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College planning can feel overwhelming for students, often because they wait until the last minute to start thinking seriously about their post-high school career. However, it doesn’t have to be a stressful time.

Starting early is the key. Middle school is a great time for students to begin the college journey without the stress and pressure that accompanies high school. Even for students who waited until the end of high school, this guide can help break down college planning into manageable pieces, guide students to the steps they should take and prepare them for their academic life after high school.


Preparing for college success starts with excelling in high school classes:

  • Develop strong study habits to graduate high school near the top of the class and stand out to colleges
  • Enroll in challenging courses to develop the focus and time management skills higher education demands
  • Take standardized tests seriously and seek help for issues
A student sitting outside studying

At USF, admission is competitive, so it’s important students put forth maximum effort to give themselves the best chance of acceptance. We consider applicants based on grades, rigor of curriculum and standardized test scores. Click here to see the latest admissions requirements, deadlines and steps to apply.


Colleges want well-rounded individuals who will enhance their student body. A long history of successful extracurricular activities demonstrates qualities colleges look for:

Commitment to stick with this activity icon

Commitment to stick with this activity

Initiative to push oneself towards success outside of the classroom icon

Initiative to push oneself towards success outside of the classroom

Maturity to balance voluntary activities icon

Maturity to balance voluntary activities

Interest in self-improvement and skill development icon

Interest in self-improvement and skill development

If students are equal in academic achievement, schools may use their extracurricular activities to decide who will receive the remaining class spots.


High school offers a low-pressure time for students to explore potential fields and careers that may interest them. The key is for students to create opportunities to get outside their comfort zones, experience new subjects and get adult guidance:

  • Engage in community or school activities
  • Explore new classes and academic subjects
  • Match outside activities with potential careers
  • Talk with adults about their career choices and suggestions


Needless to say, college can be expensive. Helping students think about the cost of college sooner will help them plan for the expense and identify ways to help pay for it:

The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website offers more information on grants and scholarships for students.

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To see USF’s latest application deadlines, requirements, forms, waivers and instructions, visit our website.


Completing college applications typically takes some planning and preparation. Students can use these tips to streamline the application process and have the best chance of acceptance.

Research and organize colleges of interest. This research could include determining the requirements for desired schools and the standardized tests required to apply. Identifying these requirements early will help students plan and prepare. This also includes determining the “safety,” “probable” and “reach” colleges for students.

Check college testing requirements. Most colleges will require either the SAT or ACT, but it’s always wise to check each specific school’s requirements. For instance, some colleges will require students to complete the optional SAT essay, while some will not.

Accumulate letters of recommendation. Most colleges require these letters as part of the application process. Encourage students to gather letters of recommendation at least a month before the application deadline. This will allow them to get better letters with more details because the teachers and counselors won’t be scrambling to put something together in time.

Build a portfolio. This doesn’t have to be a literal portfolio of work, but it should be a well-organized “snapshot” of all the extracurricular, academic, work and volunteer experience that will help students stand out in the college application process. This includes awards and accolades. Keeping all these items in one place will make the application process much faster because they won’t be searching through mountains of folders for these documents. Hint: This is much easier if students keep good records.


Two students sitting outside reading

Students who wait until the end of their senior year to prepare for college still have options. The key is to complete a few essential steps to ensure they get the financial and academic support they need.

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) as soon as possible. In addition to federal grants, this financial aid program qualifies students for other types of scholarships and grants. It also qualifies students for low-interest federal loans.

Contact the admissions office staff at the desired college. With the deadline approaching, it is vital students stay on top of any required forms, documents and application materials.

Reach out to the financial aid office for any remaining scholarships or awards they have available. Students can also ask about payment plans, work study opportunities and on-campus jobs to help offset the cost of college. At USF, we offer many different types of Federal Work Study positions for students to earn extra money and gain resume experience.

For detailed student checklists on preparing for college, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website.


Save time on college prep meetings by having students complete our College Planning Worksheet beforehand.

Download College Planning Worksheet

Freshman Scholarships

With college costs rising and student loan debt a major burden on Americans, scholarships have never been a more important topic for incoming college freshmen. The good, and bad, news about freshman scholarships is there are lots to choose from. The sheer volume available to students makes it essential they form a game plan to ensure they’re using their time wisely while still giving themselves the greatest chance to win this free college funding.

To help, we put together a Freshman Scholarship Guide, which outlines easy, clear steps for students to take:


Not all students will qualify for the same categories of scholarships. In fact, many students may only qualify for one or two types, so it’s best to establish this early on. Help students save time in the scholarship search by determining the types of awards they should be searching:

  • Merit scholarships: Awards based on exceptional academic achievement
  • Minority scholarships: Awards based on ethnic or racial background
  • Athletic scholarships: Awards based on athletic ability
  • Admissions scholarships: Awards offered by colleges to accepted students

Even after students carefully target those scholarships that best align with their strengths, background and interests, it’s important to recognize that many other students are gunning for the same awards. This is especially true of big-dollar national scholarships that are well known. In general, the higher the scholarship amount, the fiercer the competition students will face.


Once students identify their best scholarship categories, there are many online resources to start the search:

A student using a tablet
Scholarship Opportunities Icon


To discover the scholarship opportunities students may qualify to receive at USF, visit our website.


Most students are aware of the traditional types of scholarships available based on academic achievement, background and athletics, but there are a host of less obvious awards that range from ultra-specific to the downright strange (yes, you can even get a scholarship for liking the ukulele):

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Career-specific scholarships: Awards offered to students studying in a specific career field

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State scholarships: Awards offered to students who are residents of the state

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Major scholarships: Awards based on a student’s program of study

Employer and Parent Employer Scholarships scholarships icon

Employer and Parent Employer Scholarships: Awards provided to employees and their children

It’s worth noting that more obscure scholarships typically come with an award amount to match. Students should not expect to get the bulk of their tuition covered by a handful of these less traditional scholarships.


In essence, scholarships offer a form of income, and students need to view the application process as a part-time job. This includes setting aside significant blocks of time multiple times each week to find, complete and submit scholarship applications. A few hours once or twice a month simply isn’t enough time. Applying for scholarships is a numbers game. Although the money is far from guaranteed, there is also the potential to earn far more than with a typical part-time job.

In addition to the high volume of scholarship applications required, students should realize that there are some other important steps that can have a significant impact on results:

  • Carefully review application requirements
  • Prepare all the information required when applying
  • Complete all application sections
  • Submit the application by the deadline
  • Prepare for rejection, particularly if seeking high-dollar awards

Discussing scholarships is also a great opportunity to discuss student loans. Student loan debt is a major hurdle for many college graduates. This can help illustrate the value of college scholarships that reduce loan amounts required.

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Discover even more scholarship opportunities for USF Honors College students.

A student looking at their phone


Students receive scholarships under the assumption that their personal and academic conduct will reflect the values of the organization providing the award. Most scholarships make it clear that they are contingent upon very specific academic benchmarks, fields of study and behavior. Lapses in any of those categories can cause students to lose the financial awards they worked so hard to win.

Below are a few of the most common reasons students lose scholarships:

  • Poor academic performance: Most scholarships include minimum GPAs required to keep an award. Students who underestimate the difficulty of college classes face the highest risk of losing their award due to slipping grades.
  • Athletic decline: Athletic scholarships include both academic restrictions as well as athletic, making them some of the most difficult awards to maintain. Poor athletic performance, injury and even coaching changes can jeopardize an athletic scholarship.
  • Disciplinary issues: This is one of the more obvious reasons for losing a scholarship. Examples include legal troubles, violations of college rules and academic dishonesty.

Though initially winning an award is an achievement, maintaining it all four years of an undergraduate career presents even more of a challenge. Students must not only learn the methods to win scholarships, but what they must do in order to keep them as well.


Download the Freshman Scholarship Guide for a streamlined rundown to share with students.

Download Freshman Scholarship Guide


Data indicates that applicants meeting certain criteria are more likely to be successful at the college level, particularly in the freshman year. When college admissions officers review applications, these students are rewarded for various demonstrated academic success predictors.


Along with standardized test scores, this is an obvious factor students should fully understand. Although there’s no universal rule on GPA requirements, some colleges do list minimum requirements for applying. Students with a GPA below that threshold are far less likely to earn a spot or even get through the initial review of applications.

It’s important for students to know their current high school GPA and identify schools with requirements that align with their academic record. There are even resources to convert a GPA to the 4.0 scale, making it easy to see how a GPA compares to each college’s acceptance range.

Freshman Profile icon


To see USF’s latest application deadlines, requirements, forms, waivers and instructions, visit our website


In addition to GPA and test scores, colleges consider a number of other factors that have less to do with grades. One of these methods is evaluating the strength of a student’s curriculum in high school. High school coursework serves to prepare students for the rigors of college coursework. College admissions officers want to see that a student was challenged in the semesters leading up to their freshman year of college.

At USF, we strongly encourage applicants challenge themselves by taking coursework at the highest levels in which they can be successful, including Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) and dual enrollment courses. In addition, we expect that students will complete additional academic coursework beyond minimum state requirements, particularly in the areas of math, science and foreign language. Colleges want students who will be successful academically once they enter the college classroom, not just competitive for admission.


One of the most overlooked areas of importance in the admissions process is the high school grade trend, particularly in the junior and senior years. In fact, we defer many of our applicants to USF until they have received official first-semester senior grades, so that we can evaluate their progress and performance in the last semester of their senior year.

Generally, the higher a student’s grades, the better. As expected, college admissions teams prefer to see more As and Bs than Cs (though a few Cs may be acceptable, particularly in the most challenging of courses). Ds and Fs are cause for concern and could hurt applicants even if their overall GPA remains high.


Download our Free PDF guide, "5 Tips to Overcome Poor Grades in College Admissions," to see valuable strategies that can help students get into the college they want.

Download Guide


Taking dual enrollment coursework is a great way for students to get a head start on meeting college graduation requirements while also standing out in the college application process. However, students should realize that once they begin enrolling in college courses, they must take these advanced courses seriously. Enrollment in college courses establishes a postsecondary record that will follow the student forever on official college transcripts.

Poor performance in even a single dual enrollment course might lessen the chance to gain admission to college, so students should ensure they are fully prepared to take these advanced classes. This poor grade could affect chances for admission to graduate, law, medical or professional school in the future. USF requires applicants to have a minimum postsecondary GPA of 2.50 (unweighted) in dual enrollment courses to be considered for (and maintain) an offer of freshman admission. We provide additional consideration to those applicants with a postsecondary GPA of 3.00 or higher, as they have proven themselves capable of being successful in college-level work.


Not all colleges require these items with an initial application. However, in the event that a student is deferred for any reason (including semester grades or new test scores), submitting this additional documentation is encouraged.

Letters of Recommendation: Students should send no more than two letters of recommendation. Consider recommendations written by teachers who can best vouch for the student’s potential for academic success in college.

Positive letters of recommendation are important for the application process, but they do not guarantee a student’s success in college. If a string of teachers decline a student’s recommendation request, however, this may highlight an academic or social issue the student should address.

A student sitting outside studying

Personal Statements: There are many names for these required documents, including "college essay," "essay prompt" and "supplemental essay." Before writing, students should know the differences and purpose of each type of writing prompt to tailor the content to exactly what the review committee wants to see.


Even if a student checks all the boxes for grades, test scores and curriculum difficulty, a series of behavioral issues can serve as a red flag to colleges. A good record of conduct indicates to colleges that a student is prepared to succeed at their institution both from an academic and social perspective. Encourage your students to look for opportunities to highlight the qualities colleges seek:

  • Maturity to withstand peer pressure that may distract from academics
  • Responsibility to maintain focus on education while at college
  • Motivation to succeed independently, without the presence of a parent


For most students and their families, college cost remains one of the biggest factors in picking a school. In fact, recent research indicates the top reason students don’t attend their first-choice college is due to cost.

It’s true that over the past two decades, college costs have continued to rise. The good news is that students now have more tools and resources to decrease costs and avoid college debt. These resources include countless scholarships and grants, such as freshman scholarships.


1. Understand the Difference Between Tuition and Cost

Unfortunately, most students don’t know how to accurately determine their actual college cost, so they get a skewed perception of their eventual out-of-pocket expenses. One of the biggest mistakes students make is to simply look at the sticker price, which includes the published tuition and fees. However, sticker price fails to take into account the various factors that can determine a school’s final cost.

Instead, encourage students to focus on the net price of attendance:

(Tutition + Houseing & Meals + Fees & Miscellaneous Expenses) - (Scholarships, Grants, Gifts + Educational Benefits) = Net College Price

Once a student has this net price, they can accurately determine the amount they’ll have to pay or take out in loans to cover the cost. Several online tools can help, including the College Cost Calculator from the College Board.

Cost Of Attendance icon


To get a detailed cost breakdown of attending USF, including tuition, housing and meals, books and more, visit our website.

2. Identify Less Obvious College Costs

Encourage students to explore and account for these less obvious expenses that can influence their final higher education costs. Even with identical tuition costs, two schools can vary widely in the final price. That’s because a college may include several additional fees, opportunities or expenses that can drive up cost:

  • Out-of-State Tuition
  • Travel Expenses
  • Vehicle Costs
  • Greek Life and Campus Clubs
Image representing balancing education with cost
#3 in 50 most affordable in-state public universities (
Top 100 best value in public colleges (Kiplinger's Personal Finance, 2018)
Average financial aid award if $9, 570 to 25,825 students in 2016-17

3. Discover Potential College Discounts

Depending on the school, college cost may not be set in stone. Students should inquire with each college’s admissions office when deciding which school to attend to find out if they honor any special discounts:

  • If a family member works at the school
  • If the family’s main wage earner is unemployed
  • Alumnus or alumna discount due to a parent attending
  • Reduction due to more than one family member being enrolled
  • Reduced cost for older students

Even if a student does not get a discount their freshman year, they could receive a break in their later years for experience as a student government leader or affiliation with the college newspaper or yearbook.


Don’t let your students get struck by sticker shock. Download our student guide on lowering the cost to attend college.

Download Guide

Important Dates & Deadlines

Use our interactive calendar to find and plan for important college admissions dates and deadlines. Refer to the color key below to identify the types of dates listed.


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