For any student, whether you’re right out of high school or a young professional considering further studies, college planning is a big deal and shouldn’t be something you want to overlook.
When you start planning for college, you’ll get to explore different colleges, their programs, ebooks and what they’re all about. This will help you figure out which ones are a good fit for you academically and socially.

In this article, we’ll dig deeper into college planning, understand how it involves understanding the nitty-gritties like admission requirements, financial aid options, scholarships etc. Also, we’ll look at what students from different phases of life should consider when making a college planning checklist, how to research colleges and plan financially for your college education.

After all, college planning is about making informed decisions, setting realistic goals, and getting on track for a successful college experience.

Why Is it Important to Start College Planning Early?

Once you start planning for college, you’ll realize why it is essential for you to start early. Early college planning can allow you to:

  1. Explore a range of options: By starting college planning early, you could have ample time to research and explore various colleges and study programs. This lets you cast a wider net and consider a plethora of options, thereby increasing your chances of finding a college that matches your educational needs. 
  1. Secure admission and financial aid: If you start early, you get a head start in understanding the admission requirements in detail and prepare a strong application. This also helps you explore financial aid options, scholarships, grants, etc., giving you time to compile all necessary documentation and complete applications well in time.
  1. Prepare well academically: College planning involves academic preparation which could mean you’ll need to take up challenging courses, participate in extracurricular activities, and build a strong academic record. Starting early will give you the time required to develop your skills, strengthen your qualifications and make you a competitive applicant.
  1. Plan for standardized tests: to secure a spot in your dream college, note that standardized tests like the SAT or ACT can play a significant role. If you’re smart enough to start early, you should be able to better identify test dates, develop a study schedule, and utilize resources and prep courses that help boost your performance on these exams.
  1. Manage stress and expectations: College planning can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re juggling multiple responsibilities. Starting early gives you the time you need to break down your tasks into manageable steps, thereby reducing stress and allowing you to set realistic expectations. 

If you start planning for college in advance and list a college planning checklist, you would be left with more time and opportunities to make informed decisions and position yourself for success in the application process.

A checklist for college planning can set you up for success in your academic journey, simply by giving direction to your goals, helping you set realistic timelines to achieve them and helping you keep track of what you need to consider when looking for your ideal college. 

In this section, we will look at what this checklist must look like for students from all walks of life and what they could consider when making their college planning checklist. 

11th and 12th Grade Students:

  1. Research colleges and universities: Start by conducting extensive research on different institutions that offer degree programs that you’re interested in. Remember to include factors like location, size, majors offered, campus culture, and financial aid options. To start your college search, consider tools like CollegEnroll to match your interests with your ideal college and find institutes that align with your educational needs.
  2. Prepare and take standardized tests: It’s a smart move to register for and take the SAT and/or ACT exams. You should also consider taking practice tests and seeking test prep resources to improve your scores.
  3. Attend college fairs and information sessions: Seek opportunities to meet with college professors and representatives in college fairs. This will help you gather information and ask questions about admission requirements and programs.
  4. Start drafting your personal statement and essays: An important part of your college planning checklist is starting to brainstorm and write your college essays, as well as  seek feedback from teachers or counselors.
  1. Plan a college visit: Considering a campus visit can help you gain firsthand experience of campuses, facilities, and student life. This could aid your decision making process and help you anticipate how your college life could turn out to be.
  2. Research for scholarships: Scholarships are a great way to pay for your education, without making a dent in your savings. Make the most of your school years by keeping your eyes open for scholarship opportunities that could possibly help fund your college education.
  3. Focus on your academic performance: This is crucial in the checklist. As a student, you should strive for good grades and continue involvement in extracurricular activities to maximize your chances of earning a spot in the college of your choice.
  4. Meet with your high school counselor: Consult your counselor regularly to discuss college planning, course selections, graduation requirements, and application timelines.

College Students:

Once you’re done with high school and enter your freshman year, your college planning checklist becomes more comprehensive. Let’s take a quick look at a college student’s list:

  1. Plan your course schedule: Once you start your academic journey, understand your degree requirements and plan your courses accordingly, considering prerequisites, electives, and major/minor requirements.
  2. Ask for academic support: Once you embark on your college journey, it’s wise to learn and make the most of the resources available to you, as a student. This could include tutoring centers, writing labs, and virtual or in-person sessions with academic advisors that can lead you to your academic success.
  3. Get involved in extracurriculars: It’s important to get involved on campus to ensure your academic journey is a holistic experience. It’s recommended you join clubs, organizations, or student government to engage with your campus community and build leadership skills. If you’re an online student, look for virtual clubs and committees that you could join and participate in any virtual events that your college hosts. This is a great way to make the most of your college experience and form deeper connections.
  1. Take advantage of college resources: To save money in college, you could possibly try out the resources available on campus or online. Check out your campus libraries, research centers, career services, counseling services, and other resources that can support your academic and personal growth.
  2. Build relationships with professors: As a college student, it’s a good idea to attend office hours and participate in class. Consider building valuable connections with professors who can provide guidance, mentorship, and potential recommendations.
  3. Sharpen your time management skills: Balance academic and extracurricular activities in college can help you succeed as a student, both inside and outside the classroom.
    1. Explore studying abroad or participating in exchange programs: Consider opportunities to expand your cultural experiences and gain valuable international perspectives.
    2. Look for internships or part-time jobs: Internships and part-time jobs are a great way to sharpen your time management skills. Look for opportunities that let you gain practical experience, without compromising on your study schedule.

Working Professionals Considering College:

Some individuals get  to college a little later than other students, once they have significant years of experience under their belt. If you’re one of them, your college and career plan has to go hand in hand. Let’s look at a quick checklist that would come in handy for you:

  1. Assess your career goals: Start by reflecting on your career aspirations and consider how pursuing college education can contribute to advancing your career.
  2. Research programs and institutions: Next, look at colleges and universities that offer programs that align with your career goals. Remember to factor in the curriculum, accreditation, and flexibility (e.g., online or part-time options).
  3. Evaluate your financial options: Considering the financial aspect of attending college, start exploring financial aid opportunities, and jot down how balancing work and studies might impact your finances.
  4. Seek advice and support: If you’re having second thoughts, consult with professionals in your industry or network who have pursued higher education while working. Their valuable insights and guidance can be of immense help to you.
  5. Consider prior learning assessments: Find out if your prior work experience or certifications can be used for academic credit or placement. This could potentially shorten your time to degree completion.
  6. Explore flexible scheduling options: As a working professional, balancing work and studies might seem overwhelming. It’s best to look for programs that offer evening, weekend, or online classes to accommodate your work schedule.
  7. Apply for admission and submit required documents: It’s time to take action and apply for admission. Once you complete the application process, ensure you meet all deadlines and submit all necessary documentation to the institute.
  1. Speak with your employer: If relevant, discuss your goals of pursuing a college education with your employer. You never know – your company might just offer the time, flexibility, or tuition assistance you need to complete your education.

These checklists just serve as a starting point. As a student, it’s best to adapt them to your specific situation and speak with academic counselors or advisors to get personalized guidance based on your unique circumstances and goals.

Now that we know how students from different walks of life can make a college planning checklist, let’s talk about the various factors involved in one of the most important aspects of this checklist – researching colleges. Here’s some direction on how to research colleges and what to consider:

  1. Types of Colleges: Let’s start with the basics. First and foremost, understand what type of college you want to be a part of. The different types of colleges that you could consider include:
  • Public College

Most states have public colleges and universities that receive state funding to offer quality education, usually at a lower cost than private schools. 

If one of your main goals is to save money, you could consider state colleges and universities when conducting your research. A lower tuition rate can save you from a huge amount of student debt.

  • Private College

Costlier than a public university, private colleges offer quality education along with a plethora of other benefits. Private schools may include a variety of institutions, from smaller colleges that focus on and specialize in more niche study areas, to large research universities, along with religious institutes that focus on the teachings of a particular religion. Some big private schools also might have big endowments that can offer better institutional financial aid opportunities for students.

  • Community College

Usually, community colleges offer 2-year undergraduate degrees and certificates. A full-time student can earn their associate degree in two years. Community colleges offer education at a lower price and can appeal to students who are undecided about their career or major. In these colleges, classes often cost less than they do at four-year schools, offering you the chance to explore different subjects without making a dent in your savings.

  • Trade School or Technical College

Trade schools, commonly known as vocational schools, are institutes that offer a straight path for students who want to learn skills to enter the workforce. Some major benefits of a trade school include faster graduation timeline, lower tuition costs, and acquiring skills that come in handy in the real world. With the rise in demand for trades, trade school graduates might find it easier to get a job as soon as they complete their education. 

2. Mode of Education

  • Online College or University
    One of the main advantages of online colleges is the option of asynchronous learning, that lets you complete your coursework on their own schedule. This flexibility might allow students to work full time and balance other obligations like childcare. Also, ebook can offer financial benefits. For instance, out-of-state online students may qualify for in-state tuition rates. Online students can also access resources available to their on-campus counterparts, such as library databases and career services.
  • Hybrid education
    Hybrid classes, also known as blended learning, offer a mix of online and in-person education within a single course. This format combines the flexibility of virtual learning and the benefits of traditional classroom interaction. As a student, you could choose this mode of education to enhance your critical thinking ability and gain advanced technological literacy. This form of education aligns with the evolving needs and expectations of students. Some colleges allow students to attend in-person or online, combining distance education for some with classroom education for others. As a student, you may also have a choice to take some of your classes online, while attending some in person to better accommodate your schedule.

3. Accreditation: Next, it’s important you ensure that the college of your choice is accredited by a recognized accrediting body. An accreditation ensures that the institution meets certain academic standards.

4. Location: One important factor to consider is the location of the college and the climate of that place. Consider whether you prefer a city, suburban, or rural setting. When you think about the climate, find out if you prefer warm weather or are you okay with a cold setting. A few other factors that you might want to look at are proximity to home, the opportunity and access to internships, and availability of job opportunities.

5. Cost and Financial Aid: When researching colleges, always remember to factor in the cost of attending college. Your cost of attendance would include tuition, fees, room, boarding etc. The cost of living on campus, food expenses and, if you’re not a campus resident, then traveling expenses to and from campus also need to be considered. It’s recommended you conduct research about available scholarships, grants, and financial aid to make your education more affordable.

6. Campus Facilities: As a resident student, it’s crucial you examine the quality of facilities available on campus. This could include libraries, laboratories, technology resources, and dormitories. Check if they align with the requirements of your degree program, are conducive to your academic needs and preferences, and are readily available for students’ use.

7. Student-to-Faculty Ratio: Another major factor to consider is the student-to-faculty ratio. A smaller ratio often means personalized attention from professors. This gives you a higher chance of face-to-face interaction with your professors, allowing you to seek academic and professional advice from them.

8. Career Services: Apart from gaining a thorough understanding of a subject, your higher education degree also helps you kickstart your career. When planning for college, check if your college offers career services, internship opportunities, and find out their job placement rates. A strong career support system can enhance your career prospects upon graduation.

9. Diversity and Inclusion: Many colleges now have students enrolling from various backgrounds, ethnicities and orientations. When you conduct your college research, make sure to assess the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s best to look for a campus culture that respects and celebrates different backgrounds and perspectives.

10. Graduation Rate: One important factor to consider when looking for the ideal college is to look at the college’s graduation rate. A higher graduation rate indicates strong support systems for student success. This means you would be able to thrive in college and will be provided with the resources and support you need to excel in your academic journey.

11. Safety and Campus Security: Lastly, if you’re considering being a campus resident, research the safety measures and campus security policies of your college. This will give you the peace of mind and assurance to focus only on your academic success by ensuring a secure learning environment.

College Financial Planning

The search for your ideal college does not end until you consider the cost involved in earning your degree. Right from the cost of attending college to surviving on campus, it’s crucial that you think about college financial planning well in advance. 

Here is a quick list of factors to consider when financially planning your education:

  1. Set Clear Goals:

Define your financial goals for college, including tuition, living expenses, and any other costs. Be specific about the degree program and college you want to attend.

  1. Create a Budget:

Develop a detailed budget that accounts for tuition, room and board, textbooks, transportation, and personal expenses. Track your income sources and expenses.

  1. Explore Financial Aid Options:

Research scholarships, grants, and federal financial aid programs. Some financial aid programs to consider include:

  • Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine eligibility for federal grants, work-study programs, and loans. FAFSA is a crucial step to access various forms of financial aid.

  • Pell Grants:

The Federal Pell Grant is need-based and does not require repayment. It’s a significant source of financial aid for eligible undergraduate students.

  • Federal Direct Loans:

Federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans offer fixed interest rates and flexible repayment options. Subsidized loans don’t accrue interest while you’re in school.

  • PLUS Loans:

Parents of dependent students can consider Parent PLUS Loans to help cover educational costs. These loans have a higher interest rate but can bridge the financial gap.

  • State Grants and Scholarships:

Research state-specific grants and scholarships, which can provide substantial financial aid. Each state may have its own eligibility criteria and application process.

  • Institutional Aid:

Many colleges and universities offer institutional grants and scholarships. Check with the financial aid office at your school for opportunities and application deadlines.

  • Merit-Based Scholarships:

Seek out scholarships based on academic, athletic, artistic, or other achievements. These scholarships are often offered by private organizations and colleges.

  • Private Scholarships:

Explore the range of private scholarships available from various sources, including foundations, corporations, and community organizations.

  • Professional and Industry Scholarships:

Some fields of study offer scholarships specific to that discipline. For instance, if you’re pursuing a degree in engineering, look for engineering scholarships.

  • Employer Tuition Assistance:

If you’re already employed, check if your employer offers tuition assistance or reimbursement programs for continuing education.

  1. Consider Work-Study Programs:

Investigate on-campus or off-campus work-study opportunities to help cover living expenses and gain work experience.

  1. Save, Invest and Cut Costs:

Start saving for college early. Consider opening a 529 college savings plan or other investment accounts to grow your funds over time. Once you start college, look for ways to reduce college expenses, such as living off-campus, buying used textbooks, and minimizing unnecessary expenses.

  1. Part-Time Work:

Consider part-time work during college to supplement your income, but balance it with your studies.

  1. Emergency Fund:

Build an emergency fund to handle unexpected expenses, like medical bills or car repairs.

  1. Review and Adjust:

Periodically review your financial plan and adjust it as needed. Be flexible in response to changing circumstances.

  1. Seek Financial Advice:

Consult with a financial advisor or counselor who specializes in college planning for personalized guidance.

  1. Understand Taxes:

Learn about tax benefits for education, like the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit.

  1. Set Realistic Expectations:

Keep your financial expectations realistic and be prepared to make sacrifices to achieve your college goals.

  1. Consider Community College:

Starting at a community college can be a cost-effective way to complete general education requirements before transferring to a four-year institution.

  1. Stay Informed:

Keep yourself informed about changes in financial aid programs, scholarships, and college costs. Remember to stay disciplined, plan ahead, and seek assistance when needed to make your college financial planning a success.

In the process of planning for college, multiple factors come into play. Right from making a checklist, to setting a college planning timeline, to researching colleges and ensuring you consider your financial options, a plethora of consideration points make sure you’re set in the right direction on your educational path.
Also, as college and career planning go hand-in-hand, it’s also important to ensure you invest enough time, energy and money in resources that can set you up for success professionally. We hope this guide helps you find clarity on what to consider when you start college planning and the ways to go about it. With the right information and resources, you can find colleges that match your expectations and meet your educational needs.

Why is it crucial to plan for college?

Planning for college is crucial because it lays the foundation for a successful academic and professional future. It enables students to set clear goals, make informed decisions about majors and institutions, and develop financial strategies to manage the high costs of education. Effective planning can lead to reduced student loan debt, increase scholarship opportunities, and optimize resources. Additionally, it fosters personal growth, independence, and a commitment to lifelong learning. It’s a vital step in ensuring that students not only gain the knowledge and skills necessary for their chosen careers but also build a solid financial and educational framework for a prosperous and fulfilling life.

How do I know what to look for in a college checklist?

When creating a checklist for evaluating colleges, consider key factors such as academic programs, accreditation, location, cost, financial aid options, campus facilities, student-to-faculty ratio, reputation, career services, extracurricular activities, diversity, class size, internship opportunities, study abroad programs, housing options, graduation rate, safety, alumni network, and personal campus visits. These elements help you assess the academic quality, affordability, and overall fit of a college with your goals and preferences. A comprehensive checklist ensures you make an informed decision when choosing the right institution for your higher education journey.