A college checklist for every year of high school

Preparing for college isn't easy. It can be challenging to figure out which universities to apply to, how to get the most scholarship funds, and when to take which tests.

Seattle Pacific University has compiled the ultimate college checklist: an in-depth look at steps you can take each year of high school. We also highlight costs and fees to be on the lookout for. We created this guide to help future college students and their families plan ahead. You’ll learn how to:

  •  Determine which schools are the best fit
  •  Earn college credit while still in high school
  •  Get great scholarships
  •  Get a head start on your college applications
  •  Estimate how much financial aid you might receive … and much more!

We know COVID-19 restrictions made some aspects like taking tests and visiting colleges difficult. This list still includes helpful information for you on your journey to college, and the good news is, Seattle Pacific offers many virtual visit options and does not currently require SAT or ACT scores to qualify

a girl looks into the distance

Freshman Year

With family and teacher support, map out a year-by-year plan for high school, including classes, activities, and community service.

  •  Set specific personal goals for your grades and extracurricular involvement.
  •  Register for college preparatory or honors courses.
  •  To make your future college and scholarship applications easier, start keeping track of your awards, activities, leadership positions, and community service.
  •  Consider registering for Raise.me, a nationwide platform that allows you to learn “micro-scholarships” at many participating colleges and universities for everything from volunteering to earning “A”s or taking an AP test. Details at spu.edu/raiseme.
two girls talking in a coffee shop

Sophomore Year

  •  Find ways to work, volunteer, or participate in school, church, or community activities over the summer.
  •  Review your progress (academic and extracurricular) and discuss your goals.
  •  If it’s being offered in your area, consider taking preliminary versions of entrance exams, like the PSAT*. $15 PSAT registration. These are not required (and SPU no longer requires SAT or ACT scores!) but can still be helpful in preparing for college.
  •  Research which Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses are offered at your school, and how they fit into your class schedule and college plan.
  •  Research potential scholarships available for the activities, clubs, or groups you’re a part of.
  •  During the summer, focus on work (saving money for college), community service, or extracurricular activities.
a girl smiles

Junior Year

  •  *Take the PSAT again. This year’s scores will determine your eligibility for National Merit Scholarships. $15 PSAT registration. (But remember — SPU is now a test optional school!)
  •  Review your year-by-year schedule. Will you be able to complete all requirements?
  •  Make a list of what you’re looking for in a college — questions to consider below.
  •  Find potential colleges through online research.
  •  Talk with admissions counselors and attend virtual college events. Ask your high school counselor what resources are available to you!
  •  Visit your top schools. Most have virtual visit options if in-person isn’t possible. View SPU’s current visit options.
  •  Begin thinking about your college essays. What is your story, and how does it inform your plans for the future? What skills, interests, and experiences would help illustrate why you’re a good fit for each university you plan to apply to?
  •  *Spring: Take AP or IB tests to earn potential college credit. Around $100 per test, details below.
  •  Spring: If you would like, take the SAT or ACT and decide which colleges to send your scores to. Note: SPU is now a test-optional school, so you can choose whether or not to submit test scores! You can still qualify for financial aid based on your GPA.
three students walk across a local neighborhood street

Senior year

The summer before

  •  Review your plan, stay involved in community work, update your list of awards and achievements, and continue saving money.
  •  Explore your scholarship options, especially local scholarships. Use free web services like fastweb.com, but research how to avoid scams, and don’t pay scholarship search firms.

Fall and winter

  •  *Apply to your top five colleges. Consider early admission — deadline is often November 1 — particularly if it will give you priority status in admissions or financial aid. Application fees can be up to $90, depending on the school. The average fee is around $37, and a fee waiver may be available.
  •  Figure out who you’ll ask to be your references, and give them at least a month to complete recommendation forms.
  •  Carefully write your admissions essays, making sure each one is customized for the specific school. Have a teacher or parent proofread your work before you submit it.
  •  Retake the SAT or ACT if you would like.
  •  Revisit your top college options, and consider an overnight visit if that is being offered. Continue applying for both local and national scholarships, and explore what grants and scholarships are available at your prospective schools. Begin examining housing options, meal plans, and course schedules.
  •  Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. It’s free to submit. Your family can help you collect financial documents and submit your FAFSA. Request that your potential colleges receive your information. Last chance to submit is May 1, and you won’t be eligible for state and federal aid without it.
  •  After submitting your FAFSA, you’ll receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). Review it for completeness and make sure your target schools have received it.


  •  * Review your acceptance letters and financial aid packages and decide which university you will attend. National college decision day, May 1, is your final day to make your choice. You’ll likely need to send a deposit (advance payment) to secure your spot. Deposit could be around $200 or more.
  •  Talk with your family about how you’ll pay for college. Once you’ve received your financial aid offer, figure out your quarterly costs (tuition, housing, food, room and board, books, other expenses, and personal spending money). Note how much is covered by your various scholarships and loans, and carefully research which potential loan options will be best for you.
  •  If you plan to work part-time, explore your on- and off-campus employment opportunities. Identify additional scholarship you might be eligible for.
  •  Work with your family to create a budget for your various costs (with so much food and great activities in college, personal spending money can disappear faster than you’d think).
  •  Take any remaining SAT subject tests or AP tests.
  •  Apply for housing. Your school will send information about applying for housing. Deposit could be around $300.


  •  Attend an early registration program at your school. You’ll sign up for classes, meet your future classmates, and have a chance to ask questions.
  •  Talk with your family about what you’ll take to campus (car, laptop, other electronics). Make a packing list.
  •  When you receive your housing assignment, reach out to your future roommate(s). Get to know them, and decide who will bring any shared items.

Classes required by most universities

  • 4 years of English (grammar, composition, and literature)
  • 3 years of mathematics (algebra I and above)
  • 3 years of science (including both lab and physical science)
  • 3 years of foreign language
  • 2 years of history/social science (including one year of U.S. history)

Estimated exam costs

  • SAT: $55 ($65 with essay)
  • SAT subject tests: $26 each
  • ACT: $63
  • AP test: $93 per exam; fee waiver may be available
  • IB test: $172 registration fee and $119 per exam; fee waiver may be available

Are AP/BI courses right for you?

  • Visit the AP college database to see how much college credit your AP classes will earn at your prospective schools.
  • Search online to see your prospective schools’ IB credit policy. IB classes are either higher-level or standard-level. Some standard-level classes may not earn you any college credit. To earn an IB diploma, you’ll need to pass the class and exam of at least 3 higher-level IB courses.
  • Possible additional test-related costs: Registering late, re-scheduling your test, sending test scores at a later date, etc.

Questions to consider when researching colleges

  • Research online, and talk with family, friends, teachers, and mentors to hear their experience, perspectives, and insight.
  • What size of school? (Very small: less than 1,000 students, small: 1,000-5,000, medium: 5,000-15,000, large: 15,000-30,000, very large: 30,000+)
  • Do you prefer a public or private school? If private, what specific religious affiliations would potentially interest you? (Protestant, Catholic, specific denominations, religious with no specific affiliation, etc)
  • How far away from home? In-state vs. Out of state (consider the various cost factors). If in-state, how far away would you prefer?
  • What size and type of community? (Large city, suburban, rural, etc.)
  • What majors are you interested in?
  • What activities do you want to participate in? (Student government, student media, music, athletics, academic/multicultural/interest clubs, volunteering, etc.)
  • If you plan to work part-time, what are the on- and off-campus job opportunities? If applicable, what public transportation is available?
  • Are there specific fields you’d like to intern, job shadow, or do informational interviews with? Specific companies? Which colleges would be a good fit for this?
  • In what ways are you interested in finding community or mentorships, and what programs or opportunities are offered?
  • What other characteristics are you looking for in a college?


a guy laughs

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