Honors Program

How to Prepare for College: A Guide for High School Students

How to Really Prepare for College


"No matter how prepared you believe you are for college, nothing can completely prepare you for the voyage you're about to take. I was a 96 average student all through high school, and vice-president of my class for three years. I did it all: played field hockey, volleyball, ran track, swam. A four-year member of the National Honor Society and vice-president of the NHS in my senior year. Never once did I study more than an hour-and-a-half for a final, let alone do any studying at all when there was no test. School was easy, I was a success. I thought I had it made. Especially going to a state university, I knew I would get an easy 3.5 - 4.0 GPA without even trying. I could not have been more wrong.

"The first two weeks at college were an awakening. The first day of classes, each teacher told us we were expected to study two hours for every hour of class. Two hours?! I thought they were joking. I was used to studying two hours a week total, and now they wanted me to study two hours a day -- per course! So, for the first couple of weeks, I did what I had always done -- not much work -- and now, at the end of the semester, I am still regretting it deeply. Instead of using those first weeks as a time to get on the right track, I took things easy, and I've had to play catch-up for the rest of the semester. I have no time to go out and don't get enough sleep.

"Now, after reading this, you're probably thinking, "That will never happen to me." Well, it will. And the reason is because you still think that college is going to be like high school. Believe me, it isn't. The work is much harder. You're on your own. And your professors aren't going to fall for your excuses; most don't care if you fail or not.

"But don't worry. There's still hope for you! My advice is: prepare yourself for college as much as you can while you're still in high school. You can do this in several ways. First, get over yourself. I'm not saying don't be proud of your accomplishments, but remember that they are not who you are. When you arrive at college, nobody knows what you did in high school. The old labels don't apply any more. College is a good time to make a fresh start. Another thing you should do is get used to waking up at a normal hour -- by yourself. Think about it: if you overslept in high school, chances are that your mother or a sibling woke you up. Nobody will do this for you in college. Believe me, getting to an 8:00 a.m. class is a lot harder in college than it was in high school. But you'd better do it.

"Probably the most important thing you can do is never miss a class!! Go to class in the morning even if you were up all night, dying from the flu. Let's face it: most classes are two or three times a week for an hour and twenty minutes at most. You can go. You have to go. If you skip one class, you'll do it again and again, and this will become a dangerous habit that will cause you to fail. I know this first hand; please trust me.

"When you choose a college, choose it because you want to go there. Don't choose it just because your best friend is going there or your boyfriend or your girlfriend. If these relationship don't last -- and most don't -- you're stuck at a school you hate. You have to start living your own life, for yourself, not for everyone else. Not for your parent, not for your friends, but for you. Choose a college that meets your needs. Go where you can achieve the most and be successful. Ultimately, this is your life. No one else is responsible for you and no one will be more affected by the choices you make, good or bad. So live your life for yourself. I wish you the best of luck in all you do and all you dream of doing."


"I am sure that all of you have preconceptions about what college is going to be like. Chances are, however, that the ideas you have aren't accurate at all. I too thought I had it all figured out and that I knew what to expect. Well, if you are as smart as you think you are, you will take at least part of my advice and carry it with you.

"Presently, you are in high school, a sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrible four years. I'm sure that many of you think that high school is easy and that college will be impossible. College is not impossible, but it is challenging for most people, no matter how smart they are or think they are. The most important advice I can give about high school is to take your work seriously. Learn how to learn and think about how to think.

"First of all, if you are a procrastinator, and think that it's cool to be a procrastinator, then think again. Procrastination will become your demise in college if you don't get it under control now. If a teacher assigns a paper that you know can easily be written the night before it's due, do it two or three nights before it's due and see how good it feels to have it done and out of the way. I came to college as a procrastinator; I had mastered doing work at the last minute. I wish now that I had mastered getting work done ahead of time. I'm a student who cares about my work, so I haven't turned anything in late, but I have stayed up late too many times the night before the work was due, stressed to the maximum, wishing I had started the paper a couple of days earlier, when I had the time. If you care at all about doing well in college, please take this advice as crucial: you will not do well in college -- you may not even get by -- by procrastinating.

"The next things to learn now, in high school, are time management and discipline. These things are related to procrastination but different. You have to learn how to fit everything that you need to do into the amount of time that you have to do it in. Right now, you are in school from a certain time in the morning to a certain time in the afternoon. The rest of the time you spend however you want. You probably have a routine that you go through every day. In college, it isn't like that. Your classes will be at different times each day, and then you have to fit it social life, dining, extra-curricular activities, sleep, and, most importantly, studying. (Yes, no matter how smart you are, you'll still need to study.) This will probably be the biggest shock to your system when you first come to college. It took me a whole semester to learn how to manage my time effectively; for example, to learn how to turn the television off and get down to some serious studying. Learn in high school how to discipline yourself and make yourself do things that you don't necessarily want to do. You will then become used to it and will be better able to do it when you come to college.

"The final important thing to do in high school is to work hard, get good grades, and get involved in extra-curricular activities, so that you can get into the college you want to. We've all heard stories about one of the smartest kids in school not getting into the college he wanted because he hadn't participated in anything but classes. These stories are true, and there's a lot to learn from them. By the time I got into my senior year in high school, my grades were good and I had been involved in a strong list of activities. When I filled out college applications, I didn't have as much stress as my friends, whose grades weren't so good or who hadn't participated in many activities. (Bear in mind, though, that colleges aren't impressed by just a long list of activities. They'd rather have someone who's been really involved, if only in a few things. Quality is more important than quantity.) In other words, worry a little about your grades and get involved in activities that are important to you. Besides, the activities may lead you to more things than just acceptance to college.

"Start learning about colleges as soon as you can, at least by the beginning of your junior year in high school. Maybe you have a career in mind. Maybe there's a subject that just interests you. Maybe you have no idea what you want to study but you just want to explore. Start looking for colleges that have good programs in what you want to study or that will let you explore your interests. Don't be too discouraged about the cost of college; there are lots of scholarships and financial aid. Pursue them.

"Once you get a sense of a college's academic strengths, there are some other things to consider. How far away from home do you want to be? How far away from home can you afford to be? (Travel during breaks costs money.) Make sure you visit the campuses and see how they feel. Some will feel comfortable right away. Others will immediately feel wrong. Remember, you're going to spend four years here."


"I know that many of you have probably not started thinking about college. Like you, when I was in high school, worrying about college was the last thing on my mind. Instead, my thoughts revolved around playing in the soccer sectionals and wondering how far we would go that year. I was debating whether or not to play softball when spring came, and I was trying to figure out which instrument I wanted to play since I had decided to join the band. I was thinking only of the present and the immediate future. As far as college went, I still had plenty of time to think about college. Well, let me tell you what a huge mistake this type of reasoning is.

"Even though college may seem like it's something far off in the future, it's coming more quickly than you realize. Time seems to move faster each year in high school, and before you know it, you're sitting in an auditorium somewhere waiting for your name to be called so you can walk up and get your diploma. You'll wonder where all the time went and, if you follow some of my advice, you'll be thankful you started to prepare for college early in high school. You'll look around at your fellow classmates and you'll be glad that you had someone else's mistakes to learn from, and that you actually did learn from them. You'll notice some of your friends who didn't start early. They're the ones who don't know yet what they'll be doing at the end of the summer -- or who'll be bagging groceries or going to the local community college, just because they didn't plan ahead.

"You won't be one of them if you begin now to prepare for college. First of all, learn how to study. Now, I know you may be thinking that you already know how to study, that you mastered it in about fourth grade. If you are thinking this, you are absolutely, without a doubt, 100% wrong! Studying isn't easy as you think it is. In fact, for those of you who are smarter than average and haven't really had to study in high school, college may be even more difficult. That's right: you may have a harder time when you get to college than your classmates who aren't quite as sharp, because they had to learn how to study and you didn't.

"Maybe you're used to cramming for a test the night before. Please, please, please take my advice and don't do this. Cramming may put information into your brain so you can regurgitate it on the test the next day, but you aren't actually learning anything. You know this is true -- and it's also true that cramming works in high school. But please believe me: it won't work in college. In high school you get tested on a small amount of material you've gone over in class all week before, and your teacher has already told you what they want you to spit back on the test. In college, you workload is a lot higher than in high school -- 50 pages or so of reading per subject per nigh; you get tested on it only two or three times a semester; most professors don't review the material; and nobody tells you exactly what the test will cover. You can't whine or complain that this isn't fair because that's the way it is in college. If you try to cram, you'll find that you can't possibly learn everything and the next day you'll be staring blankly at a piece of paper wondering if you're in the right class because you recognize absolutely nothing on the test.

"To avoid this situation in college, learn to study now, in high school. To study -- really study -- material, you need to look at it over several nights. You need to review the chapters you're responsible for, go over your notes, read and re-read all the material. If you study for a couple of hours each night, and study over several nights, you'll remember things longer and, more importantly, understand them. For those of you who get As without having to pick up a book, you must learn to study now, because things will not be so easy for you in college. Trust me; I was one of you once.

"Now that you know how to study, start early thinking about the type of college you want to attend (small, medium, large) and even a general location (northeast, south, midwest, west). Once you get toward the end of your sophomore year, you should start visiting specific colleges. The more colleges you visit, the more you'll be able to decide if what you thought you wanted is really what you do want. For example, if you always wanted to go to a small school, but upon visiting some you realize that's not for you, you can start looking at larger schools. If your friends are visiting colleges, go along with them if you can, even if you're not interested in the particular school, because that will give you more to compare other schools to. Once you're pretty sure about the type of school you want, pick a few that you're seriously interested in and visit them. Visit them more than once if you can, and try to visit them overnight. That way, you're more likely to see them as they really are.

"You should apply to three, four, or five different schools. If you apply to only one or two, you might not get in to either, or you might get in but not be able to afford either. There's no reason to apply to more than five if you've picked them carefully. Pick a school that you'd love to go to but may not be able to get into. Hey, you never know. Pick a school that you'd really like to go to but may not be able to afford. If you get in, there may be enough financial aid and scholarships for you to attend. And be sure to pick a school that you can get into and can afford to go to and that you'd be willing to go to, even though it isn't your first choice. Be comfortable with this choice; you may wind up there.

"Once again, I speak from experience. The first time I even thought about college was the end of my junior year. I didn't visit any schools until my senior year. Picking a college is hard enough; this just adds extra stress that you don't need. Give yourself enough time to make informed decisions.

"Here's my last piece of advice. Remember: college is for you. No matter what people tell you, all of this is for your benefit. It is not for your parents or your grandparents. Make sure you get your money's worth out of college. There are great times to be had, so make sure you have them. There are memories to be made and good friends to be made, but, most importantly, the time you spend in college is time spent building your future. It's worth the effort. Shape your college career and shape your future."


"The last thing you're thinking about right now is college, but let me tell you: you need to. I'm not saying that you have to have details in place, like where you want to go and what you want to study, but you should at least be thinking about whether or not college is in your future. If it is, start thinking about it now. Colleges look at your whole four years of high school. Working all four years to the best of your abilities can't hurt you; it can only help. (Even if you're not going to college after high school, working hard is still a good habit to acquire.)

"Some people think that, once they get into college, they can slack off in their senior year. You may be surprised to learn that colleges look at your senior year. One of my friends got accepted to her first choice college. It was where she wanted to go since her sophomore year. She was always talking about how good the school was and how much she wanted to play on their basketball team. When she got her acceptance letter, she went through the roof with excitement. Then, to top it off, she got a scholarship. She was beyond thrilled. The problem was that she did what a lot of other high school seniors do. Since she was already accepted to college, she slacked off for the rest of her senior year. She skipped a class here and there; she came in late and left early; she stopped studying for tests and stopped doing her homework. What did it matter? She was already accepted to college. She didn't fail anything, but her grades slipped. She had been an A student, but her grades slipped to Bs and Cs. She was shocked when the college asked for a copy of her third-marking-period grades -- and even more shocked when the college revoked her scholarship. In the end, she wound up at her third-choice school, because she couldn't afford to go to the other school without the scholarship. The moral is that all four years count.

"I'm not telling you to go live in a dark hole for four years and only come out to go to classes. Have fun. Join clubs. Get involved in activities. Enjoy high school, but come away from it with more than a diploma that says you passed. Make that diploma say you passed because you worked your hardest and put as much effort into it as possible.

"One more thing. When you visit colleges that you think you might want to attend, don't fall asleep on the ride. Stay awake, so that you'll know exactly how far from home the school is. The majority of us get homesick once in a while, so the distance from home will be a factor in how often you can come home and visit. When you look at the school, ask yourself: Do I see myself living here for four years and being happy? The answer will help lead you to the right school.

"College will be a mix of things. It will be some of the best times in your life and some of the worst. It will be surprisingly easy at times, and sometimes so difficult that you will want to pull out your hair. You'll meet people you love and people you can't stand to be in the room with. Above all, college will be what you make it."