How to Prepare for College: Advice from Real Students

We asked recent grads to share their best college prep advice. Here’s what they said:

This article was co-authored by wikiHow staff writer, Caroline Heiderscheit. Caroline Heiderscheit is a Staff Writer for wikiHow living in Santa Monica, CA. She has two years of experience working in content, including a year of editing work for first-time novelists. Caroline graduated from Stanford University in 2018 with degrees in American Studies and Creative Writing.

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College: it’s an exciting new chapter, an academic adventure, and a chance to start fresh. There’s so much to look forward to, but still, there are endless questions that need answers, too. How can I prepare for college in high school? What should I expect from my freshman year? How can I make the most of my time in college? Below, you’ll find all the insider tips you need—which we collected from real recent grads. Let’s dive in!

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    Take classes that set you up for success. “Plan out your 4-year class schedule as early as possible. It gives you more flexibility later on. Look into APs & IBs—because they can give you a leg up with college admissions. But most importantly, take classes that you’re really interested in. I’m an editor, and I trace it all back to one really great English class I took sophomore year (Shoutout to Mrs. Green! You rock!).” -Jane L

    • Preparing for college in high school is easier than you’d think! Check out these guides to get started. Learn how to choose the best classes, change your high school course schedule, and succeed in AP courses.
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    Get involved in extracurriculars (and keep track of them). “I wish someone told me how important extracurriculars can be. They look great on college applications, but they also teach a ton of amazing lessons. Being on the varsity swim team taught me how to dig deep and apply myself in ways I hadn’t before, and that’s a skill I still rely on every single day.” -Kyle C

    • Try things out! Join clubs, activities, and sports that grab you or suit your interests. Challenge yourself, follow your fire, and have some fun. And remember, keep track of all the amazing things you do. One day, it’ll all look great on a college app!
    • Check out these guides for more helpful advice. Learn to choose great extracurriculars, find fulfilling volunteer opportunities, and get a varsity letter in high school.
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    Get friendly with your guidance counselor. “Your guidance counselor is like a college-admissions-superhero. They know so much about the process, and they have tons of resources at their disposal. Go and introduce yourself early—I promise that they’ll be excited to speak with you! And if you get nervous to make introductions (like me), bring a friend along.” -Harriet W

    • Their job is to help you manage your school life, so trust us—your guidance counselor is happy to talk to you. Guidance counselors can help you plan your academic schedule, research colleges, and find opportunities you might not have come across yourself.
    • Here’s an easy way to stay in contact: make a monthly appointment with them, just to chat!
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    Find people to mentor you. “Finding a solid mentor is such a game changer; I really can’t overstate that. My old boss runs her own cafe, and she’s always been there to offer amazing advice and opportunities while I earned my business degree. Older people want to help you succeed! Okay, maybe not all of them, but a lot of them do. If a coach, teacher, leader, or boss inspires you, tell them! And try to keep the conversation going…” -Mateo S

    • As you try new sports, activities, and classes, you’ll come across tons of exciting potential mentors. Naturally, you’re likely to develop relationships with some of them, and if you do, continue to nurture that.
    • If you have a harder time with this though, you can always feel free to come right out and ask: “I really admire your career, and I’m looking for some mentorship. Could I ask you a few questions sometime?”
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    Use your summers wisely. “The school year can be so busy, but your summers are all about YOU. So whatever you want to do, make use of that time. Volunteer, work at your sport, get a job, travel, you name it. I worked at a summer camp after my freshman year, and had the best 3 months of my life; plus, I made lifelong friendships, too. And my sophomore year, I did an engineering program that gave me an edge on my college apps.” -Mae P

    • That depends on what you want to accomplish! Do you want to get better at a skill you’re developing? Do you want to give back to your community? Are you looking to get a fresh, exciting experience under your belt?
    • To start discovering exciting summer opportunities that are perfect for you, check out these guides. Find volunteer opportunities, get your first job, or have a memorable summer with your BFF.
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    Visit colleges. “When I was a junior, I was told that some people decide on a school with their head, and others with their gut. I am so glad that I invested time in a bunch of college visits, because I learned that I definitely follow my gut! The second I stepped on my future college campus, I knew I’d found my place…it was like magic!” -Assad V

    • If you’re able to do so, visiting campuses is a great way to decide where to appy. Otherwise, there are tons of different ways to research colleges and find a place that fits your needs. You’ll want to think about things like size, location, cost, and majors offered. To get started, check out this guide on researching colleges.
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    Research scholarships and financial aid. “Something I didn’t realize until I got to college: there are so many scholarships out there. Do research, talk to your guidance counselor, and keep an eye out. If you’re willing to put in the work and apply to a bunch, you could end up saving a lot of money!” -Molly E

    • Saving money in college might be a top priority for you, and luckily, there are so many ways to take matters into your own hands. The first step is to speak with your guidance counselor, but the next step is to research and submit applications.
    • For more help, check out these guide on applying to scholarships.
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    Stay organized while you apply—and keep a cool head! “The truth is, no matter what happens with college admissions…everything will work out. Sometimes, things don’t pan out exactly the way you’d expect them to, but that can actually be great! I ended up at my fourth-choice school and it fit like a glove. Keep your head up and focus on what you can control!” -Vega S

    • For some people, the application season is a very, very stressful time. We’d suggest creating a detailed calendar with deadlines to help you stay ahead of the madness. Give yourself tons of time to get applications done, and aim to complete them early for peace of mind.
    • For more guidance, check out these guides. Focus on self care, staying organized, and writing an awesome essay for your applications.
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    Keep in contact with friends and family. “Even when you’re busy, it’s nice to call friends, family, or other loved ones from home to get a dose of familiarity and comfort. I remember taking my first midterm and thinking: oh my gosh, I think I just failed that. I was so upset, but instead of binge-watching Netflix, I called my mom instead. It was the best choice ever—she made me feel amazing.” -Georgia D

    • While you strike out on your own, develop as an individual, and soak up loads of new experiences, homesickness might pop up now and again. But sometimes a quick FaceTime is all you need. Try these tips to keep lines of communication open:
    • Set up scheduled calls with the people closest to you
    • Before the call, reflect on your week and come up with three updates to share (that way, you can guarantee a real connection!)
    • Keep your group chat with friends from home alive
    • Consider writing a monthly email newsletter with updates to send to distant family
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    Make your dorm a home. “Even though I didn’t have a lot of decorations in my room at home, I made it a point to decorate my dorm room to make it my own. This made my room feel like a space I was excited to return to and host people in, and was a fun way to express the pieces of my personality that I was excited about. Make your dorm feel like yours—it can help college feel like home!” -David S

    • You should also feel free to get creative. Do you love old movies? Prove it with a fun poster! Are you a social butterfly? Hang photos of you with friends! This is your space to be you.
    • For more help, check out these guides. Learn to raise your dorm room bed, buy all the right furniture, and finally, decorate your room.
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    Find community. “Say yes to social invitations as much as you can when you start school. Freshman year of college is like no other time of life; you’ll never find so many like-minded people looking to make friends around you at the same time. And community can come from surprising places…stay open to opportunities and allow people to surprise you!” -Purvi E

    • Look around you—college is filled with young, fascinating people who are going to be so excited to get to know you. Community often comes from activities you’re in and spaces you inhabit: dorm neighbors, classmates, team members, etc. And though it’s sometimes tough, being friendly, approachable, and a little bold will serve you well. Say hi to the person next to you in lecture; accept that invitation to get lunch.
    • Afraid to make introductions? That’s totally normal, and you’d be surprised how many people are feeling the same way. Try leaving your dorm room door open so that people can filter in.
    • Even better, hang a whiteboard on your door and leave a prompt on the board (what’s better, Pepsi or Coke?) so people come in with a conversation topic in mind.
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    Get ready to read. “Learn how to read… for college. You’ll likely get assigned tons of reading, so you’ll want a strategy. Make a first pass and be sure that you understand the main concepts (e.g. by reading the introduction, first sentences, and conclusion). Then, make another pass to pick up some supporting details. At this point, you should have enough info to explain the content to someone, which is sufficient a lot of the time. After you’ve done this for all of the assigned readings for the week, go ahead and dive into the more interesting ones for further exploration. This’ll help you nail in-class discussions!” -Charlie G

    • It’s true, college often requires that students learn to read in a new way, because there’s so much more reading to do. But luckily, these skills come quickly with experience—so there’s no need to stress.
    • Try the strategy outlined above, and use these guides if you want some extra tips. Learn to study buy reading, improve your reading comprehension, and speed read.
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    Explore academic interests and keep an eye out for potential majors. “If I could redo college, I’d take more classes where we read awesome books and talk about them. I realized my favorite classes in college were classes where I sat with books and thought about their deeper meaning—but I didn’t realize this until after I graduated. I’d encourage anyone to dive into the subjects they find most exciting. This is a great way to learn about yourself and the careers you might want to pursue!” -Zara H

    • The classes you choose will depend on what your goals are; some majors (like engineering), might require you to dive in right away, while others allow for more flexibility. Speak to your academic advisor to get a better idea and go from there. If you have to be on a really specific track, then it’ll be more about managing when to take certain courses. On the other hand, if you haven’t decided on a major, you might want to try these tips:
    • Look through the course catalog and try out the courses that grab you
    • Load your schedule up during syllabus week, then stick to the most exciting courses
    • When you enjoy an intro course, continue to explore the subject (and if you keep loving those classes, consider choosing it as a major!)
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    Explore your non-academic interests. “I would advise my college self to try as many new things as possible, from rock climbing to improv to tutoring reading to 5-year-olds. College is a special time when you can be exposed to many of those things, often for free. So be bold! Don’t let nerves keep you from having experiences you’ve dreamed about—especially because soon enough, you realize everyone’s as nervous as you are to try!” -Jenny M

    • Think of college as the place to try. Ever considered auditioning for musicals? Go try. Think you might enjoy volunteering? Okay, try it out! Reflect on whims you’ve had, passions you’ve put off, and curiosities that might lead to more.
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    Create a budget. “Go into college with a budget in mind. There are some important decisions to make here: like do you need to get a job to support yourself? The more you’ve thought about before arriving, the better prepared you’ll be for any surprises that might pop up along the way.” Carolyn O

    • Some students may be fortunate enough not to have to think about money in school, but that’s not the case for most. But trust us, there are so many ways to effectively budget and save more money while you study! For example, you could consider taking a financial planning course early in your coursework.
    • Check out these guides for more info. Learn to find a job in college, create a budget, and just generally, save money in college.
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    Manage your schedule. “Having a calendar and sticking to it was huge both in high school and in college. I’d also leave flexible times in my calendar in college, when possible, to rest or grab coffee with a friend during the day. Having a calendar frees up your mind, so you don’t always ask yourself: What should I be doing right now?” -Amir J

    • There are so many great ways to stay organized and efficient in school—that way, you have all the time you need to ace your classes and enjoy your community! Different strategies might work well for different people, but we’ve pulled together a few guides to help you get started.
    • Check out these resources for more help. Learn to manage a schedule, create a daily study schedule, and plan out your long-term coursework.
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    Find mentorship. “I wish I realized how much professors want to speak with their students! I was intimidated by professors when I first started, but they opened up as soon as I went to office hours and just asked them about their research. Professors love speaking to students and it totally enhanced my learning experience. That goes for mentorship across the board—people are excited to help you with your journey, so don’t be afraid to ask!” -Lucas F

    • You know, your college actually has these built in for you! Academic advisors can give you advice and intel that’ll help you succeed, no matter your major.
    • But you can also find mentorship through coaches, professors, and even upperclassmen. Start a conversation, keep building your rapport, and most importantly, soak up their experiences!
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    Keep your body and heart feeling happy. “The stakes aren’t as high as they seem. This is just one more step on your life journey. It’s okay to make mistakes—learn from them and move on. The most important thing is that you’re taking care of yourself and doing things that make you happy.” -Zoey R

    • It’s easy to feel bogged down by stress and commitments in school, but it’s crucial to remember that your well-being is the most important thing. If you find yourself feeling anxious or hopeless due to college stress or pressure, you’re not alone. Reach out to someone you trust and get in touch with your campus’ mental health services.
    • For more support and helpful advice, we pulled these guides for you. Learn to cope with school stress, handle anxiety, and find a therapist.
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