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High School Checklist: Freshman Through Senior Year

High schoolers have a lot on their plates. With everything from extracurriculars to test prep to college applications, high school can be tough to manage sometimes. Fortunately, we’ve put together this step-by-step approach to navigating the high school years. If you need some help staying on track, follow our high school checklist and you’ll be in good shape. 

Freshman year

1. Choose extracurriculars 

One of the best things you can do during your first year of high school is to get involved in extracurricular activities. They’re an excellent way to explore your interests outside of academics, while building your resume at the same time. Options include: 

  • Play a sport
  • Join a school club (or start your own) 
  • Participate in community service
  • Get a part-time job

An interesting extracurricular resume can help you get accepted to college and earn scholarships. More importantly, though, extracurriculars build character and help you grow as a person. Remember, extracurriculars can be unique to you. For example,  if you spend time taking care of family or working on a family farm, by all means share. 

2. Meet with your counselor

Your school counselor can be a great resource during your high school career. Meet with them early on to introduce yourself and find out how they can support you during your high school years. Your counselor can:

  • Inform you about your school’s graduation requirements 
  • Offer advice on which courses to take
  • Help you prepare for college applications when the time comes

Related: Do colleges look at freshman year?

3. Consider taking advanced courses

While meeting with your counselor, ask them about advanced courses you can take. Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors courses, and sometimes International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. These types of classes are academically challenging, and can help you stand out during the college admissions process because the rigor of your curriculum will be evaluated by colleges when you apply.. Another option is dual enrollment courses, which allow you to earn college credit while you’re still in high school. These courses are typically better-suited for upperclassmen, but it helps to start preparing for them earlier on.

4. Consider your path after high school 

Even though you just started high school, it can’t hurt to start thinking about the next chapter of your life. Do you want to attend college? If so, consider what type of schools interest you and what you might want to study. And remember that college isn’t the only option after high school. 

There are many alternatives to college including coding bootcamps, trade school, apprenticeships, and more. You may have no idea what you want to do after high school, and that’s completely okay. At this stage of the game you have plenty of time to figure things out!

Sophomore year

1. Take the PSAT 10 (or prepare by taking a practice test)

The PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) is a standardized test designed to evaluate students on their reading, writing, and math skills. The PSAT is commonly taken by high school students to prepare for the SAT and to qualify for college scholarships. Note that there are three versions of the test: 

  • PSAT 8/9 (designated for 8th and 9th graders)
  • PSAT 10 (designated for 10th graders)
  • PSAT/NMSQT (designated for 11th graders seeking to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship)

You have to take the PSAT/NMSQT during your junior year to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, but you can prepare by taking the PSAT 10 during your sophomore year. If your school doesn’t require you to take the PSAT 10, consider taking a practice test. Speak with your counselor to learn more about your options regarding the PSAT. 

2. Start your college search 

If you’ve decided that you want to go to college, now’s the time to start thinking about where you might want to attend school. We know that choosing a college can be overwhelming, but it helps when you know what you want out of a school. 

  • What size school are you interested in attending (campus size and student body size)?
  • Do you want something close to home or far away? 
  • What do you want to study? 
  • What type of campus might appeal to you (urban, suburban, college town, rural, etc.)?

These are all important questions to ask yourself. It also helps to attend college and career information events. Try to research and develop a list of 10 – 20 colleges that you think could be a good match. 

3. Research career options

Whether or not you want to go to college, you should begin to consider potential career options. You certainly don’t have to decide on anything now, but it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about it. 

  • Use this career search tool to find jobs that you’re interested in
  • Consider how much education your desired career requires 
  • Look into attending a trade school or community college to see if either would suit your future career 

Another way to research career options is to sign up for a LinkedIn account and connect with professionals in your desired field. Ask to set up a meeting (via phone, email, video chat, or in person) to ask them questions about their job and the steps they took to get there. Your school counselor may also be able to point you in the direction of professionals who are willing to share their experience. 

Junior year 

1. Take the PSAT/NMSQT (in the fall)

To qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, you must take the PSAT/NMSQT in 11th grade. Even if you don’t qualify for the scholarship, though, the test is a great way to get ready for the SAT. The ideal time to take the PSAT/NMSQT is during the fall. That way, you’ll have time to prepare for the actual SAT in the spring. Use this PSAT to SAT conversion chart to get an idea of how you might perform on the SAT. 

2. Take the SAT and/or ACT (in the spring)

Most high schoolers take the SAT and ACT for the first time during the spring semester of their junior year. Both exams are widely used by U.S. colleges to make admissions decisions and award scholarships. While you can take both exams if you wish, colleges generally accept scores from either exam. Check out this guide if you need help deciding between the SAT and the ACT. You can take (or re-take) the SAT and/or ACT during the summer before or fall of your senior year, but it’s best to complete them earlier rather than later.  

3. Explore scholarship opportunities (in the spring)

Although many students wait until their senior year to start searching for scholarships, you can always get a head start! Take note of application deadlines when you’re researching scholarships. Some deadlines occur as early as the summer between 11th and 12th grade, while others don’t occur until the spring of 12th grade. Your school counselor may also be able to help you find scholarships. 

4. Narrow your list of colleges (summer before 12th grade)

Use the summer months to narrow down your list of potential colleges. 

  • Contact colleges or look on their websites to find information about financial aid, admission requirements, and deadlines
  • If you have time during the summer or early fall, visit the schools that interest you
  • Decide whether you’re going to apply for admission under a particular college’s early decision, early action, or regular decision program 

Also take note of any colleges that use rolling admission. By the start of your senior year, you should have a list of around 7 schools that you want to apply to. 

Related: How to rock the summer before your senior year

Senior year

Before we get started, we recommend that you use the end of summer/after Aug 1 to create a Common App account if using. 

1. Complete the FAFSA (as soon as possible after Oct. 1)

Complete and submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after its release on October 1. This application is the single most important part of the financial aid process. By filling out the FAFSA, you can unlock need-based financial aid at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. To have the best shot at being awarded financial aid, you should submit your FAFSA form as soon as possible!

2. Apply to colleges (during the fall and winter)

Now’s the time to apply to the colleges you have chosen. You should be applying to a healthy mix of safety, target, and reach schools. Prepare your applications carefully, follow the instructions, and pay close attention to deadlines. You can apply to multiple schools at once through the Common App or Coalition, but some schools have individual applications. Try to have some of the things below on hand so you have them when you’re ready to apply!

3. Apply for scholarships (during the fall and winter)

Start by seeing if the colleges you’re applying to offer any scholarships or grants. Most colleges and universities offer some form of need-based and/or merit-based financial aid. From there, you should search and apply for outside scholarships offered by companies, foundations, and nonprofits. Keep your eyes open for both local and national scholarships. And of course, be mindful of deadlines. 

Related: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

4. Review financial aid award letters (during the spring)

Review your acceptance letters and compare financial aid offers between colleges. Your financial aid award letter will outline the aid you’re being offered. Financial aid can come in the form of which may include 

Contact the college’s financial aid office if you have questions, and check out our guide for tips on reading financial aid award letters.

5. Visit colleges (during the spring or earlier if you have the opportunity!)

Visit the colleges that have invited you to enroll. Take a campus tour and ask questions along the way to get a sense of what it’s really like to go to school there. Talk to current students and see what they like and don’t like about their college. See if there’s any faculty members that you can meet with. And if you have questions about financial aid, visit the financial aid office and speak with a representative. 

6. Make a decision (during the spring)

Before making a final decision, make sure you understand the terms of your financial aid package (especially if it involves student loans). When you make your decision, notify that school of your commitment and submit any required financial deposit. Many schools require this notification and deposit by May 1. 

Also see: What classes should I take senior year?

Closing thoughts

High school is a busy time, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by how much is going on. Just remember to take things one step at a time and focus on the things you can control. While you should strive to craft a plan for your future, don’t forget to appreciate the present moment. Make the most of your high school years, because they only come around once! 

Also see: How to find a roommate in college

Next Steps

Next Steps

  • Assess where you are in high school (Have you taken any standardized tests? Are you on track to graduate? Are you involved in extracurriculars? etc.)
  • Don’t worry if you are feeling a bit behind, instead contact your school counselor about your options and try to get on top of things
  • No matter what year you are in high school, it’s never a bad idea to begin searching for scholarships
  • And when you’re ready, check out tips from the Scholarships360 team about how to make the most of your time in college
Next Steps

Frequently asked questions about the freshman through senior year high school checklist

How do I prepare for senior year of high school?

The key to a good senior year is being on top of things. You should meet with your school  counselor to discuss how you will complete all your required classes. You should also start your college applications the summer leading into senior year. Keep the FAFSA date in mind as well and fill it out as soon as it opens. There are a lot of moving pieces to your senior year, the best thing you can do is try to stay organized and on top of it all!

Is senior year the hardest year of high school?

Senior year does not have to be the hardest year of high school. However, it is possible that with the added stress of applying to colleges, it can feel much more difficult. You may also be taking several honors or AP classes, which can require more study time than normal courses. Try not to overload yourself with hard courses just for the sake of looks. It’s good to challenge yourself, but not at the expense of your grades, GPA, or well-being.

What do I need to do as a freshman in high school?

Whether it’s freshman year or senior year, you should be striving to make the most of your high school experience each year! While you may not begin AP and honors courses immediately, beginning to participate in extracurriculars and building up your grades is a great first step! You may not need to begin applying to colleges, but it can’t hurt to start researching them either!