Though college may seem quite far away when you’re an underclassman, it’s definitely not too early to start preparing now. Your achievements and experiences during all 4 years of high school are important for college, so don’t wait until it’s too late!
If you’re a current high school freshman or sophomore (residing in the U.S.) looking for college advice, you’re in the right place. In this post, I’ll be showing you everything you need to know about preparing for college.
If you’re a current high school junior or senior, check out the second part of this series – the College Prep Guide For High School Upperclassmen– instead!
A quick disclaimer: I am a student, not a college admissions officer, and all of my advice is based on personal experience as well as advice from other students. Though I hope that this post will be helpful to you, please take all this information with a grain of salt. Now, let’s get into the post!
About college applications
First, what makes up a college application?
Most students begin with the Common App, a popular platform that allows you to fill out a common application once and send it to multiple (if not all) colleges you’re applying to.
The Common App consists of your general information (personal information, GPA, extracurriculars, awards…) and a “main” essay – your personal statement.
The Common App essay is called the “main” essay because colleges will usually have supplementary essays that are separate from the Common App and vary by school.
In addition to the Common App and supplementary essays, schools may also ask for letters of recommendation, test scores, official transcripts, and sometimes more (like portfolios).
I will not go into detail about the application process, because as underclassmen, you should focus on your activities and experience right now rather than the actual application.
Though college applications are all about you, there are some resources that can help you maximize your time and streamline the process. There are various types of resources, and I’ve organized them below:
- The Kath Path (YouTube channel)
- SupertutorTV (YouTube channel)
- Barron’s SAT Study Guide (test prep book)
- Princeton SAT Prep (test prep book)
- College Essay Essentials (essay guide)
Finding your interests
One of the hardest things for high school students to figure out is their interests. And I have to agree, determining your interests can be intimidating; after all, your entire future might be dedicated to this 1 thing you chose at 15 years old!
To help you get an idea of how you can find your interests (though you have to be the one to actually do so), I’ve outlined some steps below.
What you’re passionate about
Is there something you just love doing? Is there an activity that you would spend time on even if you weren’t required to? Is there something you genuinely enjoy and can see yourself doing in the future?
If so, you could consider pursuing this passion in college as well. There are a large variety of majors and fields of study that are available in secondary education, as well as liberal arts schools that allow students to specialize in one thing.
If you’re worried that you might lose this passion or that it won’t guarantee a “successful” future, know that it will all work out in the end. I suggest focusing on your passion and deepening your expertise, because it may lead to more opportunities that could lead to success.
What you’re good at
If you’re not sure what you’re passionate about (which is totally okay), try to think of something you’re good at. You could just have a natural instinct or talent for it, even if you’re not super passionate about it.
Once you determine what you’re good at, you can also study this further and become an expert on the subject. Though you may not have as much as someone who’s passionate about their field of study, you likely won’t be struggling as much as someone who’s not good at whatever they’re studying.
To make sure we’re on the same page, let me explain what a major is. Your major is your area of study or expertise and will determine the courses you will take in college.
However, not all majors are good choices. Of course, you should follow your interests and passions when choosing a major, but if you’re not sure what you want to study and choose a random one, you might as well choose a useful one to ensure a smoother professional career.
These are majors that usually give graduates an advantage in the professional world. As an underclassman, you don’t have to worry about job-searching yet, but do keep these in mind as you pick your classes and complete extracurriculars.
In no particular order, here are some of the best majors:
- Electrical engineering
- Computer science
- Biomedical engineering
- Business administration
- Nuclear engineering
- STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics) in general
A quick disclaimer: no major is completely “useless”. Pursuing these majors doesn’t mean you won’t get a job in the future and will die of poverty. It simply means you’ll have a harder time finding a stable job, simply because there’s a smaller need for employees in these fields.
- Fine arts
- Theater arts
- Religious studies
- Public health
Now that you’ve (hopefully) grasped an idea of what major you may be interested in, it’s time to pick a dream college!
Many students choose their dream colleges easily, but not many do enough research to choose one (or multiply) that’s right for them. Sure, Stanford is famous and prestigious; but is it really right for you?
Here are some criteria you should research and compare when choosing a dream college:
- Location (urban, rural, safety, transportation…)
- Best known for (majors, courses, notable alumni…)
- Acceptance rate
- Size and population
- Tuition (research financial aid as well)
Once you’ve decided on your dream college(s), you can make an academic plan to make sure you take all the required classes and complete the recommended extracurriculars.
Although colleges don’t explicitly state what their acceptance criterion looks like, you can generally research accepted students (try searching up ‘How I got into _____’ on YouTube) and identify somewhat of a pattern.
Lastly, you can schedule college tours during which you visit the actual school and see if you like the physical environment. As an underclassman, this doesn’t have to be high on your to-do list. But it is definitely something you should keep in mind before college applications roll around!
YOU’LL LOVE THIS POST: How To Build The Perfect College List In 8 Steps
Getting good grades
If you’ve heard the rumor that “the grades you get during your freshman year of high school don’t matter,” know that they’re not true. They’re not completely false, but you should not be slacking off just because someone on the Internet said you can.
Your GPA takes into account your grades from all 4 years of high school, so you should not risk lowering your GPA during your first year of high school. In addition, getting good grades as a freshman (especially if you’re taking hard classes) shows colleges that you’re hard-working and able to do well in challenging circumstances.
Therefore, it’s very important to choose the right classes all throughout high school and work hard to do well in all of them. Don’t take easy classes just to guarantee a straight-A transcript, however. You should challenge yourself (AP classes are a good bet) and prove to colleges that you know what you’re doing.
I won’t go into detail about how to get good grades, because I have many more posts on this blog that provide many tips. Here are a few to get you started:
- 7 Terrible Study Habits To Quit Immediately
- 10 New Tips That Will Change The Way You Study
- 8 Daily Habits Of Highly Successful Students
Many colleges ask for your standardized test scores, most notably the SAT, ACT, and AP tests. Though standardized tests are arguably not the best way to measure a student’s success, they are a benchmark for many schools.
Usually, you’ll start taking these tests in your junior (and maybe sophomore) year of high school. AP tests for whatever AP classes you’re taking come at the end of that school year, and the SAT and ACT are almost year-round, and most people take them during their junior year.
AP tests cover what you learned in your AP class. So if you are taking AP Biology, the AP test will test you on what you’ve learned about biology. Almost all AP tests are made up of multiple-choice questions and a few free-response questions, and are scored out of 5 points.
The SAT tests you on math, critical reading, and writing. As of 2021, it is scored out of 1600. The ACT tests you on math, English, reading, and scientific reasoning. As of 2021, it is scored out of 36.
These standardized tests are not easy, and it is recommended that you prepare for them starting months beforehand (especially the SAT). As an underclassman, you can visit Khan Academy and do a few practice questions regularly to keep your skills sharp.
Extracurriculars are another large portion of your college applications. It is suggested that you start pursuing a few of them starting as soon as possible (there’s no better time than now!).
There are various types of extracurriculars you can pursue in high school, and I will cover the 3 most popular ones below.
Most high schools have many different clubs that students can take part in. These could be clubs for hobbies (like Robotics, Book Club, a language club), community service (like Key Club, Interact, Kids Against Hunger), or more professional clubs that enter competitions (like DECA, Model UN).
Most schools also host club fairs near the beginning of the school year (or the end of the previous year) to allow students to browse through clubs and see what they’re interested in.
Do not miss this opportunity! Research the clubs at your school and join a few that match your interests! Especially if you join as an underclassman and stay throughout high school, your dedication will look good on college apps and you have a chance of becoming a club officer.
Based on my experience, most high schools require a certain number of service hours in order to graduate. But not only that, community service and “giving back to the community” help to show what kind of person you are on your college applications.
A lot of school clubs help organize community service events. But even if you’re not part of a club, you can find volunteer opportunities around your community by researching a little.
You can often find volunteer opportunities in these places:
- Your local library
- Local animal shelters
- Senior centers
- Non-profit organizations
If all fails, you could even launch your own community service project by organizing a group of friends to do something for your community. You could use your talents as well, such as performing music to gather donations, raising awareness for social issues, and many more.
Lastly, you could start a personal project right now. You don’t have to complete it by the time of college applications, but you should show that you’re dedicated to this project and have a plan to complete it.
But what exactly is a personal project? Honestly, anything.
Follow your interests and create a project based on them. Here are some popular ideas to get you started (but be creative! Colleges love to see initiative and pioneering students):
- Coding an app
- Launching a club
- Starting a student-led organization
- Starting a business
- Writing a book
- Starting a blog
- Starting a YouTube channel
You’re almost at the end! Now that you know the gist of college applications, here are a few action steps you should take, based on your grade.
- Determine your interests
- Join various clubs
- Take appropriate classes
- Get good grades
- Start a personal project
- Get a summer job
- Stay in your clubs (you could try applying to be an officer)
- Take challenging classes
- Take the PSAT
- Get good grades
- Work on your personal project
- Get a summer internship
- Start preparing for the SAT/ACT
Phew, that’s the end of this College Prep Guide for High School Underclassmen! I hope this post was helpful for you, and if it was, leave a comment down below! And feel free to share this post with your friends who are also researching college applications!
If you’re a rising junior or senior, check out the College Prep Guide for High School Upperclassmen!
Meanwhile, check out these related posts:
- The Ultimate Guide To Studying From Home
- How To Build The Perfect College List In 8 Steps
- 20 Actionable Steps To Become An Outstanding Student