Admit-A-Bull // Official Admissions Blog

College Planning Tips for High School Freshmen


It might seem a little silly to begin preparing for college during your freshman year. You’re probably still getting used to your new high school building! But the truth is, the earlier you start preparing for college, the less stress you’ll encounter later on. Plus, all our suggestions are designed to help you have a better experience in your freshman year. You won’t be taking any unnecessary practice tests or stressing out over what colleges you want to attend. Instead, you’ll be developing study skills, getting to know yourself, and doing stuff that interests you. In freshman year, “college prep” really can be fun. Let’s dive into these college planning tips for high school freshmen

Make an Academic Plan

Okay, we admit this tip sounds kind of boring. But it will save you headaches in the future because you’ll be sure to have the courses you need for college admissions requirements. Basically, you’re doing your Senior Self a favor.

You and your guidance counselor will meet to discuss what courses you should take throughout the next four years. Look for AP and honors classes that challenge you and seem cool: Remember, your freshman year is about discovering and pursuing your interests, which can lead to college majors and careers.

Getting good grades is important in freshman year. But keep in mind that because AP and honors classes are so challenging, “a B in an AP or honors class is usually better for your GPA than an A in a standard class,” according to the Princeton Review.

Get Organized

Your high school schedule is probably even more packed than it was in middle school. That’s why it’s crucial to find an organizational system that works for you. Here are some tips:

  • Use a daily planner to write down due dates for projects and tests, schedule study time, and record upcoming extracurricular events and appointments. You can also set reminders on your phone or your digital calendar.
  • Break longer assignments into smaller chunks. For example, if you’re writing an essay, you could break it into researching your topic, brainstorming, outlining, writing, and revising. Estimate about how long each step will take you.
  • Schedule your time. Working backward from your due date, schedule time to complete each step of your project. Factor in other deadlines and life events, too — that way, you won’t overload yourself on a particular weekend.
  • Don’t forget to schedule in some downtime, too. Your goal is to practice having a healthy balance between school and life so that you can keep your grades up while also taking care of yourself.

Use Study Apps and Tips

Ask your friends and teachers what study apps they recommend and give them a try until you find your favorites. Here are some of ours:

  • Create flashcards sets on Quizlet.
  • Watch a ton of free instructional videos (especially for math and science) on Khan Academy.
  • Check out CrashCourse, created by authors Hank and John Green, for engaging video lessons.
  • Take study breaks and unwind with wellness apps like Headspace or these USF picks.

Along with the right apps, time management tips can help you make the most of a study session. This blog post has plenty of good advice, including tips on how to “eat the frog first” — a gross out term for getting the hard part of your project out of the way early. (No frogs were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

And don’t forget to make studying as fun as possible:

  • Listen to music to put yourself in a better mood.
  • Enlist your classmates in a study group.
  • Treat yourself to brain-boosting study snacks.

A high school freshman student getting help from his teacher.

Check in With Yourself

Every adult is going to want to give you tips for how to succeed in high school. But the reality is, you’re the best person to figure out what works for you. When you’re tackling an academic assignment, ask yourself these questions suggested by The Guardian:

  • Before you start a task, ask yourself questions like “What should I do first?”
  • During the task, ask yourself, “Am I on the right track? Who can I ask for help?”
  • After the task, ask yourself how it went: “What went well? What would I do differently next time?”

Explore Extracurriculars

Extracurriculars look good on a college resume. But that shouldn’t be the only reason you get involved in a club or activity. “I don’t want [high school students] to do things that are just for a university or ‘I think this will look good.’ I want them to think about what they are interested in,” says Michelle Whittingham, an associate vice chancellor for enrollment management quoted in this U.S. News article.

If your high school doesn’t offer any options that interest you, investigate extracurriculars in your community. And once you find an activity you love, look for opportunities to take on leadership roles (which colleges like to see).

Keep track of your activities by recording them in a “college resume,” which is a lot fancier than it sounds. Basically, throw stuff in a Google doc or spreadsheet so that when you apply for colleges, you will remember what you actually did your freshman year: Write down the clubs you’ve been involved with, leadership activities, competitions you’ve won, awards, jobs, college-level classes, etc.

Read and Write

In your freshman year, “write up a storm,” suggests this article in the Princeton Review. “Top-notch writing and vocabulary skills will serve you across the board from research papers and lab reports for your high school courses to standardized tests and college applications.” This is good advice — but you should carve out time for more fun, creative writing. That time could be as short as 10 minutes once a week. It’ll help you connect to topics and themes you care about and give you a chance to practice rhythm and wordplay, which will make the style of your academic papers more interesting.

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read books. Of course, you will be assigned plenty of books in your English class, but you should also read stuff that interests you. In your free time, don’t worry about reading above or below your “grade level” or choosing “impressive” books. And if you prefer listening to audiobooks, go for it. Check out a variety of books, like graphic novels and manga, middle grade and young adult fiction, and nonfiction in a subject that grabs your attention. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at your school or local public library, the Brooklyn Public Library is offering a free e-library card to teens with access to their entire catalogue of books.

Writing academic papers can make you feel nervous, which stifles your creativity and writing ability. That’s why it’s smart to take a few minutes each week to write something just for you, where you can experiment and have fun. You don’t have to show anybody what you write. You don’t have to worry about punctuation, grammar, or spelling like you do on official homework. Here’s the only thing you should worry about: Does what you’re writing feel true to you? “True” doesn’t mean it happened in real life. It means it connects to something inside of you that feels real:

  • Keep a journal where you write down how you feel.
  • Open a Notes app in your phone and record sensory details about your life: what do you smell, see, taste, and hear?
  • Write down three things you are grateful for each day.
  • Write about what makes you angry.
  • Write a list of your favorite facts.
  • Write the weirdest thing you can, like, “What color does a star sound like?” (If you’re interested, this book has more prompts like that.)

A freshman student resting her head on a pile of books.

Learn How to Advocate for Yourself

High school is a great opportunity to practice self-advocacy, a skill that will serve you well in college and throughout your life.

Know yourself:

  • What are your interests? (Extracurricular activities should lead you to this answer, but you can also pay attention to what you love doing every day. Maybe it’s as simple as walking your dog — which tells you that animals, nature, or exercise might all be potential interests.)
  • What are your needs? For example, do you need an accommodation for a learning difference or disability?
  • What are your strengths? Are you great at problem-solving? Are you kind? Are you creative?
  • What is your learning style? For example, do you find that you can process information better when you listen to it or when you read it? Do you learn better when you practice something hands-on?

Know your rights:

  • As a freshman student in the U.S., you may not be able to vote yet, but you do have rights. Let’s look at clothing as an example. According to the ACLU, your school can forbid everyone from wearing hats. But if hats are allowed, they can’t prohibit you from wearing a Rays baseball cap just because your principal hates the team.
  • You can read more about your rights on the ACLU Students’ Rights page.
  • Because rights can be changed based on new laws and policies, read your local newspaper to learn about recent legislation in your state.

Know the power of your voice:

  • Self-advocacy means speaking up for yourself and what you believe in.
  • At school, if you disagree with a policy, you can write a letter to your school board. (This template is specifically about book banning, but you can use it to help you write a letter about other policies, as well.)
  • In your community, you might advocate for a cause you care about by writing a letter to the editor of your newspaper. (Page six of this activity sheet has a template for a letter to the editor.)

Take Care of Yourself

High school can be stressful, even when you’re not trying to figure out your college plans. Learn strategies to care for your mental and emotional health, which help you get through tough times now and also prepare you for college life. Here are just a few ways to get started:

  • Identify three trusted people you could share your feelings with. (Your school counselor could be a good place to start.)
  • Try not to distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings. Instead of scrolling through social media when you feel jittery, let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling. There is no such thing as a “bad” emotion: it’s just part of being human. This is called “accepting emotions,” which is “different from accepting the situations that cause bad emotions,” according to this article in the New York Times. For example, you shouldn’t judge yourself for feeling uneasy about a bully at school. But that doesn’t mean the bully’s behavior is okay.
  • Take deep breaths. Try this when you feel stressed: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and repeat. (Page 5 of this activity sheet has a drawing to help you visualize this breathing exercise.)

Reach Out

Curious what the next years hold in store? Check out our tips on college prep for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Have questions? The USF Office of Admissions is always ready with advice and answers. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.