Financial aid •

June 20, 2022

How to prepare for college: a step-by-step guide

Considering heading off to college? Read this guide from Mos to learn how you can prepare for school.

Illustration of a student sitting at a desk surrounded by books

Going to college is a big deal. When you head off to college, you’ll learn new skills, make friends for life, and take the first step toward establishing a career. It’s an amazing and once-in-a-lifetime experience—but it’s also a big adjustment.

At college, you’re probably going to find yourself living on your own for the first time. You may be in a new town dealing with a way bigger academic load. You’ll also be responsible for managing your own finances.

So, how do you prepare for college?

You should start by trying to relax. Getting ready to go to college shouldn’t be scary. This is an incredibly exciting time. You’ve just got to make sure you do your research and stay organized.

This guide will explain when you should start preparing for college and what you should do to get ready in terms of your class schedule, financial aid, taking standardized tests, and everything in between.

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When should preparation for college begin?

Everybody’s different, right? Well, the same rule applies to college prep. The right time for you to start getting ready for college might not be the same as your friends, so don’t stress about comparing yourself to where everybody else is on their college journey.

But generally speaking, you should start preparing for college during your freshman or sophomore year of high school at the very latest (at least from an academic point of view). 

When to prepare for college

Why start prepping freshman year? Above all else, because you’re starting the year with a clean academic slate. It doesn’t matter what your grades were in middle school because college admissions departments are only going to be looking at your high school grades.

Translation: freshman year is when you really need to start paying attention and getting that homework done.

When you hit your sophomore year, you’ll need to start considering what your course load looks like, the extracurriculars you’re taking part in, and standardized testing.

From a financial point of view, you should start preparing for college even earlier.

One option is to chat with your family about investment opportunities like setting up a 529 college savings plan or a UGMA custodial account now so that they’ve got time to start saving before you graduate. These investment vehicles will enable your family to save for your college tuition over a number of years—with a couple of big tax advantages, too.

If you’re already in high school, it’s not too late to prepare for college financially. But instead of trying to set up an investment account with your family, you’ll need to focus your search on potential financial aid opportunities (but we’ll cover that a bit more in a minute).

What should you do to get ready for college?

You've got to do a couple of key things before you get to college, including finding the right school, bulking up your resume, practicing your testing skills, and researching financial aid.

To help you get started, let’s break down each step you’ll need to take.

Start looking for the right college

An important step in thinking about college is considering where or what you’d like to study after high school.

Choosing the right school

Consider your extra-curricular activities, career fields that interest you, and locations you may want to check out.

You'll also need to chat with your family about finances to understand which schools you can realistically afford to attend. That being said, don’t get discouraged—there are loads of financial aid opportunities out there.

After you’ve started to develop a long list, you should visit a local school. You can even find a campus tour near any vacation destinations you've got planned. Visiting college campuses or going to college fairs will give you an idea of what to expect at other schools, and you may be surprised at what you experience.

You'll also get an important taste of college life and the overall college experience. This should help you in your college search by showing you first-hand what you are (or aren't) looking for in a school.

Get involved in extracurricular activities

Taking part in activities outside of your schoolwork makes high school a lot more fun—but it also gives you opportunities to learn new skills and explore your passions in ways that textbooks can’t offer you.


More specifically, extracurriculars can help you develop your leadership skills, public speaking skills, ability to work as a team, creativity, self-awareness, and everything in between. Fortunately, these are exactly the sorts of skills that college admissions teams are looking for in applicants.

That means, by getting involved now, you’re going to be making your future college applications stand out to admissions officers when it’s time for you to head off to school.

Just make sure that you’re keeping a detailed record of all your extracurricular activities. You may get asked about them on your college applications or in interviews.

Bulk up your class schedule

Like it or not, colleges are generally looking for a bit of rigor in terms of the classes applicants have taken in high school. That means you should try to kick it up a notch in your sophomore and junior years by taking classes that are as difficult as you can handle.

Class schedule

This could include Advanced Placement (AP) classes, International Baccalaureate classes, or honors year classes—whatever your current school offers. If you’re applying to competitive colleges, having a more impressive course list is going to make a difference.

But there’s another aspect to this, too. Taking AP classes in high school boosts your school transcripts to show colleges that you take your academics seriously. It also might save you money in the long run. 

If you perform well enough in your AP courses or on an AP exam, it might count as college credits toward your college course work. As a result, you won’t have to take quite as many college courses to graduate (saving you valuable tuition money).

You shouldn’t just be trying to take classes that sound hard. You’ve got to think about the electives you’re taking as well. It helps to take classes that are academically focused, like sociology, psychology, or computer science. 

But if you’re wanting to go to an art college, it’d be pretty silly not to have taken a few art classes over the course of your high school career—so you need to be logical about this.

Finally, it’s important that you do well. 

Don't just bulk up your schedule with hard classes and then struggle your way through high school being miserable. It’s equally important that you’re getting good grades in the classes you’ve chosen. That means you should talk to your school counselor to figure out which subjects you excel in and what sort of academic levels you can handle.

Start practicing your testing skills

It might not be everybody’s favorite part of the college application process but colleges and universities use entrance exams as one of the top benchmarks for admission. As a result, you need to start familiarizing yourself with the standardized entrance exams the colleges you want to attend accept.

Standardized test

Most colleges and universities in the US accept either the ACT or the SAT. Some schools accept both tests, but others prefer one test over the other. Likewise, there are some colleges that’ll recommend you take the optional writing portion of a standardized test. When in doubt, you should get in touch with the schools you’re interested in to find out exactly what they’re looking for.

Generally speaking, it’s best to take the ACT or SAT during your junior year of high school, but you can also take them as a sophomore. There are also practice versions of these tests—for example, the PSAT helps you get ready for the real SAT. By taking a practice test early on in your high school career, you’ll get a better idea of what to expect, how you’ll do on the real test, and the areas in which you need to improve.

If your SATs or ACTs don’t go the way you want them to the first time, don’t despair. Just look at the areas in which you need to do better, study hard, and take the test again. A whole lot of students choose to take an entrance exam multiple times.

Start researching financial aid

In this day and age, most students can’t afford a college education without some form of financial aid.

Financial aid

For the 2021-2022 school year, the average private college came in at $38,185 per year in tuition fees and admin fees. That might be on the more expensive end of the spectrum, sure—but even a public in-state school is going to set you and your family back $10,338 per year. Unless you’ve got all of that cash lying around already, you really need to start sourcing funds.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities available. 

The US Department of Education offers a number of federal student aid programs in the form of grants and subsidized student loans. You can also opt for a private loan from a mainstream lender, although private loans don’t tend to come with the same consumer protections you’ll get with a federal student loan.

The biggest advantage you’re going to gain with a federal student loan is that the interest rates are fixed. That means the amount of money you have to repay each month won’t go up—which helps you stay on top of your repayments and plan for the future. A lot of private loans offer variable rates, which means they may decide to charge you more (or less) depending on how the market or their business is performing.

But loans can be a decades-long debt obligation that most people don’t want to have to deal with if they can help it. That’s why one of your first ports of call should be to apply for scholarships. 

Scholarships are essentially free cash to pay for school. You can get scholarships from a range of sources, including government bodies, businesses, clubs or societies, religious groups, employers, the college you’re applying to, and more. Some scholarships are needs-based, some are based on your background, and others might be a bit more niche, based on your interests.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re into—chances are there’s a scholarship out there for you. The problem students often have is sifting through the thousands of opportunities out there to find the scholarships that are right for them.

That’s where Mos comes in. 

By setting up an account with Mos, you’ll get instantly matched with loads of scholarships that you’re eligible for. Our advisors can then help you apply for these scholarships and connect you with other financial aid opportunities, too.

The end result: you’re able to stay on top of your financial aid and get organized—all while getting instantly connected with loads of scholarships and financial aid opportunities that are perfect for you.

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Simply put: college is a huge change for most students. It’s a big change academically, socially, and financially. The sooner you start preparing, the better.

But there are quite a few aspects you've got to consider when preparing for college. As a result, it’s really important for you to remember that academics or extracurriculars alone may not get you into your dream school. You must also think about finances, testing, and what school is a good fit for you.

Do you want to learn more about how to prepare for college financially? Explore Mos memberships to find out about financial aid and to get matched with loads of scholarships and other financial aid opportunities to help you make the most of your time in college.

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