College Basics: Understanding and Making Your Way to College

3 high schoolers getting ready to go to college

College will help you reach your goals.

Whether you want a degree in a specific field for a particular job, increase your income potential, discover new interests, or develop your passions, the college will provide you with the opportunity to set goals and meet them.

College provides growth.

Because college encourages self-sufficiency, you will become an independent adult. Maybe for the first time in your life, you’ll be solely responsible for your finances, your schedule, what you do and the people you surround yourself with.

College provides new and diverse experiences.

Whether it’s living in a dorm, joining a sorority or fraternity or another campus club, taking a unique class, or studying abroad, college life certainly opens new doors.  Through this, you may learn much about yourself and what you might want to do in life.

College provides strong social connections.

You’ll meet all sorts of people at school. Teachers, faculty and students all can become mentors and friends. Most likely, you’ll form your strongest relationships in college.

A college degree is a great investment.

Yes, it’s worth it! You’re more likely to get a job if you graduate from college. There is no doubt you will be more successful in getting a well-paid job if you get a higher education.

Teen girl on her laptop learning about why college is important

College is the foundation for Graduate School.

It’s a necessary requirement should you want to move on to get your graduate degree. If you think your career path requires graduate school, plan on an undergraduate degree first.

Don’t Go to College for These Reasons:

  • Because you think it is expected of you.
    If your main motivation is driven by others, you’ll wind up feeling unfulfilled.
  • Because of the parties.
    Sure, college is a wonderful social experience. But your primary reason for college should not be to party all the time. Not only are you wasting your money but you are not taking advantage of the opportunities college provides.
  • Because someone else chose that college.
    We hear sometimes that someone will choose a college that their girlfriend or boyfriend attends. This is not a reason to choose a specific school. Make your own decision.

Where to Start

A series of black and white question marks

It can be an uncertain time when considering what school to go to and what to study but, choosing your college track and your career path is essential. It is important to give this great thought. Consider the academics college will give you but also what it provides both physically and socially as well. If you think you might want to pursue a college or university degree, here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • What career is most interesting to you?
  • What kind of money might you earn from this career?
  • Do you think this salary will support the life you want?
  • In order to have a successful career in this field, what do you need to major in?
  • Which schools are best for these majors?
  • What does it cost to go to these schools?
  • Are there ways to save money and still graduate with a major that allows you the career you want? (Can you consider a community or state college and transfer to the more expensive school to attain your degree.)
  • How much college do you need for your career? Do you need a degree and what classes are required?
  • Do you need to go to grad school or take specific programs or exams for your chosen degree? If so, what grad schools and programs do you need? How much do they cost? What financial aid is available?
  • If you are not certain of a career path yet, what college will allow you to explore multiple interests and passions?

How to Choose a College

"Choose Your Future" spelled out on a chalkboard

Colleges vary tremendously in many ways, including academic focus and difficulty, types of students, campus setting, and cost. As you think about how to pick your bestfit college, there are many things to think about:

  • Academic Class Offerings and Programs
  • School Rank
  • Cost and Financial Aid Options
  • Requirements to Admission
  • School Size and Teacher/Student Ratio
  • Location and Campus Environment
  • Activities/Athletic Programs
  • Dorm and Living Amenities

You’ll pick the right school for you by researching facts, visiting colleges, talking to people, and discussing it with your school counselor and parents. Make certain you take advantage of online information about colleges, reviews, personal recommendations, and college tours. Make sure you get all your questions answered.

College Costs

College cost depicted with coins and a small graduation cap

No doubt that tuition costs are rising. It may seem impossible to afford a higher education. But we can show you how to anticipate and manage college costs. Here are are the primary expenses of going to school:

  • Tuition and Fees
  • Room and Board/Dorm Costs
  • Books and Supplies
  • Travel/Transportation Costs
  • Personal Expenses

Paying for College Creatively

While there are many ways that will help you pay for your college career, here are a few ideas.

Apply for scholarships

Scholarship money with a small graduation cap

If you are able to get any scholarships toward school, it’s free money! You won’t have to pay it back and even if small amounts, it all adds up. Be creative in exploring scholarships. You might find some in athletics, academics or extracurricular activities.

Take AP classes

Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school can be beneficial in lowering your overall college expenses. Specifically, some colleges accept AP credit and at others the except you from taking a required class.

Get a Job

Even during high school, it’s wise to get a job, whether part time or full time. And then, save, save, save!

Open a Savings Account

If you mean business saving for college, make sure you open a savings account. Many banks offer a student account which usually will waive monthly fees and not require a minimum balance.

How to Find Scholarships

Here are ways to find scholarship opportunities:

  • Consider your extracurricular activities and hobbies.
  • Search online for scholarships.
  • Network with your school counselor, teachers, neighbors, community, co-workers and family.
  • Consider scholarships for minority students.

College Visits

College tours are a critical part of shopping for the right school. Once you’ve made a short list of schools, you should plan to make college visits, meet students and faculty, and get your questions answered. These visits will give you a great sense of whether or not a college is a good fit.

A college visit allows you to experience so much including the trip needed to get there, the people who are there, and the culture and learning environment on campus. Make sure you see the dorms, taste the college food, visit the classrooms, and walk the campus. This is all crucial to understanding if you would be happy there.

What do Colleges Look for?

Filling out a college application online

Colleges want to enroll students that will be successful at their school and beyond. Here are the top college admission factors they consider:

ACT and SAT scores

Standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT, provide colleges a regulated way to judge your academic ability. It’s a way they deem if you are ready to attend college.

You’ll want to do your best on your testing. Also, review your desired schools’ admittance guidelines so you know what score you’ll need in order to be considered.

Transcript and GPA

A+ grade in red ink

Colleges are looking at your transcript and GPA primarily to look for:

  • what classes you took
  • how well you did

Again, review your desired schools’ admittance profile to see what GPA range they consider.

Class Rank

For many schools, rank does not really matter. However, if you are wishing to get into a top tier school, rank will play a larger role. Opt to take the hardest classes and get the best grades you can to be in the highest rank you can.

Extracurricular Activities

Things you do outside of school does influence the decision to admit you. Make sure you follow your interests and passions. If you can maintain your grades while managing your time to do other things, the more apt you’ll be accepted into the college or university. Examples of extracurricular activities:

  • sports teams
  • musical groups
  • academic clubs
  • student government
  • student newspaper
  • volunteer work
  • scouts
  • part-time job
  • college classes
  • church groups

Supplemental Essays and Recommendation Letters

Both supplemental essays and letters of recommendation are used by some colleges to consider how well you will do in college and beyond. Both of these should showcase who you are, what you’re passionate about, and your successes.

Demonstrating Interest

Many admission departments consider “demonstrated interest” as part of their formula to consider your application. After all, colleges and universities receive thousands of applications and they want to know how likely you are to attend if admitted. Demonstrated interest is tracked via your contact with the college. Here are some examples:

  • Apply early. Especially if you opt for an early decision, shows the college that you prioritized them as your top choice.
  • Connect with college staff.
  • Connect through social media. Become a follower, and ask meaningful, genuine questions.
  • List your first choice college on your Financial Aid form.
  • Campus visits
  • Personal interviews
  • Thank you notes

Whatever you do, don’t bother the admissions staff or go over the top. Only ask serious questions that cannot be answered using the college website.

Application Process

While each college and university has its own admission process and requirements, there are universal tips and best practices when it comes to applying. While it can be daunting, there are basic parts of the application you should know before applying:

  • Personal information (basics including school and family).
  • High school transcript (a record of your classes and your grades) and school profile
  • College essay
  • Standardized test scores such as the ACT and SAT
  • Recommendation letters
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Supplemental essay

College Essays

Teen girl writing her college essay online

The college essay is probably the most important parts of your application. It personalizes your application and shows colleges your writing ability.

Fortunately, you can probably submit the same or similar essays for all your college applications. Brainstorm on topics by looking at your previous writing or research other writing examples. Start your essay early and make sure you seek help from your guidance counselor, teachers and parents.

In addition to the required essay, make sure to supplement with a personal statement. Impress the college of your interest and reasons why you want to attend that specific college.

Common App

The Common Application is a free app that allows you to create a single online college application form. It is used by an ever-growing number of colleges and universities. Instead of filling out the same basic information over and over, you can do it once and submit it to numerous schools. The Common App dashboard also helps you track important deadlines and documents such as your letters of recommendation as well as the status of your application. While it is no cost to use Common App, you will be charged the application fees for the schools you are applying to.

ACT vs SAT What’s Right for you?

Both the ACT and SAT are nationally recognized standardized tests and common admission requirements for US colleges. (These tests also are used to determine if you qualify for certain merit-based scholarships.) Each test measures your problem solving and reading comprehension skills. All U.S. colleges accept either test so there’s no advantage in taking one test over the other.

In order to decide which test to take, either SAT, ACT, or both), plan on taking a full-length practice test of each. You’ll want to see how you manage time for each and what types of questions you find the most challenging. You’ll have a better understanding of which test is best for you. For more information, consult with your guidance counselor and these resources:

omparison of ACT vs. SAT:

Total Time for Exam2 hrs 55 mins without Essay
3 hrs 35 mins with
3 hrs without Essay
3 hrs 50 mins with
Exam Structure1. English
2. Math
3. Reading
4. Science
5. Essay (optional)
1. Reading
2. Writing & Language
3. Math No Calculator
4. Math Calculator
5. Essay (optional)
Time Allottment Per
English: 45 mins
Math: 60 mins
Reading: 35 mins
Science: 35 mins
Essay (optional):
40 mins
Reading: 65 mins
Writing & Language:
35 mins
Math No Calculator:
25 mins
Math Calculator:
55 mins
Essay (optional):
50 mins
Number of QuestionsEnglish: 75 questions
Math: 60 questions
Reading: 40 questions
Science: 40 questions
Essay (optional):
1 essay
Reading: 52 questions
Writing & Language:
44 questions
Math No Calculator:
20 questions
Math Calculator:
38 questions
Essay (optional):
1 essay
Reading4 Reading Sections5 Reading Sections
Science1 Section to Test
Critical Thinking &
MathArithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry,
Trigonometry, and
Probability & Statistics
Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry,
Trigonometry and
Data Analysis
EssayOptional. Reading
Optional. Reading
ScoringTotal score range: 1-36
Each section uses a
scale of 1-36. Your
total score is the
average of your four
section scores.
The optional Writing
section uses a scale of 2-12 and does not
count toward your
final score.
Total score range: 400-1600
The Evidence-Based
Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math
sections each use a
scale of 200-800 and
are combined for a
total score.
The optional Essay
uses three separate
scales of 1-8 and does
not count toward your final score.
Cost$46.00 without Essay
$62.50 with Essay
$47.50 without Essay
$64.50 with Essay
Who Accepts Scores?Accepted by all U.S.
colleges and
Accepted by all U.S.
colleges and
AvailabilityFebruary, April, June,
July, September,
October, December
March or April, May,
June, August, October, November, December

How to Prepare for College

College prep can mean many things. Primarily, it can mean basic class requirements. While the classes you have to take in order to apply to college can vary state to state, it will be something like this:

  • <4> years of English
  • <3> years of math
  • <3> years of science
  • <3> years of social studies

If you are not sure what the class requirements are, talk to your guidance counselor.

AP Classes

A second college prep action is Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors Classes. These are available in high school as a way to prepare you for the rigor of college courses. Sometimes community colleges and private college prep agencies offer classes as well to prepare students. The GPA (grade point average) weight for college-preparatory courses may have more value for college entry programs than regular courses.

Whether or not to enroll in an AP or Honors Class is one to consider. You want to avoid taking too many and not be able to keep your grades up. At the same time, you should challenge yourself a bit. Try to take 1 or 2 of honors or AP classes in the subjects you are strongest in.  

Teen boy working with his guidance counselor

Another “college prep” is a class or program aimed to increase your chances of getting accepted into college. These programs center on academics and tutoring, ACT or SAT test strategies, college admissions, college essays, college and career planning, scholarships and financial aid. Sometimes, these programs are in a group format and other times include an individual mentor or advisor to help you along the process. These programs can be private and some are federal, state, university, and community-based.

Last, college prep can mean a specific school that is focused on preparing you for college. These schools include public, private, boarding, parochial, and charter schools.

How many colleges should you apply to?

It’s a common question. How many are too many? How few is too few? While you want to keep options open, you don’t want to overdo it either. While there is no standard number, a common recommendation is to apply to 6 to 8 schools in total. Specifically:

  • Reach Colleges (colleges that are unlikely to offer you admission) –
    2 or 3
  • Target Colleges (colleges that you have a fair chance of getting admission) –
    2 or 3
  • Safety Schools (colleges you feel safely qualified for) –

If you’re determined to go to a very selective school, one that has a lower admission rate, then you might want to apply to more schools. On the other hand, you may want to limit your applications to reduce your cost. Applications cost money and vary from school to school. You can budget that each will be approximately $75. Time is also a consideration. While more and more schools are using The Common Application, which allows you to apply to many colleges with one application, many colleges still have their own applications or require supplemental essays.


As you can see, college is a huge endeavor but worth the work. Once you are certain college is for you, you’ll need to do your homework to prepare. Make sure you start early and take it one step at a time. We’ll help you along the way with more informative articles including step-by-step lists, finance tips, pre-classes and more!