College Prep 101: The Ultimate Guide

Getting a college education is more important now than it used to be. Back in the 1940s, only 13 percent of the population had attended college, and only half of those had graduated with a bachelor’s degree or above. Over the intervening years, however, college attendance has ballooned to 60 percent of the population. The question is, why the change?

The answer is simple: employers want college graduates. As technology has changed the way we do business, and as competition in the job force has become more fierce, employers have begun using college education as a base qualifier to filter candidates. Today, about one-third of jobs in the United States require an associate degree or above. Even for jobs that don’t require degrees, postsecondary education is often a determining factor in hiring decisions.

That means college attendance should be on the radar of a large portion of high school students. "I think I’ll go to college" is a far cry from having a firm plan, though. What school do you choose? How do you qualify? What major do you choose if you get in? These questions and more need answers if you intend to properly prepare yourself for college. And that’s where this guide comes in.

We’ve put together some solid answers to some of the biggest concerns facing students who are college-bound. From entrance exams to picking a major, this guide will help you properly prepare yourself for the next phase of your education. Browse through our college prep guide below to find out what your next steps should be.

ACT/SAT Preparation Tips

What Are College Entrance Exams, and Why Should I Take Them?

The ACT and the SAT are college entrance exams—tests that most major universities require you to take in order to qualify for admission. ACT stands for American College Testing, and SAT stands for Scholastic Assessment Test. Both attempt to evaluate your intelligence, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills.

Colleges and universities use your ACT or SAT score as a measure of your ability to succeed in college, and they will make some of their admissions decisions based on that. Earning a high score on one of the tests increases your chances of getting into a competitive school with more selective admissions criteria, while low scores will make it more difficult to gain admission.

If you are nervous about taking the ACT or SAT, you’re not alone. They are a bridge every college applicant in the United States has had to cross since near the beginning of the previous century. Doing well on these tests is possible, and you will be thankful for the college preparation efforts you put into it come admissions time.

Which Test Should I Take?

There’s no advantage to taking one test over the other when it comes to being admitted. Universities accept both ACT and SAT scores with equal weight. What it really comes down to is a matter of style, and which test suits you better. Taking ACT and SAT pretests is a good way to judge this, as they give you a taste of what the real test will be like.

How to Prepare (ACT)

While the ACT and the SAT differ somewhat in format and material, the same advice largely applies to preparing for either. Preparing for the test is critical, though, because just like with any test, getting a good score is going to take some effort. Here’s some advice on how to focus that effort.

  • Take pretests.

One of the best ways to measure your preparation is to take a pretest. Take one initially to determine your areas of strength and weakness, so you know where you’re comfortable and also where you need to focus your study efforts. Try to replicate the testing conditions you’ll experience on test day: working near other students, having no unscheduled breaks, and setting a time limit. Take a second one to see how well the practice is helping you get ready for the real thing. Taking these pretests familiarizes you with the conditions, the instructions, and the question formats, so that you’re not caught unaware on test day. And like with everything else, the more practice you get, the more prepared you’ll be.

  • Study.

These are not your average tests, and you haven’t been spending all semester covering the material, so you should be aware that achieving success will likely require dedicating extra hours to studying, over a longer period of time. It’s best to spend a little bit of time each week for several months going over preparation materials, rather than cramming for the test the night before. There are testing guidebooks, online materials, and more resources than there ever were in your parents’ day, so make the most of it. Build a study plan, set regular study hours, and expect to begin studying at least two or three months in advance of the test.

  • Do lots of reading.

Reading, in general, is a good way to prepare for the test, provided you read the right things. Reading advanced-level books helps expand your vocabulary, improve your critical thinking skills, and broaden your perspective. It helps you look for minor details and develop an analytical thought process. What’s more, reading well-written works helps you develop your skill at writing. So read—analyze literature for deeper meanings and connections, study essays and arguments to build your understanding of rhetoric, and enjoy well-crafted pieces to improve how you communicate.

  • Don’t be afraid to take the test more than once.

If you don’t do as well on your first test as you’d like, don’t give up. With a little more study and the proper preparation, you can improve your score on a retest. In fact, many school counselors recommend that you plan ahead and schedule back-to-back exams in two consecutive months right up front. Some colleges will accept your highest score, but there are some that will want to see all of your scores, so make sure you prepare fully each time you take the test.

Remember, confidence is a matter of preparation; the more prepared you are, the more confident you can be in your ability to achieve the score you want.

College Application Tips

Where Should I Apply?

Once you have your SAT or ACT under your belt, it’s time to apply to colleges. There are thousands to choose from, so you may want to narrow your selection before you begin. The best way to do that is to set up some criteria. You can begin by asking yourself some important questions:

  • What do I want to study?

Research institutions with strong programs in the field you want to study, and put them at the top of your list. If you can’t decide yet what you want to study, look for universities with a high overall academic rating or ones that specialize in some of the general areas of study that interest you. Using a college search website such as College Navigator and College Search allows you to filter schools according to your preferences and interests, which can be very helpful.

  • How far do I want to live from family?

College means leaving home, and for many, it’s the first time. Some will enjoy the distance, while others will want to be closer to home. Going to a college close to home makes it easier to visit friends and family on holidays or weekends. However, attending a college that is farther away allows you to experience a new community and culture, which is part of what makes college so rewarding.

  • How much tuition can I afford?

Tuition could vary anywhere from $5,000 a semester to above $60,000 a semester. Be sure to check tuition prices at the institutions you research, and make firm decisions ahead of time, preferably with the guidance of your parents or school advisors, about how much you can afford to spend.

  • Do I want a large- or small-school experience?

There are advantages to both large and small campuses. Smaller institutions usually provide better teacher-to-student ratios, but large ones usually have more degree options and larger student communities. If you’re unsure which suits you best, choose to apply to some of each.

Once you’ve pared down your list, take a look at how long it is. Be aware that colleges and universities usually have application fees. If that doesn’t limit the number of applications you send out, the effort required to complete an application might.

Reach, Match, and Safety Schools

When finalizing your list of schools to apply to, group them into one of three categories:

  • Reach—competitive schools with high standards and a highly competitive selection process
  • Match—institutions where your test scores and grades match that of the average acceptee
  • Safety—colleges for which you are well qualified or exceed qualifications

The idea here is to make sure you give yourself options. You may not be accepted to your reach school, but it’s still worth trying for it. You will most likely be accepted to your safety school, which will provide a good backup plan should all the other schools fall through. Your match schools are the sweet spot, where you have a solid chance of acceptance. Be sure you apply to at least one of each type.

Application Tips

There’s a lot to keep track of when submitting a college application. Here are a few tips to help you stay on track:

  • Know the deadlines.

Make a note of the application deadline, and then make sure you don’t miss it. The best application ever made is useless after the deadline. Keep track of your deadlines, and stay well ahead of them. Do not miss any of the college admissions deadlines.

  • Know the requirements.

Get familiar with the requirements, and make sure you fulfill every item on the list.

  • Be organized.

Meeting requirements and deadlines is largely a matter of being organized. Ask for letters of recommendation at least a month in advance. Get a copy of your school transcript. Put together a folder of all necessary documents, and make sure you keep copies for yourself. It may seem like a lot of work, but when something gets lost in the mail or a fax doesn’t send, you’ll be happy you have backups.

  • Get confirmation.

Speaking of losing things in the mail, consider sending your documents using the U.S. Post Office’s "return receipt requested" service. You should still double-check that the university received your application, even if it was electronic. These days, confirmation usually comes as an email, so if you go a few weeks without hearing from them colleges you’ve applied to, follow up. Once your high school counselor has sent in all of the documents (Secondary School Report, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.), you should also follow up with the college admissions department to make sure your application is complete.

Essay Tips

Almost every application is going to require a personal essay, although these may vary in length. It’s easy to overthink the essay, so keep the following in mind to help you focus on what’s most important:

  • The essay is about you, so use your own voice.

What admissions departments are looking for in these essays is a little piece of who you are and what you have to offer the college and the world. What makes you unique, and where can you stand out? Don’t be overly casual with your writing style, but do write the essay so it sounds like it would if you were to speak the words out loud. Give the finished essay to someone who knows you well, and ask, "Does this sound like me?"

  • Show, don’t tell.

Telling admissions "I’m an excellent team player" doesn’t actually tell them much. Instead, demonstrate with a personal anecdote or a solid explanation of your value. Don’t give them a statement; give them a reason to believe. Just be sure to be honest about it.

  • Narrow your focus.

In this context, it’s best to zoom in on one or two details so that you can reach deep with your essay. Trying to stretch your essay to cover too many topics will leave it thin and lacking in substance.

  • Proofread.

Don’t leave the fate of your college application in the hands of spell check. Proofread it yourself, and when you’re done, have someone else review it as well. Check for grammar mistakes, poor word choice, and awkward phrasing. Make sure your essay has a logical flow of ideas, and double-check that it meets length requirements. Again, what seems like extra effort will actually make all the difference.

Choosing a College Major

While a prospective college student isn’t required to have a degree in mind before showing up for the first day of class, it is important to consider what area you’d like to major in. Choosing a degree program early helps limit the number of semesters required to earn the degree, because choosing late or changing degrees often adds several semesters to a student’s time at the university. So start thinking about what you want to study by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do I enjoy studying?

When you’re considering a field of study, keep in mind the things you liked or didn’t like during your primary and secondary education. Did you really enjoy that math class? Was that history class a struggle? Were your grades high in French? You’re in control of your studies now, and there’s not necessarily a need to pursue advanced calculus if you had a hard time understanding the concepts in high school. Pick something you love learning about, and study it. Having that passion means you’ll be more engaged, work harder, and perform better than if you were taking a class you really didn’t care for.

  • What do I want to do for work?

One of the best ways to plan your college coursework is to base it on a job you plan to apply for after you graduate. Do some research on your dream job. Find out what people in that field earned as a degree, and then follow a similar course. Earning a relevant degree in a specialized field is a good first step toward qualifying yourself for a job after graduation.

  • What am I good at?

Money and interests aside, there’s a lot to be said about being talented at something. Choosing a degree in an area where your competence is high means the classes will likely be more manageable. It also helps you qualify for a job you will do well.

  • What pays well?

While it shouldn’t be the only consideration, the amount of earning potential associated with a degree is something to keep in mind when choosing a major. The difference between average incomes can be pretty big, so if you’re looking to make an above-average income, you need to be aware that some degrees will help you earn it better than others.

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
3 (tie)
Chemical Engineering Bachelor's
5 (tie)
Computer Science (CS) & Engineering
5 (tie)
Nuclear Engineering Bachelor's
7 Electronics & Communications Engineering Bachelor's
8 Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) Bachelor's
9 (tie)
Aeronautical Engineering Bachelor's
9 (tie)
Computer Engineering (CE) Bachelor's
11 (tie)
Computer Science (CS) & Mathematics Bachelor's
11 (tie)
Physics & Mathematics Bachelor's
13 (tie)
Applied Mathematics Bachelor's
13 (tie)
Electrical Engineering (EE) Bachelor's
$67,000 $110,000
15 (tie)
Electronic & Electronics Engineering (EEE) Bachelor's

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

If you can’t decide on a degree before college, don’t be overly concerned. Most colleges don’t require a declared major until the end of sophomore year, and even then you can always change your degree if you find the path you chose isn’t working out for you.

How to Prepare for College Tuition 

College is an investment in your future, and like any investment, it requires capital. How much capital? Here’s a look at what it costs.

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

Tuition will vary, depending on the institution. Some colleges and universities may seem out of reach but with available financial aid, they may cost less than other institutions. Be sure to include grants and scholarships when calculating your budget, since these may offset the final cost. Private institutions often have large endowments for students who can demonstrate a need, and some institutions offer various programs that would significantly lower the cost of attendance.

Discretionary expenses should also be considered before making a final decision about a college or university. Room and board will vary depending on location. For example, living near Stanford University can run you over $5,000 a semester. Living in the dorms at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, on the other hand, will only run you $1,300. The same discrepancy goes for your other expenses, so be sure to do some research when writing your budget, because there are a lot of details to account for.

The US Department of Education offers a Net Price Calculator to help families compare college costs. You can also use the college cost calculator that is available on college websites, since these websites are required to have a tool for estimating the cost to attend.

Once you have an idea of how much it’s going to cost, you’re going to need to pay for it. Aside from help from your family, there are primarily five ways of funding your education:

  • Scholarships

Scholarships are financial stipends awarded to a student to help fund their education. Some are need-based, whereas others are merit-based. Merit-based scholarships may also have eligibility requirements based on academics, athletics, leadership, talent, or an area of special interest. Each college or university typically offers its own scholarships, so you should contact the financial aid offices of the colleges you are applying to find out if your application automatically qualifies you for institutional scholarships or whether you have to apply separately. There are also scholarships available from outside sources. These sources include businesses and organizations in the community, in the state, and nationwide.

Beyond that, there are often specialty scholarships for merit in specified fields from creative writing to computer programming. Like with college applications, there are requirements and deadlines. Unlike college applications, there’s usually not a fee to apply, so try for as many scholarships as you can. Be wary of any scholarship search engine that charges a fee—it could be a scam. Use every resource available to you during this time of college prep; ask your school counselor about local scholarships, search on your chosen university’s website, and utilize websites like, Fastweb, and Odds are, there are at least a few scholarships you qualify for.

  • Federal aid

For students whose families can’t easily afford the costs of college, federal aid is an option. Federal aid includes grants and subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and is obtained by filling out the FAFSA (which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid). School counselors encourage all families complete the FAFSA, because it may be required for institutional and private scholarships.

Using federal aid is fairly common. In fact, during the 2014–2015 school year, "about two-thirds of full-time students paid for college with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships," so there’s no need to feel bashful about applying. Some colleges and universities also offer federal work-study programs.

  • Private student loans

Unlike federal aid, private student loans come from private institutions like banks, and they are usually only recommended as a last resort. Private loans almost always have higher interest rates than federal aid, and usually can’t be deferred in the event of financial hardship. Don’t use these unless you must.

  • G.I. Bill

For those interested in the military, the G.I. Bill may be a viable option. Offered to servicemen and servicewomen to help them pay for education after their service (or during their service, in the case of reservists), it can pay out as much as $66,000 for education expenses, doled out in $1,857-per-month increments. It may not pay the way through an entire degree program, but for those willing to earn it, the G.I. Bill can certainly offset much of the cost.

  • Earning your own way

While it’s not easy to pay your way through college, working a job before and during college is still a good idea. A long-term stable job looks good on a resume, and adding to your cash flow will help offset costs that aren’t covered by federal aid, scholarships, loans, etc. Just be sure to manage your time wisely, ensuring that you can still prioritize your education.

As mentioned above, college is an investment in your future. A college education helps you qualify for jobs, increases job security, and maximizes your promotion potential. It’s not easy to earn a degree, but it becomes a lot easier with the proper preparation. So make postsecondary education a priority, and start your college preparation today.

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