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



  • The Keystone exams are end-of-course exams, not a traditional standardized test.  All high school students are tested in three subjects: Algebra I, Biology, and Literature (the standard preparation for the literature test is the English 2 class).  Students must score proficient on all three exams in order to graduate from high school.
  • Students take each exam for the first time when they have finished the corresponding course.  If students score proficient the first time, they are done with the process.  If they do not score proficient, they will have the opportunity to take the exams again every spring and fall until they pass.  If a student does not succeed the first time, he/she is signed up for supplemental instruction.  If a student takes the exam a second time and still fails to score high enough, the student will then have the option of doing a project-based assessment instead.  Project-based assessments provide an alternate way of meeting the requirement, but they are more time-consuming than the standard exams.
  • Keystone Exam Design Overview 
  • Keystones Frequently Asked Questions

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Early High School Preparation for College

Sophomore year is where it counts.

Even if you had a tough time transitioning to high school in your freshman year, you can pick up slack in your second year of high school. This year, you should be settled in and more equipped to take on the challenges that lie ahead, including the college preparation process.

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. In general, students will want to get a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP exam, or a 5, 6, or 7 for the IB exam. Check out College Board to see what AP scores are required for credit at your prospective universities.

Dual Enrollment

Talk to your counselor about dual enrollment and college course options. Students can start taking college courses in high school to start building college credits. You can also save money by enrolling in college courses in high school. Credits you take at a university are usually less expensive than enrolling full-time. Not all universities will take dual enrollment credits, so make sure you contact the universities on your list to see whether or not the credits will transfer. 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 us fee waivers. Consider taking the SAT Subject Test. Subject Tests are hour-long, content-based tests that allow you to showcase achievement in specific subject areas where you excel.
  • About the SAT Subject Tests
  • Practice Questions
  • Fee Waivers

Start looking into colleges online

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.
  • Register for the PSAT.
  • Study for the PSAT. Work through a test prep manual or complete practice tests at CollegeBoard
  • Stay involved in extracurricular activities all year long, such as student government, sports teams or community service initiatives. Serve in leadership roles if possible.
    • See ASAP‘s (After School Activities Partnership) directory for programs near you.


  • Attend information sessions with college representatives who visit your high school.
  • Attend free college fairs:
  • Take the PSAT. Your score on the PSAT may qualify you for a National Merit Scholarship.
  • 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.
  • If necessary, confirm your citizenship status with the U.S. Social Security Administration as your citizenship status will determine your eligibility for financial aid.


  • Meet with an advisor or guidance counselor to begin identifying colleges that may be a good fit for you. You can also check out these online resources:
  • 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.
  • Enroll in an SAT prep course or utilize online test prep materials.
  • Begin to research summer jobs and/or academic enrichment opportunities.


  • Register for the SAT or ACT, and the SAT Subject Tests if applicable, coming up in May or June.
  • 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.



  • Compile your resume, writing samples, audition portfolio (or other evidence of your talents) for college admissions or scholarship applications.
    • Resume worksheet (compiling achievements) (Step Up to College Guide)
  • Study for the SAT if you plan to retake the test in your senior year. Read books, build vocabulary, practice math problems and take practice tests.
  • Narrow your list of potential college choices.
  • Begin to research scholarship opportunities.
  • Start to work on your college application essays.
  • Visit colleges and attend college fairs with your parents or guardians.
    • Questions to Take on College Visit (Step Up to College Guide p. WB10)
    • College Search Selection Worksheet (Step Up to College Guide)


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 to keep track of college-related dates and application materials, as well as class assignments, test dates and extracurricular activities.
  • Meet with your guidance counselor to double-check that you will have enough credits at the end of the year to graduate and that the credits meet college admissions requirements.
  • Update your resumé, highlighting accomplishments and work experience.
  • Finalize the list of colleges and universities to which you will apply.
  • Go back to the teachers you asked to write recommendations for you. Give them a copy of your updated resumé for their reference
  • Register for the fall SAT if you would like to improve your scores.


  • Check all application deadlines and submit your materials on time.
    • College Application, Acceptance, and Enrollment Tracking Worksheet
  • Follow up to make sure all early action or early decision application materials have been received
  • Remind teachers and counselors of early deadlines for recommendations, if applicable.
    • College Application, Acceptance, and Enrollment Tracking Worksheet
  • Be sure to include any required fees with your applications.
  • Make copies of all documents that you send through the mail and/or submit online. Keep organized files.



  • 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.




  • Continue to meet application deadlines
    • College Application, Acceptance, and Enrollment Tracking Worksheet
  • 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.
    • PHEAA
    • 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.studentloans.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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