College Planning Guide

[you can also browse the PDF version of this guide]

As soon as students enter high school it is time to start planning for college. In fact, studies show that most students decide if they are "college material" while still in middle school. Early awareness is the key. Planning ahead with high school course selection can be critical. Many colleges require specific courses like foreign language or algebra in order to be admitted. Summer programs on college campuses may offer high school students a taste of university life and new academic skills.

Build an Educational Plan

Planning is essential if goals are to be successfully reached. Unfortunately, most people neglect to plan carefully for the one decision that will most effect their career opportunities and lifetime income potential. Planning for college today can be intimidating. Rapid changes in programs, costs and government rules that effect college requirements and resources are complicating the planning process. Provided with the college planning basics, prospective college students and their families can plan for a successful higher education. This planning process is essentially the same for traditional high school and college age students, adults returning to college during their working years and even retirees seeking to start a second career.

How do your strengths & weaknesses match with your intended area of study?

Experts often counsel students to study what they love most. Most employers recommend that students get a good basic education, worrying less about specialization and more about fundamental communication and learning skills. On-the-job training covers the more technical aspects of most work environments. For many students, the secret of a successful college experience is to focus on academic strengths and avoid any college major that requires substantial study of subjects that are disliked. The basics cannot be avoided and all colleges require a core of study that includes essential knowledge for program completion. The more a student enjoys what they study, the better they do.

What career or lifestyle opportunities do you want available after college?

A college degree does not always directly lead to the desired job or career. Planning for career or lifestyle options can help prepare students to take advantage of academic, mentoring and internship opportunities while in college. These opportunities often lead to jobs directly from college. Do some research on prospective employers. Contact the human resource or personnel office at local companies that recruit and hire college graduates in select fields. Ask them about programs and colleges that best prepare students for their company. Ask about starting salaries and benefits. Will this allow you to have a comfortable lifestyle? By identifying prospective career options and employers, students are giving their college efforts.

How do you match up???

College size [enrollment, gender]:

Would you be comfortable in a college of more than 15,000 or less than 1,000 students? Are diversity and gender balance important to your college decision?

Geographic location, housing, & campsus life:

Do you prefer an urban or rural environment? Do you want to stay close to home or are you ready for a change? What about climate, recreational options, culture, food and housing?

Method of instruction:

Is a competitive or relaxed learning environment more attractive? What is the best class-size to compliment your learning style?

Length of program:

How long do you want to be in school? Programs may be 1 year, 2 year, 4 year or more.


Many college cost options are available. Remember, cost is more than just tuition and fees, it also includes books and supplies, food and housing, transportation and other expenses. College financial aid is based on this "Total Cost of Education”, and may include loans, work-study, and scholarships.

Narrowing your options

Request information on programs, admission, & financial aid:

Contact prospective colleges as soon as possible. To plan completely for college it is important to start planning at least 9 months before the start of classes. Call the college admission office (Tip - most colleges have free 800 phone numbers) and ask for a new student information packet. Be sure to tell them your possible areas of study and ask for specific information on appropriate programs. Ask for information on college financial aid and scholarships at the same time.

Arrange a campus visit:

There is no substitute for first-hand experience. Make every effort to arrange a campus visit and tour. Visit while classes are in session and ask to sit in on a class. Talk with students on campus, they won't give you a sales pitch. Most colleges offer overnight, weekend and summer visit programs. Call the admission office to arrange your visit. If you cannot visit the campus ask if a video tour is available.

Review choices with professionals in a chosen career:

You're not in this alone. Talk with peers, family, friends and teachers about your educational plans. Contact people who are already working in your prospective career and ask them what worked for them. Many college alumni groups offer prospective students contact with alumni working in a variety of careers. Contact the alumni office and ask if this is available? Find a mentor who you can talk with on a regular basis.

Ask about retention & placement:

BE SURE to ask every college the following questions:

  1. Retention: How many of the students who enroll at your school actually complete a degree. Nationally, about 60% of the college freshman move through to graduation. Persons of color should ask about retention rates for their racial ethnic group.
  2. Placement: How many of the graduates from your area of study actually receive job offers in their chosen career? Which companies recruit on campus.

Colleges that cannot answer these questions should be avoided.

College Searching

Collecting information on colleges and applying for admission can be as easy as accessing the Internet. While many individual colleges have sites on the World Wide Web, it is even simpler to use one of several free college search programs.

CollegeViewCollegeTown and College Board all produce well organized, user-friendly college search sites, free on the Internet. The Web sites allow students and parents to enter student data and match characteristics with any college in the United States. Students can then request materials and apply for admission electronically with many colleges or fill out requests or applications to be printed and sent to any college.

Campus Tour Checklist:

Summer is an excellent time to tour college campuses. As colleges have summer classes, visiting campus can include interaction with students and provide an actual experience of college life. Visiting colleges when they are on break is to be avoided, as it is quite different from the campus environment when in session. For this reason, campus visits in the last two weeks of August are not recommended. When arranging a campus visit, start with the admission office. Ask if there are special campus visit events or weekends planned during the summer or academic year. Many colleges arrange special times to visit and much pay food, housing and even transportation costs. When you arrive on campus, be sure to include the following if possible:

  1. Visit the admission, financial aid and student housing offices and pick up all necessary applications and informational materials. You may want to meet with admission and financial aid officers to discuss your specific situation and determine the likely-hood of admission and financial aid offers.
  2. Make sure your campus tour includes:
    1. the department or college representing your area of study
    2. a class-in-session that relates to your major
    3. campus housing
    4. campus food services, try the food, check the prices and options for on and off campus meal
    5. student services including the counseling center, academic advising
    6. the computer lab
    7. the athletic complex if you enjoy sports
    8. the bookstore
    9. the library
    10. the multi-cultural affairs office [especially for students of color]
  3. Ask to speak with a student who is pursuing the same major you have chosen. Ask what campus life is really like in the classroom and the dormitories.
  4. Take a camera for pictures of key areas and make good notes to review as you make your final choice.