How to prepare for college: student carrying some books and holding a graduation cap

How to prepare for college: 14 ways to get your teen ready


- When helping  your teen plan out their high school classes, choose some that will help them earn college credit.

- Help them discover potential majors early so they can select related high school classes to better prepare them to excel in college.

- Help your teen choose a handful of preferred colleges and prepare application materials before their senior year.

- Even if your teen doesn’t need student loans, fill out a FAFSA application to help them qualify for grants, scholarships, and other financial aid for school.

Driver’s license, calculus, varsity football, and prom. It all happens so quickly. Before you know it, high school is coming to an end. Help your teen avoid all the stress by setting up a college preparation plan that starts once they reach ninth grade.

To help streamline this process, we’ve outlined how to prepare for college below. Our tips range from helping your teen explore different majors to saving the cash needed to buy that surprisingly expensive calculator for their statistics class and everything in between.

How to prepare for college

When you prepare for college, it stretches beyond just selecting a school and applying. It actually starts from your teen’s freshman year of high school. Let’s review how to prepare for college so your teen is ready to make an educated decision come their senior year.

1. Discover potential majors

While your child doesn’t need to land on a major in their freshman year of high school, it’s good to start thinking about options early on. Talk with your high school student about their talents and interests. Then, help them research the college majors and potential careers that could be a good match.

For example, if your teen loves video games, maybe a major in software development could lead to a career as a video game designer. Is your child a science whiz? Perhaps a college degree in bioengineering or environmental sciences would be right up their alley. 

It's good for your child to know their options, but remind them that it's OK to change their mind as they discover new interests and strengths throughout high school.

2. Help them choose their classes

students raising their hands

Before your teen heads to college, they need a well-rounded high school education. Your child can select high school classes and electives that will prepare them for college. Review which majors they're interested in and help them choose appropriate classes that can set them up for college success.

Whether your teen has a major in mind or is still weighing their options, their high school coursework is a great way to test the waters. Is your child considering a medical degree? You can suggest they give anatomy and chemistry a try to see how they like those subjects.

Also, some high schools might offer college prep or advanced placement classes (or AP courses) that can help your child earn college credits. If that’s not an option, some schools partner with local colleges to offer dual enrollment programs, which can give students a jump on their degrees.

If your teen hasn’t landed on a major yet, that’s alright! Encourage them to focus on the core classes — English, mathematics, sciences, and others — so they are prepared to succeed in their general studies classes while they think about their major.

3. Help them choose their extracurricular activities

Many college admissions officers look at extracurricular activities when considering teens’ college applications — especially highly competitive schools. Extracurricular activities may give your child the boost they need in the college admissions process for their dream school.

Encourage your teen to choose activities that align with their interests and may help them in their future field of study.

For example, if your child wants to study political science, they can join student government. Is a legal career in their future? Speech and debate is a good option. Or if they plan to major in statistics or mathematics, your child can become a member of the math club.

Extracurricular activities might also make your teen eligible for certain scholarships. For example, if your teen is an all-star athlete, they may want to focus on one or two sports teams to try for an athletic scholarship.

Some of the best extracurricular activities to consider include:

  • Community service and volunteer work

  • Academic clubs (math, science, debate, public speaking, etc.)

  • Chess club

  • School newspaper

  • Fundraising

  • Robotics club

  • Student council

  • Idea: Start your own club

4. Take them to college fairs or tours

With so many options, your child might need help narrowing down which colleges to apply to. College fairs, on-campus visits, and virtual tours can help!

College fairs are events where many colleges’ representatives and admissions departments set up shop and provide students with information about their schools. Attending a college fair can give your teen a chance to find out about the majors a school offers and ask questions about the campus culture. 

Another way to narrow down the college list is by taking a tour on the college campus. Consider taking your teen on a road trip to visit some of their top schools. They can see the dorms in person, check out the student union, talk to current students, and get a feel for the campus atmosphere.

If your teen can't attend college fairs or tours in person, they can visit a college’s website and take a virtual tour! They can also reach out to students on campus via LinkedIn and prepare some insightful questions.

5. Help them hone their studying habits

Many successful college students prioritize their study time. High school is when to really hone those skills and become an expert studier. This will not only help your child boost their GPA in high school, but it’ll also get them ready for more regimented college schedules.

Some things they can do to sharpen these skills include:

  • Create an organizational system for notes and homework

  • Complete assignments ahead of time and review them before turning them in

  • Develop an effective note-taking process

  • Learn time-management skills

  • Set a schedule for your at-home studying and homework time

6. Guide them in building a college resume

Your teen will do many things throughout their four years of high school, and remembering everything when it comes time to complete college applications can be tough. Instead of relying on memory, help your teen start a college resume. 

No, they likely won’t need the resume to apply, but they can use this as a place to store all their activities during their high school years.

Did they win an award for community service or get elected class treasurer? They can add these to their resume, so they remember to include them on their application. They can also jot down things like part-time jobs, volunteer work, sports statistics, college prep courses, and more.

7. Encourage them to meet regularly with school counselors

High school counselors can be great assets in your teen’s college search. A large part of a counselor’s job is to know about a wide range of schools and degree programs to help students choose a school that fits their wants and needs.

If your child plans to be a computer science major and wants to attend the best school for that, the counselor can likely point them in the right direction. Counselors can also help teens land on a major by reviewing their hobbies and other interests if they’re undecided or torn between several options.

A counselor can also help ensure teens have the best college experience. Many counselors understand what on-campus life is like at various schools and can help find the amenities your teen needs.

8. Help them collect letters of recommendation

Student using a laptop while holding a tablet

Your teen may need letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors if they apply to schools with a highly competitive application process. To help streamline this process, encourage your child to get letters of recommendation as early as their first year in high school. You can help them brainstorm which teacher or counselors would be great to ask for these letters. 

Then, help them keep these letters safe until it comes time to start the college application process.

9. Decide whether to take the PSAT

Standardized tests are no longer needed for admission into many higher education establishments, but some schools still require them. Your teen can check the admission requirements at the schools they’re interested in to see if they require standardized testing or not. 

If a test is required or your teen wants to take the test just in case, they can get ready for the SAT by taking the PSAT. This practice test will give your child an idea of what they would score on the official test so they know what areas they need to brush up on.

10. Help them use summers effectively

For teens, summertime can often be filled with pool time, amusement parks, and sleeping until noon. However, with college on the horizon, summer is a great time to get into activities that’ll shine on college applications. Your teen can use this free time to take on a part-time job or internship, clock some volunteer hours, or even enroll in a college preparation course.

Help your teen balance their time, so they can enjoy the summer but still get in plenty of work and volunteer time. 

11. Teach them how to save money

When your teen heads off to college, they’re going to need some spending cash for books, pencils, paper, food, and hanging out with all their new college friends. To be prepared for these expenses (and avoid debt), help your teen learn how to save.

You can teach your teen about smart spending and saving habits with a Greenlight debit card and app. Have them start small — maybe 10% to 15% of their take-home pay — and encourage them to ramp up the savings as they get used to it. If they receive extra money, such as cash birthday gifts, have them tuck this in savings too.

Greenlight tip: Your teen can receive money directly in their money account. Just share your teen’s pay link with friends and family and hit approve from your parent account. 

If your child saves all through high school, they will have a nice amount to get them through their freshman year of college without calling you for cash or tapping into debt. Then, during their summer break, they can work to replenish their funds.

12. Help them choose between the SAT or ACT

As we mentioned before, standardized tests are going the way of the flip phone, but some colleges still require them. There are two standardized test options: the SAT and the ACT.

SAT scores are based on two sections: Evidence-based reading and writing is one, and math is the other. A student can earn 200 to 800 points for each section. The final SAT score can range from 400 to 1600, and the average score nationwide is a 1060. So, what is a “good” SAT score? Honestly, there is no set standard, but a good target, according to BestColleges, is a 1200.

The ACT tests on four subjects — English, math, reading, and science — plus there’s an optional writing test. The ACT is scored from 1 to 36 points, with an average score of 21. BestColleges says a good ACT score to target is at least a 24.

Students can take the SAT starting freshman year and the ACT starting in sixth grade, but most students wait until the spring of their junior year to take them the first time. This allows them to learn as much as possible in school and still have time to retake the test in their senior year of high school if they’re unsatisfied with their test score.

As a parent, you can help your child figure out which test they want to take, find nearby testing locations, and explore test prep options.

13. Whittle down the options and apply

Late in your teen’s junior year, it’s time to help them whittle down the list of potential schools to a handful of colleges and universities. There’s no magic number, but experts say 5-8 schools in total should suffice.

The list should include colleges that are a great match for your teen, some schools that may be a stretch for them to get accepted to, and a few safety schools that are virtual certainties they’ll get accepted.

You can answer your teen’s questions about the applications and help them keep track of application deadlines.

14. Complete the FAFSA

Even if your teen has a fully funded 529 plan and isn’t planning to use student loans for college, they still should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form tells you if your teen qualifies for federal student loans and determines their eligibility for certain grants and scholarships.

The deadline for completing the FAFSA is typically late June, and it usually opens on October 1. For example, the FAFSA for the 2023 to 2024 academic year was available starting on October 1, 2022, and the deadline is June 30, 2024. But keep in mind, your college or state may have a different FAFSA deadline.

Your teen may need your help on this application, as they’ll need to include details about your income, tax returns, and assets.

Start saving for college with Greenlight

Students talking to each other

On campus expenses add up. When reviewing how to prepare for college, one tip is to have your teen save money early to help them cover any expenses. Not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered. With the Greenlight app, your teen will get an easy-to-use debit card, up to a 5% Reward on Savings, and up to 1% Cash Back.* Plus, their own in-app experience with investing. Get started today!

*Greenlight Core and Greenlight + Invest families can earn monthly rewards of 1% per annum, Greenlight Max families can earn 2% per annum, and Greenlight Infinity families can earn 5% per annum on an average daily savings balance of up to $5,000 per family. Only Greenlight Max and Infinity families can earn 1% cash back on spending monthly. To qualify, the Primary Account must be in Good Standing and have a verified ACH funding account. See Greenlight Terms of Service for details. Subject to change at any time.

Hey, $mart parents 👋

Teach money lessons at home with Greenlight’s $mart Parent newsletter. Money tips, insights, and fun family trivia — delivered every month.

Try today. Our treat.

After your one-month trial, plans start at just $4.99/month for the whole family. Includes up to five kids.

Read how we use and collect your information by visiting our Privacy Statement.