High School

Making the Most of your High School Years

Many students think that the college application process starts during their junior year, but colleges will be looking at your entire high school transcript. If you go into high school with college in mind, you can prepare yourself to be the type of student colleges look for.

This 9th–12th grade timeline offers guidelines for staying on track to graduate high school and attend college. Click on the grade levels below to view a college-prep timeline for that grade. Each year of high school requires a different set of steps towards college preparation, and colleges look at a student’s high school career holistically. Certain course requirements are necessary for college admission, so make sure you have the big, four-year picture in mind, and plan your courses strategically with your advisor or college counselor.

9th Grade

10th Grade

11th Grade

12th Grade

9th Grade

9th Grade is the time to put yourself on the pathway to success by establishing good study habits and figuring out what subject you prefer. Use the following tips to ensure you have the best year possible.



  • Don’t wait to start working on big assignments or studying for a test! Schedule a small amount of time each week to look over recent material or work on an outline for a paper or project.
  • Before watching TV or playing a video game, do a section of your homework. Then give yourself a small break as a reward between homework assignments.
  • Here are some tips to help you take control of homework more efficiently and effectively.
  • Use a free online planner to keep track of class assignments, test dates and extracurricular activities.

Time Management


  • Check in with a parent, guardian, or an older sibling to make sure you are on track with balancing schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and any other commitments in your life.
  • Prioritize by doing the most important, time-sensitive tasks first, and leaving the less important, smaller tasks to be done last.
  • 8 Ways to Take Control of Your Time
  • Balancing High School and Part Time Work



  • Did you know that students who remain attendance on-track between the 8th-12th grades are seven times more likely to graduate from high school. Seven times!
  • What does it mean to be attendance on-track? Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% of school, which is equal to approximately 18-20 days a year or just two days a month. Two days a month may not seem like a lot, but those numbers really add up.
  • You might be surprised to learn that, unlike your high school teachers, college professors will not be chasing you down the hallway or calling your parents if you are missing from class. Forming disciplined and consistent attendance habits in high school will help you prepare to maintain strong attendance in college or career when you are met with increased independence.
  • Review the School District Attendance Policy to make sure you are within compliance.



Cumulative GPA (or grade point average) means that your grades from freshman year get averaged together with your grades from sophomore year and so on. A 3.0 high school GPA, for example, shows that you have a B average across all the classes you’ve taken in high school. Because of the way cumulative GPA works, it is easier to keep a high GPA than it is to bring up a low one, so those freshman and sophomore year grades really do matter.

GPA is an important factor in the college admissions process. A Google search for “[insert school here] admissions requirements” (example: Temple University admissions requirements) will tell you what GPA a college you’re interested in is looking for. Looking up college GPAs will help you set a GPA goal to work for. And keep in mind that a higher GPA means not just college acceptance but college scholarships!

Ask a teacher or guidance counselor where you can access your GPA, and check out this handy calculator where you can make a plan for raising your GPA.

Join a College Prep Program

Explore Out of Class Activities


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Sophomore year is where it counts.

You may be more settled in to high school now, ready to take on the challenges that lie ahead, including the college preparation process. In addition to the steps below, be sure to talk to your high school counselor about the School District of Philadelphia’s Pathways to Graduation so you are on track to graduate in four years. 

Take advanced level courses


If you aren’t taking any advanced level classes, talk to your guidance counselor about adjusting your schedule to include more difficult courses. Colleges want to see not only a strong GPA, but also an ambitious course load. Advanced classes will show universities that you have challenged yourself, and will better prepare you for a demanding college workload.

Students can get college credit from taking AP and IB exams. Each university will have a grade requirement on the AP and IB exams to receive credit. Check out College Board to see what AP scores are required for credit at your prospective universities.

Explore dual enrollment opportunities


Talk to your counselor about dual enrollment options. Students can take college courses in high school to start earning college credits (which means saving on college tuition) and to gain experience on a college campus. Most dual enrollment courses are offered to 11th and 12th graders, but talking to your counselor in 10th grade will ensure that you can enroll in time to take advantage of these options during your junior and senior year. Dual enrollment opportunities for Philadelphia students include:


Keep up with your extracurriculars


Colleges like to see students involved in outside activities, but they also like to see commitment and dedication. Four years on the high school basketball team is more impressive than an always shifting schedule of extracurriculars. Of course, you should try new things, but try to find that one activity that you are passionate about and want to stick with for the long haul.

Take the tests!


  • The PSAT/NMSQT helps students become college ready. It provides detailed feedback on skills, access to scholarships and personalized online tools, and excellent practice for the SAT. Learn More  and use fee waivers.
  • You can find SAT practice tests here and Khan Academy partners with College Board to provide free online tutorials and quizzes. Pro tip: use the Khan Academy quizzes to identify areas where you need to improve the most and focus your energies there.
  • Find free, local SAT prep support through the Let’s Get Ready program.
  • But I thought a lot of colleges were test optional now? While more colleges and universities are moving to test optional, there are still many benefits to taking the SAT, like qualifying for scholarships.

Start looking into colleges online


  • Set up an account on www.collegeboard.com, or www.edplanner.org. Check out the “Admissions” pages on the websites of the colleges you’re interested in to see their requirements.
  • See our 9th grade checklist for tips for visiting local college campuses in person, which is the best way to get a feel for what you like and don’t like about different types (small/large, urban/rural, etc.) of colleges. Use the PhillyGoes2College calendar to find college admissions events near you.

Take a career quiz

Unsure of what college major or career path you might pursue? You’re not alone! But there are steps you can take to begin exploring what’s out there and what might be right for you. Getting started now means that you’ll have time to to learn more about and prepare for the majors you might be interested in. For example, if you’re interested in computer science, you’ll have time to enroll in a free coding afterschool program or a computer science dual enrollment course at your local community college. Check out the career search here to get started. Use the industry clusters option to narrow your search. 

Month-to-Month Checklist


  • Use a free online planner to keep track of class assignments, test dates and extracurricular activities.
  • Meet with your guidance counselor to make sure that you are enrolled in the most challenging college prep courses available to you.
  • Meet with your guidance counselor about the School District of Philadelphia’s Pathways to Graduation to make sure you are on track to graduate. 
  • Register and study for the SAT. You can find SAT practice tests here and Khan Academy partners with College Board to provide free online tutorials and quizzes. Find free, local SAT prep support through the Let’s Get Ready program. Why take the SAT junior year? Taking the test early means you can learn from that first experience, work on areas you need to improve, and retake the test to bring up your schools.
  • Stay involved in extracurricular activities all year long, such as student government, sports teams or community service initiatives. Serve in leadership roles if possible. Follow PhillyGoes2College on social media and check out our program directory to find no-cost afterschool or summer programs that fit your interests.


  • Attend information sessions with college representatives who visit your high school.
  • Attend free college fairs and go on college visits:
    • Learn about in-person and virtual NACAC College Fairs here, check out college fairs held by the School District of Philadelphia here, and follow PhillyGoes2College on social media where we share information about upcoming local college fairs.
    • See our 9th grade checklist for tips for visiting college campuses in person, which is the best way to get a feel for what you like and don’t like. Use the PhillyGoes2College calendar to find college admissions events near you.
  • Talk with your parents or guardians and other mentors about your college plans.
  • Attend a financial aid workshop with your parents or guardians to learn about the process. Ask your guidance counselor for upcoming events or check out the PhillyGoes2College calendar.
  • If necessary, confirm your citizenship status with the U.S. Social Security Administration as your citizenship status will determine your eligibility for financial aid.


  • Use the resources below to start identifying colleges that may be a good fit for you. It’s also a good idea to meet with your counselor to discuss your options:
  • Find out if your current grades meet the requirements of the schools that interest you.
  • Choose classes for 12th grade with your advisor or guidance counselor.
  • Make sure you have enough credits to graduate and that your classes meet college admissions requirements.
  • Consider enrolling in challenging college prep courses available at your school.
  • Haven’t yet registered for the SAT or looking to take the test a second time? Head back to the September list for details on registration and study support.
  • Begin to research summer jobs and/or academic enrichment opportunities. Follow PhillyGoes2College on social media for upcoming opportunities and check out WorkReady’s paid summer internships.


  • Register and prepare for Advanced Placement (AP) Exams, if applicable.
  • Continue to research summer jobs and/or academic enrichment opportunities. Consider looking for a job that is related to your career interests.




Download the full Step Up to College Guide and watch this video about Philadelphia Futures. 
Thanks to Philadelphia Futures!

Month-to-Month Checklist


  • Use a planner like this one to keep track of college-related dates and application materials.
  • Meet with your guidance counselor about the School District of Philadelphia’s Pathways to Graduation to make sure you are on track to graduate.
  • Update your resumé, highlighting accomplishments and work experience. Check out tips here. Make sure the teachers writing your letters of recommendation have your most recent resumé.
  • Visit as many of your potential colleges as possible, meet with college representatives when they come to visit your school, and attend free college fairs.
  • Finalize the list of colleges and universities to which you will apply. For college match resources, see our 11th grade checklist (under December).
  • Register for the fall SAT if you would like to improve your scores. Find additional information about SAT prep resources in our 10th and 11th grade checklists.
  • Begin to fill out admissions applications.
  • Continue to work on your application essays.



  • Take the SAT. This may be your last time to have your score reported to colleges in time.
  • Remind your teachers and counselors of the deadlines for submitting your college recommendations for regular admission.
  • Complete and submit the FAFSA form. Your counselor is there to help!
  • Complete and submit the PHEAA form to receive financial aid from the State of Pennsylvania. 




  • Continue to meet application deadlines
  • Confirm that all of your college admissions materials have been received by each school to which you applied. Write thank you notes to those who wrote recommendation letters on your behalf.


  • After you have submitted your FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). Check it for any errors.
  • Return the SAR only if you need to make corrections.
  • Check your email often and follow the directions in all financial aid correspondence that you receive from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) and respond in a timely manner.
  • Continue to complete and submit scholarship applications before their deadlines.


  • Review and compare the financial aid packages offered in the financial aid award letters sent by the colleges that accepted you.
  • Identify a financial aid contact at each college where you have been accepted. Check in with that person every few weeks about the status of your financial aid package.
  • Maintain organized files of all correspondence that you receive regarding financial aid.
  • Make sure that you accept an offer of admission before May 1st, the universal candidate reply date, and send in any required deposits and paperwork.


  • Take Advanced Placement (AP) Exams, if applicable, and request that your scores be sent to the college that you will be attending.
  • Make sure your guidance counselor sends your final transcript to your selected college.
  • If your acceptance offer includes a summer “bridge program” option, make sure that you register by the deadline.
  • Work with your parents or guardians to apply for Federal Direct PLUS Loans (Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students) and other private loans, if necessary.
  • If your Federal Direct PLUS Loan application is declined, inform your college’s financial aid office so that they can authorize you for additional Federal Direct Loans.
  • Double-check with PHEAA to make sure that your grant funds are sent to the correct college.
  • Visit www.studentaid.gov to complete your Loan Entrance Counseling and Master Promissory Note for any federal loans noted on your financial aid award letter.
  • Review all bills for tuition, room and board as well as other correspondence from your school’s financial aid office.
  • Follow all directions carefully and meet deadlines for payment.
  • Create a realistic budget for indirect costs for college, such as books, phone bills, computer needs and travel expenses.


  • Meet all class registration deadlines. Be aware of due dates for tuition, room and board fees and other expenses.
  • Contact the bursar’s office to set up a payment plan if necessary.
  • Pay attention to orientation dates and any first-year requirements, such as academic placement tests.
  • Contact your future roommate(s) to introduce yourself and discuss what you will need for your dorm room.

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