filling out the college comparison worksheet (PDF; 1 page)
  • Continue/start saving for college
  • Consider your reasons for going to college and how they relate to your career interests
  • Join/continue extracurricular activities

Junior Year

  • Keep meeting with your college/career counselor at least once a year
  • Continue to take and plan challenging courses
  • Keep your grades up
  • Join an academic club
  • Register for the ACT. You should be academically ready to take it by spring. If not, take it early in your senior year.
  • Read our key information about the ACT test
  • Talk with your parents and high school counselor about colleges that interest you
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask on campus visits
  • Continue to visit colleges and talk with college students
  • List, compare, and visit colleges
  • Start or update an academic resume
  • Consider putting together a portfolio that highlights your special skills and talents
  • Keep filling out the college comparison worksheet (PDF; 1 page, 64KB)
  • Check into applying to colleges online
  • Investigate scholarship opportunities
  • Volunteer for activities and clubs related to career interests
  • Apprenticeship
    • If you like to work with your hands and your mind, you might want to consider an apprenticeship after high school. More than 850 occupations can be learned on the job through an apprenticeship.
    • An apprenticeship prepares you for a career through a structured program of on-the-job learning with classroom instruction, while you work and earn a salary. The programs can last from one to six years and you can choose careers in areas such as telecommunications, health care, computing, business support and the arts. The most common apprenticeships are in construction and manufacturing.
    • Most apprenticeships are registered through the U.S. Department of Labor, ensuring the program meets government standards for fairness, safety and training. If you complete a registered program, you will receive a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor which proves your qualifications for the career. Also, classroom instruction often can be used to earn a license, certification or degree.
    • Following are the top 10 occupations offering apprenticeships that expect to have the most job openings for new workers (2000-2010):
    • cook, restaurant and cafeteria
    • automotive service technician, mechanic
    • licensed practical and licensed vocational nurse
    • carpenter
    • police officer
    • electrician
    • hairdresser, cosmetologist
    • maintenance and repair worker
    • welder, cutter, solderer and brazer
    • plumber, pipefitter and steamfitter
    • For more information on apprenticeships, visit with your counselor. You also can call America's Workforce Network toll-free at (877) US2-JOBS. (872-5672) Operators can help you find career counselors and apprenticeship programs in your area.

Senior Year

  • Senior year is finally here, and it's full of things to do to get ready for college. Use this senior year checklist to keep track of your progress and upcoming deadlines for testing, admissions and financial aid.
  • August
  • Sign up for the ACT (if you didn't take it as a junior, or if you aren't satisfied with your score, or if you've learned a lot since you first took it.)
  • Review ACT test results and retest if necessary
  • August – December
  • Visit with your school counselor to make sure you are on track to graduate and fulfill college admission requirements
  • Consider taking courses at a local university or community college
  • Keep working hard all year; second semester grades can affect scholarship eligibility
  • Ask for personal references from teachers, school counselors, or employers early in the year or at least two weeks before application deadlines. Follow your school's procedure for requesting recommendations.
  • Visit with admissions counselors who come to your high school
  • Attend a college fair
  • Begin your college essay(s)
  • Apply for admission at the colleges you've chosen
  • Avoid common college application mistakes
  • Find out if you qualify for scholarships at each college you have applied to
  • Start the financial aid application process
  • See your school counselor for help finding financial aid and scholarships
  • January – May
  • If you need it, get help completing the FAFSA
  • Ask your guidance office in January to send first semester transcripts to schools where you applied. In May, they will need to send final transcripts to the college you will attend.
  • Visit colleges that have invited you to enroll
  • Decide which college to attend, and notify the school of your decision
  • Keep track of and observe deadlines for sending in all required fees and paperwork
  • Notify schools you will not attend of your decision
  • Continue to look for scholarship opportunities
  • Keep track of important financial aid and scholarship deadlines
  • Watch the mail for your Student Aid Report (SAR)—it should arrive four weeks after the FAFSA is filed
  • Compare financial aid packages from different schools
  • Sign and send in a promissory note if you are borrowing money
  • Notify your college about any outside scholarships you received

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