The Ultimate Guide to College Preparation

As more employers require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level positions, prospective workers have hurried to comply. Nearly 80 years ago, only 13% of the population had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Things have changed since the 1940s, however, and college attendance and graduation is now a prerequisite to landing a halfway decent job. Today, around 60% of Americans have a bachelor's degree.

Increased education has its roots in the job industry as about one-third of jobs in America have a minimum educational requirement of a college degree. If you don’t have a degree these days you run a serious risk of eliminating yourself from potential careers, even if these same positions didn’t require a degree in the past.

For many students, college prep is something they will need to seriously consider the moment they begin their journey into high school—but, of course, just considering isn’t enough. If students want to succeed and enter a good university, they will need to ask themselves what it will take to qualify, and what major they will study when they are accepted. These questions can be difficult for young students to answer on their own. Thankfully, there are many college preparation resources available.

To make the transition easier, and to help high school students on their way to college, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to college preparation. Here we will address some of the most frequent concerns students have regarding college preparation in the next phase of their lives.

Preparation Tips for the SAT and ACT

SAT and ACT are two acronyms everyone’s heard, if only because we’ve all seen high schoolers on TV stress over these formidable tests. But this is real life, not a television show. Is there reason for concern? Read on for preparation tips to help you succeed.


College Entrance Exams

There are two main college entrance exams—the SAT and the ACT. The SAT stands for Scholastic Assessment Test and the ACT stands for American College Testing. These tests are required by nearly every university when you apply for admission and they are meant to judge your critical thinking, intelligence, and problem-solving skills in an academic environment.

Admission to a university partially depends on your SAT or ACT score. A higher score will make you more competitive and appealing to universities, while a low score will hurt your chances of entry to many schools. This is because these tests are seen as a barometer of how well you will perform at a college level.

Preparing for these tests can be daunting, but rest assured that you can get a good score, like many before you. The good news is that, because these tests have been around for a while and many people have taken the SAT and ACT, there are also many resources available to utilize when you study for them. Studying for these tests is a major part of college preparation.

Should You Take the ACT or SAT?

This is a decision that is really up to you, although sometimes one test is more popular than the other in a certain region. Schools weigh both the SAT and ACT equally when considering a student for admission. If you’re unsure of which test to take, find out which one you’re naturally inclined toward by taking pretests to get a feel for both. You may find that the structure of the SAT is more your speed, or vice versa.

What is the Best Way to Prepare?

Like any test, the SAT and ACT must be studied for. You cannot simply expect to walk in the day of the test and wing it. Study and preparation will go a long way in helping you get the score you want. Take a moment and review our suggestions on where to focus your efforts while studying.

  • Pretests.

Pretests are a great way to judge your capabilities on both the SAT and ACT. When you take a pretest, focus on the areas you feel comfortable in and make a note of which topics you struggle with. Pretend you are actually taking the test and mimic the pressure you would find in a test environment. The SAT and ACT are usually taken in classrooms with multiple students, no talking, and no breaks. Use your pretest time to get used to this setup and you won’t feel as stressed when test day rolls around.

  • Study Hard

Remember that the ACT and SAT are meant to mimic the level of learning you will need in college and give you college prep skills. They are not the same as a regular high-school test and require much more than a day or two of preparation. The best method of preparing for either test is to dedicate time each day, or each week, to studying specifically for the ACT or SAT. You will need to begin preparing two to three months before the test date. There are many more prep books, online materials, and other resources available than when your parents were your age. Take advantage of the opportunities you have and use them.

  • Read a Lot

To prepare for the ACT or SAT, you should focus on reading high-level, challenging materials and advanced literature. This type of reading will enlarge your vocabulary and help you grasp complex topics and themes in literature. As you read, look for connections and details that have deeper meanings than the words themselves. Learning to read and analyze literature in this way not only makes you a better reader, but enhances your writing as well. This is essential because the ACT and SAT use high-level reading examples on the test and expect you to comprehend and explain what you are reading.

  • Take the Test Multiple Times

It’s not the end of the world if you don't get the score you want the first time you take your test. The SAT and ACT can be taken multiple times until you get a score you are satisfied with. Keep in mind that you should still give it your best effort every time because some schools want to know how you performed each time you took the test. Many counselors recommend scheduling two exams two months apart when you first sign up to take the test. This will ensure that you have some time to study in between each exam, but also that you have a deadline for when you will take it again.

Confidence is a matter of preparation and you will be more confident if you have prepared well for your standardized test.

Tips for College Application

No one would ever subject themselves to a multi-hour test as a means to an end. After you’ve nailed the exam, it’s time to make sure the rest of your application to the school of your dreams is as strong as the score you worked to achieve.


Applying for Schools

With your ACT or SAT score in hand, you’ll be better prepared to select colleges where you wish to apply. With literally hundreds to choose from, it may seem like a daunting task; however, asking yourself some important questions will help narrow things down.

  • What Will You Study?

Not all schools offer the same learning programs and some schools are stronger in some areas than others. Having an idea (or two) of what you want to study will help you narrow down your school choice. Find schools that excel in your desired field of study and add them to the top of your list. You can use tools like College Navigator and College Search to help you narrow down schools that focus on your interests.

  • Where Will You Live?

Where you go to college will also determine where you can live. If you decide to attend a college close to home, you will be able to see your friends and family more often and may even be able to save on living expenses by living at home. However, moving out allows you to better experience your college’s culture and community. Part of college prep is learning valuable skills for living on your own so that when you do move out you will be prepared.

  • How Much Do You Want to Pay?

College tuition can vary widely between institutions. When you consider that a semester of college can set you back anywhere from $5,000 to $60,000 per semester, it pays to do your research before you apply. Talk to your parents and school advisors about your college decisions and keep in mind that just because a school is more expensive doesn’t mean you can’t apply for scholarships to lower your tuition.

  • Big School or Small School?

This point largely depends on what you prefer from your educational institution. Small schools have smaller class sizes with more opportunities for one-on-one instruction, while larger universities often have more amenities and degree options to choose from. Apply to some large schools and some small schools if you’re not sure what will work best for you.

Remember to narrow down the list of schools you apply to. Many universities have application fees that can get expensive and applications also tend to be very time-intensive.

Three School Considerations

The best way to pare down your list of potential schools is to place them in one of three categories: reach, match, and safety.

  • Reach Schools—these are the schools on your list that have high academic standards and selective acceptance rates.
  • Match Schools—these are the schools that you have a good chance of getting accepted to. Your grades and test scores are reflective of the average required for acceptance at these universities.
  • Safety Schools—These are colleges that you are nearly positive you will be accepted to because you have test scores and grades well above the average acceptance rate.

By separating different schools you would like to attend into these categories, you have options to choose from should you not be accepted into the school of your dreams. If you are not accepted to your reach school or match school, you will still have a safety school to fall back on if needed. Submit at least one application to each type of school.

Tips For Applying

Submitting a college application requires keeping track of many different things. We’ve compiled a list to help you stay organized during the application process.

  • Pay Attention to Deadlines

Deadlines for applications sneak up quickly and even the best essay will never get you accepted if no one gets a chance to read it. The best method is to write down all your deadlines on a calendar or record them in a way that ensures you won’t forget they are looming ahead. Missing a deadline means you won’t be attending that college.

  • Learn the Requirements

Pay attention to what the school’s requirements are and complete all of them when you apply. Certain application requirements may be unique to certain schools.

  • Stay Organized

Organization is key to college preparation when filling out many applications. Get any school information, like transcripts, letters of recommendation and other documents, as early as you can. Create backup copies in case the mail gets lost in transit. When the unexpected happens—and it will—you’ll be grateful you were prepared.

  • Follow Up

Things can and do get lost in transit so it’s always best to check with your school and make sure they received your application and documents. If you submitted an electronic application, you will still want to make sure that the application appears in their system. Make sure you give the schools a few weeks before checking in because it can take time for documents to arrive via mail or process through their system. When you do follow up, make sure you check with college admissions that you’ve finished everything they need for your application so that they are not waiting on information from you without you realizing it.

Tips for Essays

College preparation and school applications require a lot of thought, planning, and work. They often include an essay requirement as part of the application process. It’s easy to overthink the essay, but here are a few things to keep in mind so you don’t stress about unimportant details:

  • Find Your Voice

It is always important to be able to convey who you are through your writing. Admissions essays are meant to express who you are to your potential university and how you plan to contribute to the university and society. Make sure to write as though you were speaking, but veer away from slang and other overly casual wording as you write. Have someone proofread your essay for voice to make sure it still sounds like you.

  • Give Examples

This is an opportunity to show the admissions office what kind of person you are through your actions. Give examples of attributes you have instead of just listing them. Saying, “I’m a hard worker,” is great, but giving an example of a time you actually worked hard is much better.

  • Focus on the Details

Before you write your essay, sit down and pick one or two main ideas you want to focus on in your writing. If you try to cover too many topics, your essay will be flimsy and lack depth. It’s always better to cover one or two topics in depth than to spread yourself thin.

  • Edit Your Work

Spell check is great—for catching spelling errors. Grammatical errors, awkward wording, and organizational mishaps won’t be picked up by the best spell checker in the world. Read over your paper by yourself and make edits for grammar and word choice along the way. Reading out loud is a great way to hear if words sound awkward and to catch grammatical errors you may not have noticed otherwise. Finally, have someone else read and edit your essay. They may notice errors in organization and flow that you didn’t catch.

Selecting Your College Major

If you haven’t already, consider what area you’d like to major in. While it’s not necessary to know what degree you want to pursue when you start college, it will save you time and money if you don’t have to change your degree program several times. Changing degrees, particularly after taking a semester of classes for another degree, increases the amount of time you will be at your university—and thus the total bill. It’s best to consider what you would like to study by thinking about the following:

  • Consider What You Enjoy

Think about your time in high school and middle school. What kinds of subjects did you enjoy studying and which ones did you dislike or struggle in? In college, you have the control to select classes and programs that are in line with what you enjoy studying. You’ll be more interested and engaged in your studies if you pick something you enjoy, rather than something you have to struggle through.

  • Think About Your Career

An important step in college preparation is to plan your college degree and studies around the career you hope to pursue after graduation. Think about the skills you will need to succeed in your line of work and find out what the most successful people in your chosen industry studied when they were in school. Relevant degrees that provide you with real-world skills are invaluable once you graduate.

  • Use Your Skills

When considering your interests and future career, it is also helpful to consider your talents. A degree in an area where you excel means you won’t be as stressed in school and it will help you develop those talents into a job after graduation.

  • Contemplate Your Earning Potential

Many people attend college because of the potential to earn more money once they have a degree. While money isn’t the only factor to consider when pursuing your degree, it is important to keep in mind. Some majors have a higher earning potential than others and whether you pursue a degree that leads to a higher income or not, it is good to know approximately how much you can expect to make after graduation.



Rank Major Degree Type Early Career Pay Mid-Career % High Meaning
1 Petroleum Engineering Bachelor's $96,700 $172,000 56%
2 Systems Engineering Bachelor's
$66,400 $121,000 50%
3 (tie) Actuarial Science Bachelor's
$60,800 $119,000
43%
3 (tie)
Chemical Engineering Bachelor's
$69,800
$119,000
56%
5 (tie)
Computer Science (CS) & Engineering
Bachelor's
$71,200
$116,000
45%
5 (tie)
Nuclear Engineering Bachelor's
$68,500
$116,000
55%
7 Electronics & Communications Engineering Bachelor's
$68,000
$115,000
54%
8 Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) Bachelor's
$68,100
$114,000
49%
9 (tie)
Aeronautical Engineering Bachelor's
$63,000
$113,000
61%
9 (tie)
Computer Engineering (CE) Bachelor's
$69,600
$113,000
46%
11 (tie)
Computer Science (CS) & Mathematics Bachelor's
$63,500
$111,000
36%
11 (tie)
Physics & Mathematics Bachelor's
$56,200
$111,000
48%
13 (tie)
Applied Mathematics Bachelor's
$56,100
$110,000
40%
13 (tie)
Electrical Engineering (EE) Bachelor's
$67,000 $110,000
53%
15 (tie)
Electronic & Electronics Engineering (EEE) Bachelor's
$64,000
$108,000
61%

Source: PayScale, "Highest Paying Bachelor Degrees by Salary Potential".

Again, you don’t have to show up on the first day with a plan for the rest of your life. Universities don’t usually require you to declare your major until the end of your second year of college, and you can still switch programs if you change your mind.

The Cost of College Tuition

College tuition is a large expense but it is an investment in yourself that can have great returns. Although tuition varies, here is a breakdown of what college tuition costs.


A graphic image that illustrates the estimated budget for an undergraduate living is various housing situations Source: Collegeboard.org, "Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2017–18".

Some colleges appear very expensive at first glance, however, with financial aid and scholarships, they might end up being more affordable than schools with a lower initial price tag. Many private schools have large endowments that allow for scholarships and financial aid for students who can’t afford tuition. Other universities have programs for students that make the cost of attendance much more affordable.

It is also important to take into consideration that room and board will vary depending on where you attend school. Some schools, like Northwestern Oklahoma State University, cost as little as $1,300 per semester, whereas a school like Stanford University, near the heart of Silicon Valley in California, will cost around $5,000 per semester. In some areas, housing and living expenses can end up costing you more than your tuition if you’re not careful.

In order to better compare costs between colleges, the US Department of Education offers a Net Price Calculator. Most colleges also have a similar calculator so you can determine the affordability and funds necessary to attend school in that area.

After you’ve determined the cost of attendance, you will need to make a plan to cover your educational expenses. Family help is a great option, but it is not available to everyone. Here are five other ways you can pay for your tuition:

  • Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships are one of the best ways to get funding for your college tuition. Scholarships are often awarded to students that show a financial need, and others are based on academic performance. If you are awarded a merit-based scholarship for athletics, academic performance, talent, or leadership qualities, you may have eligibility requirements to keep your scholarship throughout your time in school. Some scholarships are offered by the school itself and others are funded by outside sources. Check with your school’s scholarship and financial aid office for information on scholarship applications.

Outside of these, you can often find scholarships that have been tailored for specific disciplines like computer programming or creative writing. These applications typically have submission requirements and deadlines just like college applications. However, most scholarships don’t have application fees and if you do find one that requests a fee you should run, as it is likely a scam. Thankfully, there are many reputable resources for finding scholarships like scholarships.com, Fastweb, and collegeboard.org.

  • Apply for Federal Aid

Federal aid can be used in conjunction with scholarships and it is always good to apply and see what you are approved for. Federal Student Aid provides grants that don’t need to be repaid, as well as subsidized and unsubsidized loans. In order to qualify, you must fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) every year. Many schools require you to fill out a FAFSA for the school year to ensure that you can get funding to continue your education.

Federal student aid is a very common form of financial assistance for college. In 2014-2015 alone "about two-thirds of full-time students paid for college with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships." If you are in need of financial assistance, don’t feel ashamed of completing a FAFSA and accepting government aid. Colleges and universities may also be able to provide aid through government-assisted work-study programs.

  • Get Private Student Loans

Private student loans should always be considered as a last option after you have exhausted all of your other resources. The interest rate on private loans tends to be much higher than government-subsidized student loans and cannot be deferred if you face a financial hardship after graduation.

  • Consider the G.I. Bill

If you’re in the military, or interested in joining, you may consider the G.I. Bill . This form of school assistance is for military servicemen and servicewomen who have finished their service as well as current reservists in the military. The G.I. Bill can provide assistance of up to $66,000 for education expenses. This assistance is paid on a month-by-month basis and is broken down into payments of $1,857 each month.

  • Work Through School

Sometimes financial aid will not cover all the costs that are required to pay for tuition. If this is the case, or if you just want to avoid excessive debt then is it a good idea to pay your way through college. Working through school has other benefits and well, including time management skills, and providing practical work experience you can use to find a good job when you graduate.

College preparation and earning a college degree is not easy, but the cost and work required to obtain your degree are worth the investment. As more and more employers require a college degree, earning one will allow you to advance through the job industry to your chosen career. Invest in yourself and prioritize your university education as you start your college prep today.