How to Plan for College

So you’re getting ready for college? This next chapter in your life will be exciting!

Both your future career and the kind of lifestyle you get to have will be shaped by the choices you make after reading this article.

It’s essential to learn how to plan for college because it will affect the way you manage your time, personal finances, and balance it all as efficiently as possible for at least the next four years.

Here are some things to consider.

Preparing for SAT & ACT Tests

You’ve probably heard about SAT and ACT, but what are they? Read on.

What is the SAT Exam?

Let’s go back to the year 1900. The US military developed an intelligence test that allowed them to choose the best candidates for officers from among the recruits. Shortly after, in 1926, colleges began to imitate this idea of measuring intelligence to attract the very best students.

It was these early College Boards that created standardized multiple-choice exams to make sure students were taught the same curriculum across the country.

In 1959, a new testing organization called American College Testing formed and created the ACT exam, which is very similar to the SAT exam.

The letters that make up the acronym SAT have changed several times over the years. It was widely known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but in 1996 was changed to SAT Reasoning Test.

Both the SAT and ACT, are taken by high school and college students to qualify them for scholarships and college admission. The tests take between 2-4 hours to complete, and they test critical reading, writing, vocabulary, reasoning, math, and science.

The way the SAT exam is scored aggregates the number of correct answers but does not take away points for incorrect answers. Therefore, it’s not possible to “fail” the exam, per se, but a low enough score can hurt your chances of admission.

  • 1600 is a perfect score
  • 1000 is average
  • 1200 is considered very good
  • 840 or lower is poor

Why is the Exam Important?

The rejection rate of universities is high. Everyone wants to get in, but seats are limited. While your SAT score isn’t the only factor that determines acceptance, it helps to know where you stand among the average scores.

Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton currently accept 5% of applicants. Average SAT scores for Stanford applicants, for example, were somewhere between 1420-1570.

Vanderbilt, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins University accept around 10% of applicants. The average SAT score for Cornell University is about 1390-1540.

Among those accepting at a rate of 30% are CSU Long Beach, UC San Diego, and the University of Rochester, to name a few. The average CSU Long Beach score is between 1040-1250.

Keep in mind that SAT scores are only one of many admission factors. Courses taken while in high school, class rank, personal essays, recommendations, interview, and extracurricular activities count towards being accepted.

When Do You Take the SAT Test?

High school students can take the practice SAT (called PSAT) as early as the eighth grade.

The official SAT can be taken as early as your high school sophomore year and no later than your high school senior year. If you take the exam multiple times, you have the choice to use the exam with the highest score to show to colleges.

Check with your counselor for the available dates of the exam. Generally, you have seven chances per year to take the SAT: March, May, June, August, October, November, and December.

Is the SAT Free?

Currently, the cost of the SAT is $49.50. Including the optional essay section raises it to $64.50 and takes an extra 50 minutes to complete.

If you have to change your test date or you register late, it could cost an extra $30.

However, you can apply for a fee waiver, and the test is entirely free.

How Do You Prepare?

You can take a pre-SAT exam based on your current high school grade. The PSAT serves for practice and does not affect your college admission and doesn’t count towards anything.

Even if you don’t yet have college on your mind as a high school freshman or sophomore, you should consider taking the PSAT for your current grade to get used to the kinds of questions and the pressure of taking such a critical exam.

Remember, the PSAT has no value for college admissions. However, your PSAT score can qualify you to earn, for example, $2,500 from the National Merit Scholarship. Taking advantage of it is similar to an airline pilot flying many computer simulations to prepare for the real event, while potentially earning you money towards your education.

Imagine, therefore, using the PSAT as a way to give you instant feedback on the school subjects you’ll need to put extra effort into.

Lucky for you, thousands of students have now realized where they could have done better, and you can learn from their mistakes.

Watch out for these common SAT mistakes:

  • Running out of time – skip the hard questions, go for the easy points, then go back to answer the harder questions. This is how you can avoid running out of time. Remember, there is no penalty for guessing, so make sure to create enough time to answer all questions.
  • Lack of knowledge – simply not knowing a subject is enough to miss out on points. Make sure to always do your assigned homework and ask teachers for help during your high school years.
  • Carelessness – rushing can fog the mind. Control your breathing, so it’s slow and deep, and this can help you stay calm and focused. Never rush through a test section.
  • Guessing – there are no trick questions, but misunderstanding what the question is really asking can cause you to guess unnecessarily. Read the question twice, making sure to understand each word in the question. Avoid guessing by reading the questions multiple times or skip it and return to it later.

A good alternative is to try online SAT tests. There are many available for free or at a cost.

College Admission

Scoring well on the SAT isn’t enough for college admission administrators. Especially if your score looks a lot like the other thousand applicants, getting to know you personally through your college essay can help you stand out.

The college application essay is your chance to tell your story of personal struggle and triumph up to this point in your life.

It’s your chance to be real and express yourself creatively.

However, not everyone has a dramatic hero story. You can also make your essay about the significance of college as an element that plays a role in your higher goals.

A good essay is like a movie screenplay. It has a hero (you) and uses lots of details to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. You don’t have to share personal matters or get too deep into a story, but it should convey the importance that you feel towards higher education.

The administrator reading your essay wants to know why you’ve chosen that school and how it’s going to complete the puzzle of your life. In other words, that you have a plan to follow and college plays a meaningful role in your story – it’s a means to an end, and you can articulate that.

The reader should have an excellent idea of the kind of person you are after they’ve read your essay. So, be on the lookout for memories with significance that you might want to share.

Instead of trying to squeeze a long story into a single page, it’s best to choose the highlight of the story and tell it from that perspective.

Some people recommend keeping a journal of several personal stories. When it comes time to write your essay, you won’t suffer from writer’s block, and all that will remain is to pull the best story from your collection.

When you tell this story, fight your urge to impress the reader with lofty vocabulary. Your essay is the time to show your personality, so write how you speak. Be real.

Don’t be afraid to talk about significant accomplishments. Just don’t bring them up simply to show off. The best way to showcase yourself confidently without bragging is to demonstrate how your achievement is a bridge towards something better and not just an ego boost.

For example, if your dream is to have a successful career in the field of Deep Learning and Artificial Intelligence, it makes perfect sense to talk about how you won first place in a computer programming competition. This proves your dedication and passion towards this field of science, and applying to college is the natural step to develop that skill.

Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges will require 2-3 letters of recommendation as part of your application process.

This is to reveal something about you that your grades alone can’t. People you can ask for a letter of recommendation include:

  • Recent teacher
  • Counselor
  • Employer or coach/mentor
  • Family

Every college has different requirements. Some want one letter from a teacher and one from a counselor, while others want from two teachers, each from a specific class subject, like one from math and one from humanities.

Your recommendation letter should be powerfully written. To avoid weak letters, politely ask someone if they would feel comfortable creating one for you. When it comes to recommendation letters, quality is favored over quantity.

On that same note, if you believe including an extra letter of recommendation will help the admissions committee to understand you as a person better, then go ahead and include 1-2 more letters than required.

Help the chosen person to write a good letter by reminding them of all your positive characteristics and activities while you were in their class or team. Remember, you might be one of many who are also getting a letter made by that particular teacher or counselor, so they will appreciate it if you do this.

It’s better to ask early – at least a month before the deadline. Make an appointment and give them plenty of time to draft a letter for you.

Mention your hobbies, plans for college, and remind them of your accomplishments. Print this out or share an online document. Mention any challenges that you overcame and anything they helped you learn.

A recommendation letter can be 1-2 pages long, but some teachers may write 3-4 pages.

Go the extra mile and hand the teacher/counselor a stamped and addressed envelope for the college that requests this recommendation letter.

You can follow up about a week or so before the letter is due. This is to politely remind the person that it’s vital to meet the deadline. Send a thank-you note afterward to show appreciation.

Choosing A College

Choosing a college begins at different times for everyone. Some kids grow up dreaming of attending a specific college. Others don’t worry about it until their high school junior year.

When you are ready to choose a college, begin by making a list of colleges based on your priorities.

What is important to you? Then rank those values in order.

Perhaps you value staying close to home. Or maybe you have a sense of adventure and want to attend a college on the opposite coast.

Maybe you want to follow in an older sibling’s footsteps, or you want to pick the college of your favorite sports team.

If you moved to a different state, could you find a job to support living there?

As you develop your list of colleges, you’ll notice that some things are negotiable, and others are not.

You might prioritize attending a big university, no matter what. Other students might be okay with attending a small private college, while others want to stay in a geographical location with specific weather they prefer.

Use the internet and talk with your peers. Ask your friends what reasons they have for picking their colleges; this might spark ideas. Read online forums and join social media groups. You’ll begin to learn which colleges are known for specific programs that you want.

Once this list of colleges and your reasons are sorted out, you can share this list with a counselor who might see something that you can’t.

If your school provides it or you have access, consider visiting a dedicated College Career Center. You can find skilled professionals to point you in the right direction based on your preferences, and they can hand you the information you didn’t know existed.

Depending on where you live, your high school might offer field trips to visit local college campuses. Take advantage of these trips.

To make the most of your campus visit, grab maps and any pamphlets made available to you by the college tour guide.

You can speak directly with the professors. Even better, sit in on a class and get a first-hand look into a day in the life in your chosen major.

If you can’t visit the campus of your dream college, see if you can reach out to alumni through social media. Have them answer all your questions about campus culture.

At this point, you will have gotten over your confusion over which college to pick. You can begin to narrow your list of choices to the dozen or so that match your priorities.

Choosing the right college for you is not easy, and you should prepare to do tons of research. After all, college is where you’ll spend the next four years of your life (or longer). It’s worth digging for as much information as you can to come to this final decision.

What To Do If You Get Rejected?

The more competitive a college is, the more applications they reject. Top colleges reject as much as 95% of applicants, while less competitive ones reject closer to 70% of students.

On average, students are taught to increase their chances of getting into any college by spreading out the difficulty of getting in. In other words, don’t apply only to a handful of your dream colleges.

Apply to others based on difficulty. This way, in the worst-case scenario, you should be accepted by at least one out of ten.

For example, if your eyes are set on top colleges, your chances of getting accepted are so small. Prepare for rejection as follows: consider applying to 2-3 colleges that you believe you are very likely to get into, then 2-3 that are your target colleges, and finally 2-3 that you likely won’t get into but are worth trying.

That’s a total of 6-10 colleges, with varying probabilities of getting accepted/rejected.

Should everyone apply to that many colleges? No.

College applications cost up to $75 each. Recall that requesting numerous SAT or ACT score reports also requires money. If you want to apply to that many colleges, it can quickly add up to $1,000 or more just to apply.

Apply to as many as you can afford, aiming towards 7-10, but only to those you actually would want to attend if you were accepted.

Now, what should you do if you get rejected from your dream college?

That’s emotionally tough. But you should be prepared for that. If you receive that letter of rejection from your dream college, it can play tricks on your mind.

First of all, know that it happens to a lot of your friends and peers. Everyone is going to get rejected one way or another. If you have to cry or hit a punching bag, do so.

The first few days will feel strange. You might need time alone to process the rejection. Some people can openly discuss this with friends/family, while others are overcome with shame and embarrassment.

If you have to distract yourself from the pain with video games, hanging out, or building something creative, do it. But decide to let it out for a certain amount of time and then move on. Do not wallow in sadness.

Some of your options include:

  • Take a gap year and apply again later. Work a job in the meantime.
  • Attend a different school, with plans to transfer to your dream college
  • Appeal the rejection (worth a shot)

Other students are not ready for college yet, and rejection doesn’t mean much to them. They take time off to travel the world, backpack through Europe, start a small business, or discover what life is about before committing to more schooling.

Paying for Tuition and Cost of Living

According to recent studies by Sallie Mae, 51% of parents believe the responsibility of college decision-making is shared between them and their children.

This is probably so because when it comes to paying for college, 43% of the cost is covered by family savings and income.

Parents understand the importance of higher education and will stretch themselves financially to put their children through college.

To match up with parents, students will apply for scholarships and grants. This makes up 31% of the covered cost of attending college.

Combined, this only covers 75% of the cost. The remaining 25% comes from borrowing (college loans).

Knowing these statistics, you can see that you have three sources of income to cover college costs:

  • Parents, and/or student working while in college
  • Scholarships and grants
  • Loans

Let’s talk about borrowing first since it seems like an easy solution on the surface.

Before you tell your parents to keep all their money, consider the negative consequences of funding a large part of your college costs with loans.

Yes, borrowed money comes with interest. This means you will end up paying more than the original price of college.

If you have to borrow, you can minimize the interest in a few ways.

You can look for subsidized loans. These are loans from the government that you qualify for and come with various limits, and the interest payments can be deferred to alleviate the financial burden on you.

Deferring interest payment can save you several hundred dollars a month while attending college. You won’t be required to repay interest until after you graduate and, in some cases, you can continue to defer interest payment up to six months after you graduate.

Aside from government-subsidized loans, you can find no-interest student loans that are typically offered by government agencies, private companies, or nonprofit organizations. The drawback is these usually must be repaid while you are in college. To qualify, you need substantial grades, a personal interview, a cosigner, prove financial need, and meet other criteria.

If you can get a Pell Grant, which is a government-sponsored program, this funding doesn’t require repayment. It’s a grant, not a loan.

To learn about the various types of government financial aid that you can qualify for, complete an application known as the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA).

Other government loans you’ll encounter are Federal Stafford Loans, Federal Direct Loans, and Federal Consolidation Loan, to name a few.

A common trap to avoid is accepting to borrow the full amount for which you qualify. Instead of viewing a loan as free money, you should only borrow what you need, not everything you are eligible to receive.

As a simple matter of personal finance, add up all your monthly costs, like food, tuition, room and board, lab fees, class supplies, and extra unpredictable expenses. Do your best to borrow close to this final number to keep your debt at a minimum.

To help keep your cost of living low so that you avoid borrowing so much, consider attending a nearby college to save on gas.

Another smart tip, don’t fill up your time with only academics. Get a part-time job, either on campus or nearby.

Campus jobs don’t pay a lot, but it doesn’t require a car, and you are close to dorms, and you might even squeeze in some study time.

Here is a list of possible jobs for college students:

  • Babysitter
  • Call center agent
  • Online virtual assistant (VA)
  • Staffing job worker (warehouse, general labor, events, etc.)
  • Pet sitter
  • Bartender, coffee shop barista
  • Retail store associate
  • Gym receptionist
  • Hotel front desk receptionist
  • Lifeguard
  • Social media assistant
  • Rideshare driver
  • Bank teller
  • Tour guide
  • Fitness instructor

If you can get a roommate in a similar financial situation, split the rent and utility bill. Also, avoid eating out regularly, especially at fast-food restaurants.

With the internet, it’s relatively easy to make a side income by starting a blog, being a freelancer, doing web designing, photography, or selling items on eBay.

A financially smart route to take is to start at a community college. You can take all the prerequisite classes there at a cheaper cost, both while earning an undergraduate and graduate degree. Once those are met, transfer to a state school.

Final Thoughts

There you have it! Planning for college begins with taking practice SAT exams and seeking the support of teachers and counselors via recommendation letters.

Choosing the right college is a matter of knowing your priorities. It involves weighing your dreams and desires against the realities and limitations of your finances and other personal circumstances.

Even with the rising costs of college tuition, you have several options to pay for it all. Your parents can help you out. You can apply for government grants and scholarships, and also take on various part-time jobs.

We hope this article has boosted your confidence and given you several resources to help guide you. College will be an unforgettable experience.

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