college planning basics-college search applications admission tests financial aid

College Planning Basics – How to Get Into and Pay for College

Mari DeCristo College Planning

Most college-bound students and their parents start the college planning process with a combination of anticipation and fear.

However, the fear and stress that come with “What do I do?” often overshadow the excitement of going to college and starting a new chapter in life.

This fear is normal. It accompanies an understandable lack of knowledge of the details you’ll need for finding, applying to, getting into, and paying for college. After all, at no time in your life did someone stop and say, “This is how it’s done.”

For most, college planning becomes an endless struggle to find out what you need to do and hoping you don’t find out too late…or even worse, not at all.

Well, today I want to try and remedy that situation, at least at the big-picture level.

In this post I want to talk to you about what the college planning process includes and, hopefully, provide you with enough information to lower your stress level.

To begin, let’s talk about “What you need to do.” Like many things in life, a little information goes a long way.

College Planning – The Big Picture

The best way to tackle any large project (and college planning is no different), is to divide it into understandable pieces.

There are four parts to college planning:

  • the college search
  • college applications
  • admissions tests
  • financial aid

I’m going to talk about each of these in this post.

The College Search

College planning begins with the college search.

It’s the process of creating (brainstorming) a list of colleges in which you might be interested and want to apply. It also involves researching and investigating what each college has to offer and gradually narrowing the list down to include only the schools where you want to apply.

There are two factors to consider when generating your list of colleges.

  • Factor 1 – What you want in a college (programs, location, size, etc.)
  • Factor 2 – What the college wants in you (grades, test scores, personal characteristics, etc.)

Getting into college is a matching game. If a college has what you want and you have what the college wants — it’s a perfect match.

Balancing those two factors is important when creating your list.

It also means being realistic.

Factor 1 – What You Want

The first step in the college search is to think about what you want a college to have.

This includes the programs and majors you’re interested in and the type of community you want to live and work in for the next four years of your life. The type of college, size, distance from home, available majors and programs, campus activities, and location are all important characteristics to consider.

Once that’s done, there are many ways to find colleges that fit your needs. These include online resources, guidance counselors, current college students, college rep visits to your high school, friends, coaches, alumni, college search databases, and college websites.

Factor 2 – What the College Wants

Even though you’ll never know exactly what a college wants (or if they want you), there is a way to find out how you compare with the students that have already been accepted.

Every college that uses GPA (grade point average) and admission test scores (SAT and ACT) for admission publishes the averages for their freshman class.

You can find these averages in college planning guidebooks, in online college databases, and often on the college’s own website.

Comparing your GPA and SAT/ACT scores to a college’s averages will give you a good idea how your qualifications will stand up in the admissions process.

For most of the colleges you’re interested in applying to, your GPA and test scores should be close to the school’s averages. This doesn’t mean you can’t have “reach” schools where your GPA and scores are below the average, but you need to know your chances of getting admitted to these schools will be much lower. You should also have “safety” schools. These are schools where your credentials are above the average for the class and you have a very good chance of getting in.

Make sure you’re comfortable going to any of the colleges you apply to because there’s no way to predict where you’ll get accepted.

College Applications

College applications are probably the most important part of college planning.

Because they can’t get to know you personally, colleges rely heavily on the information you provide on your application. Your application, along with your recommendations and test scores, is how a college finds out if you “have what they want.”

A good application requires time and effort. Starting your applications early insures you’ll have everything you need completed, done well, and with the least amount of stress.

Each college has their own application requirements, so it’s VERY important to check the college’s website for information on what they want you to do — and then do it.

Here’s a list of common application components:

Almost all colleges require

  • High School Transcript (a list of your courses, your grades, and your GPA)
  • Teacher Recommendations
  • Counselor Recommendation
  • Application Essay
  • Short Answer Questions
  • List of Activities and Experiences
  • Personal Information
  • Demographic Information
  • Class Rank
  • SAT or ACT Scores (not required at “test-free” schools)

Some schools require

  • SAT Subject Test Scores
  • Portfolio (for specific programs such as art and music)
  • Interviews

common application

One of the greatest developments in college planning is the Common Application. The Common Application lets you complete one application and send it to any school on your list that accepts it. More than 500 colleges use the Common Application, or “Common App” as it is called, and using it will save you a great deal of time, effort, and stress.

You can find more information about the Common App at

coalition for college access

A new application this year is called the Coalition Application. It was developed by a group of more than 90 schools interested in “improving the application process for all students.”

More information is available at

Many colleges will design “supplemental” questions that you need to answer in addition to the regular application questions.

Admission Tests

The last academic part of the college planning process relates to admission tests. You may already be familiar with the two most common admissions tests, the SAT and the ACT.

Why do colleges use admission tests? It’s because everyone takes the same test, and that allows colleges to directly compare one student to another. Even grades from different applicants can’t be compared because high schools are so different.

That said, many colleges are moving away from using admission tests. Instead, they are putting more weight on an applicant’s grades and how difficult their high school courses were.

Most colleges that use admissions tests give you the option of taking either the SAT or the ACT.


The two tests are different. The SAT is more a test of logic, while the ACT tests curriculum content — that is, what you learn in your classes. If you don’t test well but get good grades in your courses, you may do better taking the ACT.

The best strategy is to take both tests and use the better score.

It’s a good idea to take the test at least twice. Both the SAT and ACT allow you to choose which score you want to send to colleges. Sometimes you have to look around the SAT and ACT websites for that option because neither organization likes to promote it.

You can find more information on the SAT and ACT at the following links.



The key to being successful on these tests is practice. There are many books and online resources to help you prepare for the test.

Speaking of practice tests . . .

PSAT – Practice Test for the SAT

If you’re a high school junior you should take the PSAT, which is the “preliminary” SAT.

The PSAT is a practice SAT given in October, usually at your high school. It does two things for you. It gives you an opportunity to test under official testing conditions and it provides you with a detailed report on your scores, usually in December. The score report shows you where you did well and the areas that might need some work.

Not every high school gives the PSAT, so it’s important to check with your guidance counselor.

One last thing: PSAT test scores are NOT sent to colleges.

At one time the ACT also practice test called the PLAN test, but they have eliminated it.

Financial Aid

Everyone talks about the high cost of college, but they don’t tell you how to pay for it.

Part of college planning involves paying for college, so let’s take a brief look at financial aid.

First, financial aid is something for which you must apply. They don’t just give it to you.

Second, never think you don’t qualify for financial aid. ALWAYS apply.

There are many groups that provide financial aid.

sources of financial aid- government colleges state aid private employer

Notice that the federal government and colleges together provide about 89% of all financial aid.

Federal Financial Aid

There are many different forms of federal financial aid, including grants, work-study, and student loans.  The amount of federal financial aid you receive is determined by your financial need. There are income guidelines and restrictions that will affect the amount and type of aid you receive.

Fortunately, to be eligible for any type of federal financial aid you have to complete only one application: the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA can be found online at

Institutional (College) Financial Aid

Institutional financial aid is financial aid from the college’s own financial aid funds. This money comes from donations and investments. There are no restrictions on how the college can distribute their own money to students.

Every college has a separate section on their website with information on financial aid and instructions on how to apply. It’s the first place you should look.

Unfortunately, every college is different, so you need to look up the instructions and requirements for all the colleges to which you’re applying.

Thankfully, most colleges use your FAFSA information to distribute their own financial aid funds.

Some private colleges, especially those that give out large amounts of financial aid, may ask you to complete another form called the “CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE.” The CSS/PROFILE requires additional financial information and provides colleges with a report that analyzes your finances in more depth than the FAFSA alone.

State Financial Aid

States have a wide variety of financial aid options, application procedures, and application forms, so it’s wise to look online at your state’s financial aid website. All states will require the FAFSA.

Private Financial Aid

Private financial aid is money provided by local and national organizations, banks, and employers

These funds are given primarily in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and tuition matches. Each organization has its own application procedure and forms. Your high school guidance counselor is a great source of information about these forms of financial aid, particularly local sources.

Private organizations that award money based on income or ability to pay normally use information from your FAFSA report to help them determine financial need.

One last tip to help your college planning efforts: make sure you apply for financial aid as early as possible. Once funds are gone, you’re out of luck.


Hopefully after reading this, you’re a little more comfortable with the college planning process.

Without question, there are many decisions that are involved in getting into and paying for college. Although I’ve only covered the basics here, I hope this overview will make your college planning process a little less intimidating.