When should a high schooler start looking at colleges? It’s no secret that the bulk of college applications are completed during senior year. That said, there are lots of college preparation steps to take during your freshman, sophomore, and junior year. In this article, we will identify 12 college preparation steps to take during high school. We will also let you know when you should be focusing on each of these steps so that you can plan accordingly. 

So for those of you who are wondering, when should I start looking at colleges? and when should I start touring colleges? don’t worry, you’ve come to the right place!

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Meeting with your guidance counselor

It’s important to establish a relationship with your high school guidance counselor during your freshman year and to maintain this relationship during all four years of high school. Your guidance counselor will be a key resource and advocate for you throughout your high school career, especially if you are planning to apply to college. They are also a great resource for tips on how to stay organized in high school

Guidance counselors are meant to help you select your courses, reflect on your academic and career goals, and answer questions such as: When should you start looking at colleges? When do colleges start looking at your grades? And when should you start visiting colleges? So do yourself a favor and meet with your guidance counselor early and often!


Talking to current college students

Talking to current college students about transitioning from high school to college can be incredibly helpful, especially if you are wondering how to start searching for colleges. High schools often host question-and-answer sessions with alumni/current college students to answer questions about college. Usually, these types of events take place during your sophomore and/or junior year. 


Focusing on your GPA

What years do colleges look at grades? In short, all of them. That’s why it’s important to focus on achieving the best high school GPA you can during all four years of high school. It’s important to note, however, that colleges focus on your 11th-grade grades the most. So make sure to put your best foot forward during your junior year!


Taking advanced classes

Your GPA and evidence of course rigor are the two most important factors regarding college admission. Ultimately, this is why it’s important to learn about AP, IB, and AICE classes as soon as possible. You should also meet with your guidance counselor to discuss how many AP classes should you be taking to best reach your academic goals. 


Joining extracurricular activities

Your extracurricular activities will play a crucial role in your college applications. This is because colleges want to admit passionate, vibrant students with diverse interests who will go on to enrich their college campuses. Start joining extracurriculars during your freshman year and do your best to maintain your involvement during all four years of high school. Ideally, you should increase your involvement and level of responsibility during your time as an upperclassman.









Some examples include

  • Student governement
  • Political campaign volunteer
  • future business leaders of america
  • Girl scouts/Boy scouts
  • Model congress
  • Mock trial club
  • Model UN

Participating in volunteer opportunities

Colleges value students who participate in volunteer opportunities, especially if they help cultivate leadership skills. Ideally, you should engage in volunteer opportunities during all four years of high school. Do yourself a favor and start logging your activities and volunteer hours right away!


Researching and visiting colleges

It’s never too early to start researching colleges, so feel free to get started during your freshman year. That said, you’ll want to start researching colleges during your sophomore and junior year. You can still conduct college research during the fall of your senior year, but ideally, the bulk of your research should already be done. Most students focus on visiting college campuses during the summer before their senior year.

If you are wondering how to start looking for colleges, consider our article on how to find the right college for you. This article will also provide more information on when to start looking at colleges and when to start visiting colleges.


Preparing for the SAT and ACT

High school students typically take the PSAT during their sophomore year. Taking the PSAT allows students to gain a greater sense of familiarity with the SAT while getting a better idea of what their testing baseline may be. Ultimately, this will help students come up with an SAT study plan and schedule that is best suited to their needs. 

Students typically take the SAT or ACT two to three times before submitting their college applications: once during the fall of their junior year, once during the spring of their junior year, and once more during the fall of their senior year if needed. Review a complete list of SAT and ACT test dates to plan accordingly. 


Asking for letters of recommendation

Most colleges require two to three letters of recommendation. Review our guide to how to ask for a letter of recommendation for more details. The most important thing to remember is to ask for your letters of recommendation early. Students should ask for their letters of recommendation sometime from the end of their junior year to the first few weeks of their senior year. 


Writing your personal statement and supplemental essays

Students focus on writing their personal statements and supplemental essays during the fall of their senior year. During your senior year, you will want to review components of a strong personal statement, as well as familiarize yourself with the importance of college supplemental essays, especially the “why this college” essay.

If you want to plan ahead during your junior or even your sophomore year, feel free to review successful personal statements from top colleges to familiarize yourself with what a successful college essay looks like. 


Researching and applying for scholarships

When should I start looking for scholarships? Generally the earlier the better! Keep a running list of scholarship opportunities that you can refer to during your senior year. While it’s true that you’ll have to wait until your senior year to apply for scholarships, senior year is incredibly busy, so any prep work you can do ahead of time will be well worth it! You’ll also want to review how to write an essay for scholarships.


Applying for financial aid and understanding FAFSA

Applying for financial aid can feel overwhelming. That’s why we’ve written articles on everything you need to know about FAFSA and how to understand your financial aid package. Although you and your parents will want to start having conversations about financial planning for college throughout high school, most likely starting your freshman year, you won’t have to apply for financial aid until your senior year. 

Key takeaways and moving forward

Your guidance counselor and high school teachers will be valuable resources as you explore the possibility of attending college. Your parents will also be instrumental in this planning process, which is why we’ve assembled our ultimate college planning guide for parents

Remember, there are lots of ways to prepare for college throughout all four years of high school. Students may submit their college applications during their senior year, but ideally, they should be preparing for college during all four years. If you feel like you could benefit from professional guidance as you prepare for college and your college applications, reach out to learn more about our services.