The Complete Guide to College Admissions

A Magoosh Educator Resource

College Planning for High Schoolers

Although college planning really ramps up during a student’s junior and senior years, it’s never too early for high schoolers to start thinking about college.

To help your students hit the ground running we’re put together some suggestions for key steps students can take over the course of each season of the four years of high school. We've also put together a chart to help track the most important focus items over the course of 4 years. 


Freshman year

Summer Before Freshman Year

Choose an organizer and study schedule  

Unlike middle school, high school teachers are more inclined to assign activities that require multiple days of self-directed study outside of class, and we definitely don’t recommend students try to rely on memory alone for tracking their high school responsibilities!

Students should begin their high school careers by pinning down a system for organizing their assignments and tracking deadlines, using a physical planner or task scheduling app. 

Meet with guidance counselor 

Incoming freshman should schedule some face-to-face time with their assigned guidance counselor sometime before the school year begins. Counselors are more likely to advocate for students they know well! 

Fall of Freshman Year

Sample a range of extracurricular activities

Freshman year can be quite demanding as students must become accustomed to more homework and tests that are more difficult to study for. Adding extracurricular activities into the mix may seem overwhelming, but these pastimes can actually provide an important counterbalance to the hard mental work of high school academics--and they’re viewed favorably by college admissions and scholarship panels!

Start two living documents: a resume and list of scholarships 

This is the perfect time to set up two very important electronic documents: a resume and a list of potential scholarships with deadlines. 

Winter of Freshman Year

Assess executive functioning and consider tutoring

After finishing off the first semester of high school, freshmen should sit down with a parent, older sibling, counselor, or tutor to assess their study habits and time management:

  • Were they able to keep papers organized? 
  • Did they finish assignments on time? 
  • Did they give themselves enough time to write papers and study for tests? 
  • At what times of day did they typically complete homework, and how might   this be adjusted to prevent late night cramming? 

Students who need help getting in the habit of tracking assignments and working toward deadlines might benefit from making changes to their time-management system, or even some one-on-one tutoring!

Sign up for 1-4 AP or honors courses for next year

Now that they’ve had a taste of high school, students may consider adding a few of their school’s honors and AP courses to their upcoming schedules. 

Certain courses may only be offered certain semesters or years, so it may be a good idea to meet with a counselor for planning purposes.

Examine foreign language trajectory

Most high schools require two or three years of a foreign language, so if a student isn’t enjoying the language they’ve begun their high school career with, this is a great time to switch.

While not all school districts require a foreign language to graduate, there are many great reasons for students to take these courses!

Spring of Freshman Year

Career exploration

Students often experience drastic changes in their interests over the course of their freshman year, opening up a few potential career paths worth exploring.

You can direct students to these books on life planning and achieving goals, which offer exercises to help teens get clear who they are, who they want to be, and how to take the necessary action to get there.  

Shadow, volunteer, or intern

To learn more about the areas that interest them, students should contact individuals and organizations connected to those fields of study or service industries.

It’s best to start out only asking a professional for a few hours of their time each month, which is easier to accommodate in the schedules of everyone involved, allowing plenty of time for any part-time jobs, volunteer work, internships, or vacations students have planned.  

Sophomore year

Summer before Sophomore Year

Learn about the SAT and ACT 

Students should use 10th grade to learn about the structure of the ACT and SAT, hone test-taking skills, and spend time answering practice questions.  Students might choose to invest in test prep books, an online course, or flashcards for the ACT or SAT. 

Spend four full days researching scholarships

Although most scholarships won’t be available until the 11th and 12th grades, students can take the pressure off by starting their scholarship search now.

Fall of Sophomore Year 

Commit to 1-2 extracurricular activities       

Freshman year was the time for sampling options, but as sophomores students should have a fairly good sense of the one or two extracurricular activities they want to invest their time in for the remainder of high school.

Consider taking the PSAT

The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) is administered October each year.  Most students take the PSAT as juniors because 11th grade is the only time students’ scores can be accepted for the National Merit Scholarship Program. However, taking the PSAT as a sophomore can be valuable practice, especially since the PSAT offers students a detailed score report cataloguing their strengths and weaknesses.

Research study abroad options

If study abroad opportunities are available, students should consult with their counselors about course requirements and financial options. Most high school students underestimate the degree to which college admissions boards value the skills and insights gained through international travel.

Winter of Sophomore Year 

Map out next year’s AP courses and test dates

Students should organize 1-4 AP or honors courses they’re interested in taking during their Junior year, and mark a calendar with all relevant test dates to avoid overextending themselves as they begin the college application process.

Spring of Sophomore Year

Start researching colleges

This is a great time to begin putting together a list of potential colleges. Students can ask their guidance counselors to suggest schools that offer academic programs or living environments well suited to the student’s goals and personality.

The nonprofit Education Trust has created an online tool to help students search for colleges and compare attributes.

Set up a financial plan

High schoolers and their parents need to be clear about how much money is available for college and how to fill in the gaps. Students can begin financial planning by taking advantage of free resources:

Junior year

Summer before Junior Year

Study for and take an SAT subject exam

The SAT subject tests are typically given six times per year, and students can take up to three subject exams on any one day; students should know that the SAT subject tests cannot be taken on the same day as the regular SAT exam. 

Study for the ACT or SAT

There is no better time to focus on studying for the ACT or SAT than the summer before junior year!

Students can make substantial progress toward their test score goals using test prep books or online courses. One-on-one tutoring can also be helpful.  

Visit college campuses

Any students vacationing during the summer before 11th grade should try to visit any major colleges in the vicinity--it is always a good idea to get exposure to a diverse sample of colleges and their environments, even if the school is not in their top choices.

Dedicate eight days to scholarships 

A timeline might look something like this:

  • One day researching opportunities
  • One day downloading applications and requesting letters of recommendation and transcripts
  • One day filling out applications
  • Two days writing essays
  • One day asking for feedback on essays and polishing application forms
  • Two days editing the essays.   

Fall of Junior Year

Commit to keeping grades up

Students should set up a reminder system to ensure they review their grades at least once a week, and could consider incentivizing themselves with gifts or their favorite activities each time they earn a high score on a major assignment or test.    

Register for AP exams 

Students in the AP Program will register for the exams directly through their high schools in fall.  If they won’t be taking an AP course until spring semester, the school will direct students on when and how to register.  

Take the PSAT 

As mentioned earlier, the PSAT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, one of the more prestigious scholarships in the United States, so it’s worth taking! Some high schools cover the registration fee for the exam, and other students may be eligible for a PSAT fee waiver.  

Continue studying for the ACT or SAT and take at least three more practice exams 

If they start now, students will have approximately four full months to study for the ACT or SAT. We recommend taking at least four full-length practice exams over the course of studies. 

Dedicate four days to scholarships

Students who set themselves up for scholarship searches over the summer should be able to complete one scholarship this season by setting aside four full days to write essays and solicit feedback from letter writers and proofreaders. 

Winter of Junior Year

Take the ACT or SAT

While winter isn’t the most popular time to take the ACT or SAT, taking the exam in December (ACT and SAT) or February (ACT) makes strategic use of holiday breaks for studying. 

Approach one or more teachers about writing letters of recommendation 

Asking instructors this early in the game puts the student on the teacher’s radar as someone who is a serious, organized student, potentially leading the teacher to ask them to be a classroom assistant in next year’s classes. Students should provide instructions to the teachers the following fall.   

Dedicate four days to scholarships

As in the fall, students will want to carve out four days to work on scholarships with the goal of submitting one complete application over that duration. 

Spring of Junior Year 

Study for and take one or more AP exams

It is best to begin studying in early March and continue mastering the materials in April and May (AP exams are administered in May). 

Look into CLEP exams

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) consists of more than thirty exams in five subject areas, and—as with AP exams—a passing score on an exam replaces a semester-long course at select colleges, generally equating to 5-7 credits. 

These tests are slightly less expensive and shorter in duration than AP exams, and they have been gaining wider acceptance in recent years with over 2,000 colleges now honoring them. 

Narrow in on 10-15 colleges

In May and June, juniors should begin narrowing in on a smaller set of colleges to apply for in the fall.  

Dedicate four days to scholarships

Schedule 4 days this season to work on scholarship applications---make sure that at least 3 of these days are spent on the actual applications, and not just research.  

Senior year

Summer before Senior Year

Study for and take an SAT subject exam(s)

The summer before senior year is a great time to take 1-3 SAT Subject Tests. 

If needed, study again for ACT or SAT

It’s common to take the ACT or SAT exam more than once, and doing so is generally not viewed unfavorably by college admissions panels—students can see significant score improvements on retakes if they have been studying effectively since their last testing date.

Create master timeline, set up applications

Students can take this opportunity to set up an application timeline, order official transcripts, and familiarize themselves with the Common Application, an online application platform that allows students to submit electronic applications and transcripts to a number of colleges using a single form. 

Dedicate eight days to scholarships

Students who have already set themselves up for scholarship searches their sophomore or junior year should be able to complete two scholarships the summer before senior year by setting aside eight full days to write essays and by asking for help from letter writers and proofreaders.  

Fall of Senior Year

If needed, retake the ACT or SAT

If the student isn’t pleased with their performance, they have one more shot: taking an exam in mid-October will keep them on schedule to submit college applications by November, which is before most college deadlines.  

Register for AP exams

Advanced Placement exams are administered in May, and registration is administered through high schools with deadlines in the fall. 

Write essays

The essay component of a college application is arguably the most underestimated factor in admissions, so if there is one area to splurge on tutoring or private academic counseling, this is it! 

Prep for interviews

The majority of colleges don’t include a mandatory interview as part of the admissions process, but schools that do have interviews tend to be very selective, so it’s a good idea to prep.

Proofread and submit applications 

Scrupulously proofread applications for typos, and print the applications at least once before submitting them. Applications will be far more polished if teachers, guidance counselors, friends, or family members provide feedback.

Dedicate four days to scholarships

Students should try to submit one scholarship application this season by setting aside four full days to write essays and request help from letter writers and proofreaders.

Winter of Senior Year


January is the best time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because parents will have received tax documents from the previous year.  Students from financially privileged families should still submit the FAFSA because several forms of financial assistance, such as subsidized loans and  work-study opportunities.   

Arrange college visits and email current students 

Students should plan to visit 3-5 college campuses in person over spring break.  It might not be possible to schedule all the visits in a single week, which means some visits will need to happen over 3-day weekends. 

Update financial plan

Families should review assets and see if they are still on track to finance college.  If students aren’t already managing much of their own money, they should begin taking ownership by budgeting food and transportation costs on a weekly basis as practice for the upcoming year.

Dedicate eight days to scholarships 

Most students have fewer obligations over winter break, so they should aim to submit two scholarship applications from December through February, by carving out eight full days to work on essays.   

Spring of Senior Year

Send deposit to college of choice 

Students may want to schedule a family meeting to talk about school options and make sure that every option on the table is financially viable and aligned with the student’s goals.

Keep grades up

After selecting a college for the following year, students might be tempted to stop keeping up with high school classes. Friends, family, and teachers can support students by acknowledging the reality of senioritis and reminding them of how much they have accomplished and how close the finish line truly is.  

Take one or more AP exams

Seniors’ AP exams won’t factor into college admissions decisions, but passing scores on these exams still do translate into college credit at many schools, so they should be taken seriously!

Think carefully about student loans

Students are graduating college with more student loan debt than ever before, which creates a burden later in life and delays important milestones such as starting a family or putting a down payment on a home.  One rule of thumb is to keep total student loan debt less than the student’s projected first year of salaried employment.


All students should congratulate themselves on reaching this major milestone and give thanks to the friends, family members, and teachers who helped them along the way!


All About College Applications

Some of your students may have been born knowing where they wanted to go to college—many of them might not even be sure sure if pursuing an undergraduate degree is the path they want to take. 

Wherever your students fall on the spectrum, it’s important that they understand the college application process, so they’re able to make the most informed and effective decisions about their academic futures.

In this post, we’ll be covering the college application process using the following questions to guide us:

  • Where should students go online to start their applications?
  • Who should students ask for letters of recommendation?
  • How should students prepare for an admissions interview?
  • How much does submitting applications cost?
  • What makes a high quality application essay?

Starting the Application

There are several options when it comes to college application platforms. The most popular choice is The Common Application, an online app accepted by more than 750 schools—including some outside the US. Once a student has completed the application, they can submit it to as many schools as they want (although many schools also require individual supplements).

However, not all schools accept the Common App, including some big names, like MIT and Georgetown, and the University of California schools.

Students should research which applications are accepted by the colleges that interest them by visiting the colleges’ websites, or they can check out the Common App website (and other online college apps websites, like the Coalition Application and Universal College Application) for a list of the schools those application sites partner with.

Letters of Recommendation

When it comes to letters of rec, it’s a good idea for students to start early, since they’ll be relying on someone else to complete this part of their application—and that person probably has a busy schedule!

Letters of recommendation are important, because they’re the only part of a students application that offers objective third-party commentary on what kind of person they are. Unfortunately, letters or rec can also be really stressful to ask for.

Here are some tips to get your students started:

1. Build meaningful relationships

Encourage students to know their teachers, employers, coaches; anyone they work with consistently, so that they’ll be able to ask for their letters of rec from someone who actually knows their name.

2. Ask the right people

Students should ask for their letters of recommendation from someone who can discuss their qualities and potential firsthand—that person will be able to write a much stronger letter of rec than someone who only knows your student through the grapevine.

3. Be appreciative

When asking potential letter writers for their help, remind students that they’re doing just that – asking for help. They should be polite and show their appreciation when asking for letters or recommendation. 

4. Give enough time

Asking for a letter of recommendation two days before the application deadline is a recipe for disaster. Students should provide at least a month’s notice (with very clear due dates).

5. Highlight strengths

In any request for a letter of recommendation, it’s helpful to provide some talking points so that the recommenders some reference for how to start.

6. Follow up

With all that recommenders have on their plates, it can be easy for them to procrastinate on letters of recommendation. Sending an email a week or two before the deadline, thanking the recommender for helping out, can be a great opportunity for your student to politely check in on the status of their recommendation.

7. Send thank-you notes

Students can show recommenders how grateful they are for their assistance by sending thank-you notes after they submit their applications. Many students forget this step--but they could easily make themselves stand out by remembering.

Admissions Interviews

Not all colleges require admissions interviews—but if your students are going to be interviewing as part of their college applications, they definitely want to be prepared!

Here’s our advice on how your students can prep for their interviews and calm those pre-interview jitters:

1. Practice!

Students can start by reading sample interview questions and writing some notes down. They should try practicing your answers aloud in front of a mirror, with a recording device, or with another person (especially someone with admission interview experience).

2. Write down talking points in advance.

These interview talking points can get students started:

  • Your proudest moment
  • Your favorite memories
  • Your biggest challenges
  • Times you overcame adversity
  • People you admire
  • New experiences you want to have in college

3. Do your homework

Prior to the interview, students should have researched their school of choice to get a sense of what the college values, its mission statement, its strengths, and its weaknesses—then they can make connections between those things and their own interests, goals, and experiences.

4. Dress appropriately

Two words: business casual. For inspiration, students can check out this infographic from Purdue University’s career center.

5. Speak slowly

Instead of rushing, encourage students to slow down, and try to eliminate “umms,” “ahs,” and “likes” from their speech. Remember, we’re all prone to rushing when we’re nervous.

6. Ask insightful questions

Most interviews will end with your interviewer asking “Do you have any questions for me?” Students should make sure they’re ready with two or three thoughtful questions that couldn’t just be answered with Google.  

College Application Essays

A strong essay can bolster weaker areas of a student’s application, or lock in an already strong set of stats. More importantly, it’s a chance for students to show the admissions committee who they are as a person—not just a page of numbers.

Your students can print out this downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay for reference, and follow the seven steps below to get their writing whipped into shape.

1. Choose an essay prompt

Students should pick whichever prompt speaks to them most, and the one they think will provide the meatiest and most meaningful material. If a particular prompt jumps out at them, chose that one, but if not, don’t worry too much. To a certain degree, it doesn’t really matter which prompt they choose to answer, so long as they can answer it thoroughly.

2. Brainstorm

Encourage students to make a list of strengths, as well as a list of any weaknesses in application they might want to speak to. The ideas they generate this way will clue them in to which prompt offers the most content and examples to elaborate on.

3. Don’t Lose Sight of the Question

Each prompt is posed as a question, and students need to answer that question… don’t let them forget that! It won’t look good if their essays devolves into ramblings that never address the heart of the prompt, even if those ramblings are well written.

4. Structure Your Essay

Just like with a regular essay, your students will need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion:


The purpose of an introduction is:

1) To grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading

2) To introduce the reader to the general topic of the essay.

While both goals need to be addressed, number one is definitely the priority. An introduction should be a unique attention-getter that establishes the student’s personal voice and tone, while drawing the reader further into the essay. A good rule of thumb is to use a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, or something of that nature.


Generally students should structure the body of their essay as follows:

  • Paragraph 1: Situate the reader: provide context for the story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details.
  • Paragraph 2: Explain more about the topic and its importance, using specific examples and key details.
  • Paragraph 3: Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the writer as they are today.


The conclusion is a great place for students to draw connections between the subject of the essay and their continued learning trajectory as college students and beyond. For example, how might your student want to expand on the knowledge you already have? What problems do they anticipate being able to solve given their experiences?

5. Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly

Show, don’t tell: provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for readers—and of course, make sure what’s being shown-not-told isn’t plagiarized! 

6. Be Mindful of Voice and Tone

Students should keep it semi-casual, but avoid profanity, and make sure they’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.

7. Revise, Proofread

Advise students to schedule time during their application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite their essays several times. Once they’ve got a draft, students should find at least two people they trust to review their essay, and get feedback. And they should make sure to double and triple check for typos!

Once they’ve done all that, your students should be ready to press “Submit”. 


How to Choose a College

Navigating the sea of college options is one of the biggest challenges for prospective university-bound students. After all, they’ve never been to college before—they’re probably not sure what they’re looking for!

Here are some ways you can help your students break down the process to make it more manageable.

Comparing Schools

What separates one college from another can be broken down into a discrete set of characteristics, such as cost, size, and location. Urge your students to take note of these factors one at a time, before stepping back and assess their priorities overall. 

2-Year vs. 4-year Colleges 

The common belief used to be that 2-year colleges were only for students who were looking for quick certifications in various trades. While this is still one of the reasons for choosing a 2-year college, it’s certainly not the only one. In fact, now more than ever, there are many other benefits to attending a 2-year school.

Most of the college applications information floating around out there is based around 4-year degree programs. But 2-year colleges are an excellent option for students who are confident that they wish to study a subject that only requires a 2-year degree at most. 

They’re also an excellent option for students who may need or want more time to explore their interests further before transferring to a 4-year college down the line. 

Small vs. Large Colleges 

So much of the decision of whether to attend a small versus a large college hinges on the feel of the campus, which is often dictated largely by some of these factors:

“Very small” colleges:

  • Typically have a total student body of 5,000 or less
  • Are often private
  • Include many 2-year colleges

“Very large” colleges:

  • Typically have a total student body of 15,000 or more--and often much higher than that (Ohio State has over 52,000 undergraduates!) 
  • Are often public state schools 
  • Are often major research universities (although small colleges can be prestigious research institutes too!) 

As an educator, you have a unique perspective on how much inside and outside of class support each of your students needs. For students who would benefit from that extra bit of personalized support, smaller colleges often are a good choice. 

This “What Size College Should You Choose” quiz is a great place for students to start if they don’t have a strong idea of where there preferences lie.

In-State vs. Out of State Colleges 

There are really two factors that this comes down to:

  1.   How far a student wants to be from home
  2.   How much money they want to spend 

In-state colleges have an extremely budget-friendly tuition! With the national student debt rising above $1.5 trillion, the cost of college is definitely one of the most important factors for students to consider when choosing a school.

On the other hand, out of state schools give students more options. Somewhere out there is the perfect school for each student...statistically it’s not the one they already live next door to, especially for students with a specific major, program, or college experience in mind.

Private vs. Public Colleges 

The primary difference between public and private colleges is where they get their funding. Typically, public schools are created by state governments to give residents access to subsidized education, which means most of the operating costs of public schools are covered by the governments of the states they are located in--unlike private schools, which rely mainly on tuition and donor contributions to pay the bills. 

Because public schools are less reliant on tuition, they tend to be cheaper for students to attend than private schools (although as we saw earlier, public schools do typically charge out-of-state students at higher tuition rates, since their stated purpose has always been to prioritize educating in-state students).

Public schools also tend to be larger, while the smallest schools are almost always private. 

Gap Years

For students who are unsure about whether or where they want to attend college, you may want to recommend taking a gap year.

Even for students who are confident about the decision to pursue a degree, taking a gap year can be an opportunity to gain valuable life experience, and gives students some space to consider their academic and career goals.

A gap year can also give students the chance to see different parts of the world, especially for students who have never traveled abroad, or don’t plan to study abroad during college. Many students choose to take a gap year before applying to colleges, or will apply to colleges and defer for a year.

If your students are interested in finding out more about whether a gap year could be a good option for them, tell them to check out our “Should I Take a Gap Year” quiz.

Early Decision

Early Graduation

For students who are on track to meet all of their high school’s graduation requirements ahead of schedule, early graduation may be a good option Direct them to our Should I Graduate Early? Quiz and encourage them to examine their reasons for wanting to graduate early:

  • Academic/professional reasons: If the student plans on attending a fast-paced high level institution for college, taking advantage of an early high school graduation date might be a good way for them to get ahead--but make sure their not overloading themselves, or rushing through the current leg of their education!
  • Financial reasons: If your student has a job lined up--especially one that will pump up their resume in a relevant way down the line--an early graduation could be the right choice for them. 
  • Emotional reasons: While sometimes an early graduation may actually be a good way to alleviate personal or emotional issues, there may be another solution, which better addresses the root of the issue. Help your students explore options to decrease their course loads, and encourage them to talk to a counselor about receiving additional support. 

Early Action 

Early action provides students with a non-binding alternative to early decision, as they can apply early action to multiple schools, and don’t have to accept any given admissions offer. To apply early action, students must submit their application by October 15 or November 1 of their senior year (instead of the regular January 1 deadline).

However, early action is probably not a good fit for students whose applications could still use a little work!

Early Decision 

For students who have their hearts set on one--and only one--college, early decision could be a good choice.

Early decision operates on the same schedule as early action, but applicants can only apply early decision to one school, because this type of application commits them to attending that school should they be accepted (except in a few extenuating circumstances, like not being offered adequate financial aid). 

For students who’ve been offered early admission, but aren’t sure if they want to accept the offer, direct them to our Should You Accept Early Decision To College? Quiz for help exploring their options.


Campus Visits and Ranking Colleges

College visits can help your students get a sense of what campus life is like at different institutions. Ultimately, this can be one of the most important factors in their college decision--so encourage students to make the most of any time they spend on campus!

Share this downloadable checklist with your students to help them keep track of what they should try to accomplish during each of their campus visits!

Ranking Choices 

Keeping track of the various facts and figures associated with each school can be difficult--but compiling all that information in one place will help students rank each school based on how closely the institution meets their academic, financial, and social needs.

Students can personalize this college comparison spreadsheet template with the factors that are important to them!


Paying for College

Are  your students worried about paying for college? Confused about where to look for financial aid, or how to apply for aid once they find it? Scared about going into debt? They are certainly not alone. 

The average cost of tuition and fees in the US for the 2018–2019 school year was $35,676 at private colleges, $9,716 for state residents at public colleges and $21,629 for out-of-state students at state schools. Ivy League colleges clock in at an average of $54,414...that’s more than most students will earn in a year straight out of college, even with a shiny new college degree. Their high school summer job probably isn’t going to cut it. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, going to college will cost students more than just the price of tuition. Prospective college students face four years of room and board, textbooks, personal and travel expenses, and well, you name it. College life includes all the costs of living that we pay as adults...but instead of working and getting paid, students are forking out thousands of dollars for the privilege of going to class and doing their homework. 

So how can a seventeen-year-old possibly pay for all this? Well, in most cases, they can’t. These days more and more American students are graduating with enormous amounts of student loan debt, often from predatory lenders who saddle students with high interest loans. Consequently, many indebted college grads will be stuck struggling just to keep up with paying off the ever-accumulating interest on those loans, and the actual loan as well. The majority of students take at least 10 years to pay off their college loans. Even former President Obama didn’t pay off his student loans until he reached age 43!

Clearly, paying for college can become a huge financial burden on students, their families, and their futures, and this can be incredibly stressful for everyone involved. College is a lot of work, and it costs a lot of money. But most students I know feel that a college degree is well worth the effort, and you can help your students circumvent the worst pitfalls if you know the right financial hacks and aid opportunities.

In this post, we’re going to take you through all the key areas you should know about when it comes to helping your students finance their college degree.

Completing the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an online application for current and prospective US college students, which is used to determine their eligibility for financial aid.

Completing the FAFSA will connect students with grants, federal loans, and work-study. Direct them to out our “Should I Fill Out The FAFSA?” Quiz to help determine whether they’ll qualify for aid through the FAFSA.

If they do qualify for aid, they can follow these steps to complete their application:

  1.   To fill out the FAFSA, first you need to get an FSA ID. Do this ASAP (it only takes about 10 minutes). Parents should also get their own separate FSA ID.

  2.   Start filling out the FAFSA! The 2019-2020 FAFSA opened on October 1, 2018, and will close on June 30, 2020. Individual states and schools may have earlier deadlines, to make sure to check online...either way, you should complete the FAFSA form as soon as possible, because much of the financial aid is first-come-first-served.

  3.   Create a save key. Unlike the FSA ID, the save key is meant to be shared. A save key is a temporary password that allows students and their parent(s) to “pass” the FAFSA form back and forth. It also allows you to save the FAFSA form and return to it later.

  4.   Enter the family demographics data, list the schools for the FAFSA to be sent to, and answer the dependency status questions.

  5.   Supply the required financial information. We recommend using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which automatically transfers tax information into the FAFSA form.  

  6. Sign and submit!

Scholarships and Grants

While your students may be awarded some scholarships just by filing your FAFSA, they can also apply online for all kinds of merit- and need-based grant opportunities.

When searching for scholarships, it’s a good idea for students to find their niche. There are thousands of scholarships out there, and although some scholarships are available to everyone (and they should definitely apply to those too!) many grants are highly specific, and specificity will cut down on the competition.

Direct students to this scholarship search engine and encourage them to set up an appointment with their high school or college counselor to give you a leg up on the hunt!

Work Study

Federal Work-Study is a program that subsidizes the paychecks of college students who work qualifying part-time jobs, typically on-campus, which students can gain eligibility for through filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Filing the FAFSA early will give students a better chance of qualifying for work study, since many schools may award aid on a first-come, first-served basis!

For students who have been awarded work-study, but aren’t sure if they want to use it, we recommend taking our “Should I Do Work Study” Quiz to send them in the right direction.

Students who are interested in taking advantage of their work-study eligibility and know which college they’re attending should check out the college’s website or talk to a counselor about accessing the school’s work-study job database--most on-campus jobs are reserved for students in the work-study program!


If your students have exhausted all their other financial avenues—savings, scholarships, work study, family support, etc.—they’ll probably need to take out student loans to cover any remaining college costs. 

There are two major types of student loans: Federal and private. Federal loans are typically more affordable than private loans, and have better repayment options (as well as consolidation and even debt forgiveness) so your students should definitely start with those.

Federal student loans come in two types: subsidized and unsubsidized. When a student takes out subsidized loans, the government will pay the interest until they graduate, so this is the best option to start with.

Unfortunately, there are limits on how much federal aid you can borrow a year, so once a student maxes out they’ll have to move on to the second type of student loans: private.

Private loans are typically available from banks, credit unions and online lenders. While these loans can bridge the final gap between whatever money your students already have and what they need to make their college dreams a reality, they should be extremely careful when taking out this type of loan.

If your students are considering private loans, encourage them to compare offers from multiple lenders. Depending on the lender, they may be able to choose a fixed or a variable interest rate. A fixed rate stays the same throughout the life of a loan. A variable rate may start out lower than a fixed rate, but could increase or decrease over time depending on economic conditions--so don’t be fooled by the low starting number!

Tips on Reducing Expenses

Let’s start from the top: the easiest way to pay for college is to choose a less expensive college.

Public schools are cheaper than private schools, especially for in-state students. Community colleges are even cheaper than public schools—and students can always transfer out to a 4-year school from there. And some colleges are completely free! 

Here’s a list of schools with free tuition for all students:

The following schools may have high tuitions, but they’re also known for providing free or close-to-free tuition based on family income:

And have your students considered studying abroad?

  • Germany - There are no undergraduate tuition fees at most public universities, even for international students.
  • France -- Public universities are open to American students for €2,770 (~US$3,100) per year for a bachelor’s degree, and the French government has recently tripled the number of scholarships available to international students from 7,000 to 21,000.
  • Spain -- International students are able to study for between €750 and €2,100 (~US$845-2,370) per year at public institutions.
  • Argentina -- public universities in the country are open to international students for a small fee, while private institutions can charge around US$5,000 a year.
  • India -- international students will typically pay tuition fees of no higher than US$7,800 a year, and living costs in India are more than 100 times cheaper than in the United States.

And many more!

Financing College Visits

Choosing a school without ever seeing it is something that your students probably want to avoid if possible. However, we all know travel isn’t cheap! Especially if they’re considering options that put them far from home. To help cover the costs of visiting college campuses, students should consider researching college fly-in programs.

Fly-ins are visitation programs for where institutions pay for transportation, room, board, and associated expenses of financially disadvantaged students, allowing them the students to visit their campuses for two or three days.

Share this interactive map of colleges and universities that offer some form of a fly-in program!

The SAT vs. The ACT

It’s inevitable that as you go through the college application process, you’ll come across the issue of standardized tests. The two main college entrance exams for US institutions are the SAT and the ACT. For some students, the choice on which exam to take is determined by state or district requirements, while other students will have to decide on their own, ideally with the guidance of a teacher or school counselor. The results of either test carry a significant amount of weight in a student’s college application, so both choosing the right test, and properly preparing are critical steps in the application process. 

Although we continue to see the growth of test-optional schools, standardized tests continue to be one of the most reliable ways for institutions of higher education to measure a student’s academic prowess. As Magoosh expert, Chris Lele, puts it, 

“Imagine that a college is looking at two students, one from a large school in Florida, and one from a small school in Washington. Both of them have 4.0 GPAs. But we know that schools have different curricula and grading policies. So how does a college determine which student has a stronger academic profile? Standardized tests give schools the opportunity to measure students’ abilities on the same playing field.” 

While there are, and will continue to be, legitimate concerns about the biases inherent to these exams, it remains the most reliable tool colleges and universities have at their disposal when determining the academic qualifications of their incoming student body. With that in mind, we’ll be covering the foundations of the SAT and the ACT using the following questions to guide us:

  • What is the SAT?
  • What is the ACT? 
  • What are the main differences between the SAT and ACT? 
  • How do I choose the right exam? 
  • What are the test dates and costs?
  • How should I prepare for the SAT or ACT?

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a college entrance exam administered and graded by the College Board. While it once stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”, the College Board did away with the meaning in the early 90’s. That said, the SAT is still generally considered an excellent way to gauge a student’s academic proficiency across reading, writing, and math. This information is especially important to schools who want to ensure that students entering a given program have the academic background to succeed in higher education classes. 

The SAT is a three hour multiple choice test, with the option to add a 50 minute essay. There are four sections to the SAT: Reading, Writing, Math without a Calculator, and Math with a Calculator. The sections vary in length, but overall students have about 70 seconds to cover each question on the exam. 

Although there are four distinct test segments, the grading of the SAT is divided into just two sections. Those are Math, which include the Math with and without a Calculator, and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW), which includes the Reading and Writing sections. It is the combination of these two scores that makes up a student’s total SAT score. 

The range of SAT scores is wide - from a low of 400, to a perfect score of 1600. The maximum score on either of the two sections is 800, while the minimum is 200. Of course, very few students score close to either of those ends. According to NCES’s data for 2017, across the US, the average overall score on the SAT was 1060. For the subsections, averages were a 527 in Math, and a 533 in EBRW. 

While this may seem low considering the maximum score is 1600, it’s important to keep in mind that a student’s raw score means less to colleges than their percentile. That means that how a student’s score measures up to those of their peers is more important to a school than the score on its own. 

What is the ACT?

Much like the SAT, the ACT once stood for “American College Testing” but got rid of the acronym when they realized there were some issues with the name and that it had become established enough that it was recognizable on its own. Developed as an alternative to the SAT, the ACT is now taken by more than half of all graduating students, and is generally considered a less-tricky, more-accurate measurement of a student’s high school knowledge. 

With the ACT students go through four multiple choice sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Like the SAT, there is an optional essay they may take as well. The four multiple choice sections run anywhere between 40 and 75 questions, giving students an average time of 50 seconds per question. The exam itself is only 5 minutes shorter than the SAT, coming in at 2 hours and 55 minutes from start to finish (not counting snack breaks!)

Scoring on the ACT is relatively straightforward- each of the four sections gets a score between 1 at the lowest end, to a perfect 36. These are taken from the raw score, which is the total number of questions answered correctly in a given section. The nice part about the ACT is that the scores on the sections are scaled so that they are representative of a student’s ability across different tests. This scaling is designed to ensure that students who take a particularly difficult ACT test aren’t penalized against students who experience an easier ACT test. While that’s the gist of the ACT grading, you can always read more about the process on our post about the ACT Score Range.

According to NCES, in 2016, the average ACT score for students in the US was 20.8. Like the SAT, while the average may seem low, it’s important to keep in mind that student scores are measured against an average, otherwise known as percentiles. The average subject areas scores for the same year were as follows: English = 20.1, Math = 20.6, Reading = 21.3, and Science = 20.8. Whether a student’s score is “good” or not depends mostly on the colleges they are applying to, as well as the score distribution of their peers. 

What are the main differences between the SAT and ACT?

Now that you have the basic information on the SAT and ACT, it’s easy to see why there can be confusion over the differences between the two exams. While we’ve outlined the main differences above, seeing them side-by-side can be a helpful exercise. 

Magoosh ACT vs SAT Chart

How do I choose the right exam?

The ACT might be easier for you than the SAT if:

  • You generally don’t have trouble running out of time on tests at school and you are a fast reader. In many ways the ACT is a more straightforward test than the SAT, but some students struggle to finish in time.
  • You’re really good at seeing the trends in graphs and tables. If you’re comfortable drawing conclusions from data you’re very likely to succeed on the ACT Science section.
  • You prefer to do math using a calculator...meaning you may want to avoid the no-calculator section and the grid-ins on the SAT.

The SAT might be easier for you than the ACT if:

  • You might not be the fastest reader, but you’re a good reader. The slightly shorter, but more complex passages on the SAT, and the slightly longer time period you have to answer questions, could make the SAT a better choice.
  • You’re good at mental math; no-calculator questions won’t phase you too much.
  • You’re good at reading between the lines and noticing trick questions. The better you are at standardized test games, the better you’ll be at the SAT.

What are the test dates and costs?

Magoosh ACT SAT test dates

This chart compares the general cost (and the hidden fees) of both exams:

Magoosh ACT SAT Pricing Chart

How should I prepare for the SAT or ACT?

Regardless of which test you’ve chosen to take, you should start by making sure you’re only using the highest quality study materials. If you don’t, you’ll develop bad habits and learn the wrong skills. 

Naturally, we recommend Magoosh’s SAT Prep and Magoosh’s ACT Prep. Our test prep experts know these tests inside and out, and Magoosh’s materials are constantly being updated to reflect the most recent versions of each test. Plus we’re a lot more affordable than the other test prep resources of our caliber. But whatever form of test prep you choose, just make sure the materials are high quality--if you see bad reviews, try a different provider.

After you’ve chosen your test prep materials, it’s time to pick out a study schedule that you’ll be able to stick to. Here’s some of our free SAT study schedules and ACT study schedules for you to choose from, depending on how much time you have until your test date. 

Any standardized test study regimen should include several full length practice tests to help you familiarize yourself with the format of the test, and increase your stamina so you don’t get tired out on test day. Here’s a free full-length ACT practice test, and list of free SAT resources, which includes some practice tests you can incorporate into your study plan.

Once you’ve gotten your test prep materials and study schedules in order it’s time to get to work. You’ll have to study hard, but you also want to study smart. Try to figure out where your stumbling blocks are to optimize your studying techniques. A good way to figure out where you need to put in more work is by taking a practice test. During the test test, mark every question that you don’t feel super sure about. Then after the test, then go back and review every you marked — even if you got them right — AND every incorrect question, and make a note of the general idea of each question, why you missed it, and how you could have gotten it correct. This will help you learn from your mistakes and give you an idea of which subjects and topics you may want to spend a little more time on. 

And finally, when you’re getting close to test day, check out these last minute ACT tips and last minute SAT tips to help you cram that last little bit and stay cool and collected on the big day.

An Introduction to the Complete Guide to College Admissions

For those who work with high school students and parents, college admissions can be a fraught subject. While some families are happy to navigate the process solo, many students need the guidance and support of educators to successfully complete the college application process. 

Even for those with experience, resources


The short answer to this question is that yes, college admissions are fair—at least in theory. Every college and university has its own admissions protocols, including unique admissions requirements and review processes, as do many of the schools and programs within them. Admissions boards work hard to ensure that their requirements speak to a student’s ability to succeed at that school or in a given program, and to ensure that all application materials are reviewed fairly and given equal consideration. 

That said, the word “fair” is of course subjective, and we all know that many college admissions requirements—such as GPA and standardized test scores—aren’t necessarily reflective of a student’s capability to succeed in college. So is it “fair” that a student with a lower ACT score, for example, isn’t as likely to get into certain colleges? Perhaps. This speaks to the larger issue of educational equity, which is the way we as a culture measure achievement, fairness, and opportunity in education. There is a gaping disparity in educational resources across the country, and students from underserved communities may be less “college ready” on paper, making it harder for them to gain admission to some schools. 

This reality could certainly be considered unfair, even if college admissions boards technically do everything “right” on their end to admit students fairy. This is where Magoosh comes in. Magoosh aims to help level the educational playing field by helping all students gain the necessary access to test prep materials that will significantly boost their chances of obtaining the test scores that will get them into the colleges of their dreams.

First of all, let’s discuss what “need-blind” means. In a nutshell, if a college is need-blind, it means that a student’s ability to pay for college does not affect their admission in any way. Their financial situation is simply not taken into consideration when deciding whether to admit them. 

Most colleges are, in fact, need-blind, so it won’t hurt a student’s chances of getting in if they do need financial assistance. That said, most colleges don’t have the means to provide financial aid to every student who needs it. So a student may be accepted at a college but not receive enough (or any) financial assistance. 

And to be clear, colleges will still be aware of students’ financial situations and need for financial aid (this information is provided on the FAFSA), but this information will not be factored into the admissions decision.

It depends on a student’s goals and how committed they are to attending a particular college. Deciding whether or not to apply early requires a clear understanding of the difference between “early action” and “early decision” and the benefits and drawbacks of each. 

Early action refers to being an early applicant in general, and while deadlines vary by college, most are in November. Applying early action is a non-binding commitment, meaning that if a student is accepted, they’re not required to attend, and still have until May 1 to decide, providing more freedom and flexibility. A perk of applying early action is that students are informed of a college’s decision much earlier, usually by January or February, which can make all college-related decision making easier. 

Applying early decision also entails applying by an earlier, designated deadline (usually November 1 or 15), but doing so is a binding agreement. In other words, if a student applies to a college as an early decision applicant, they are saying to the school, “You are my first choice, and I will attend if accepted.” While every college is different and there is no official policy across the board, generally, students have a slightly better chance of being accepted (if they meet and exceed all of the admissions requirements) when applying early decision. Once they’re accepted though, they’re locked in, so they need to be sure of where they want to attend.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most early applicants (whether EA or ED) tend to be strong students and candidates, which can make the early application pools quite competitive. So early admission tends to be best for competitive applicants who have done plenty of research on colleges, who have clarity of purpose, and who want to start making college plans early.

As a general rule of thumb, colleges don’t typically rescind a student’s admission once they are formally accepted. However, there are a couple circumstances under which a college will revoke admission.

Usually, this happens when an applicant’s grades drop substantially after they're admitted. How substantially? If varies by school, but typically a student’s grades have to pretty much plummet. A straight-A student who gets a B or two during the last semester of high school is probably just fine. A B-average student who suddenly gets all D’s and F’s? They’re at risk for having their admission rescinded. 

Most of the time, students will have the opportunity to provide a reasonable explanation to the college admissions board for the decline in their grades. In the case of hardships or extenuating circumstances (e.g. the death of a family member, an illness, etc.), a college will probably not rescind admission.

If a college does, indeed, revoke a student’s admission for academic reasons, the student may be able to negotiate admissions terms—for example, starting the year on academic probation or taking summer school classes to replace failed courses.

Colleges can also refuse admission to previously admitted students in the case of suspension, expulsion, and/or legal trouble. If a student is arrested, for example, the college may have its own hearing to decide whether or not admission will still be granted. In such cases, the verdict will likely depend on the severity and context of the student’s violation. And finally, a college can (and will likely) rescind admission if they determine that a student has provided false information on their application or has plagiarized any of their application materials.

Every student will need a different level of preparation for the ACT, of course, but as a general rule of thumb, students should plan to spend at least 30 hours total using a Magoosh program in order to achieve a competitive score for their target colleges. 

They key to optimizing these 30 hours, however, is creating a regular study schedule over enough time. Obviously cramming 30 hours of studying for the ACT won’t be nearly as effective as strategically studying over several months. Magoosh’s programs offer several study schedules that students can choose--for example, one, two, and three months timelines--so that they can work ACT prep into their busy and unique schedules (or that teachers can use in their classrooms).

Yes, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, students with low GPAs will not likely be admitted to highly selective schools, many of which have strict minimum GPA requirements. Second, students with low GPAs will need to demonstrate their strengths and college readiness in other ways—for example, through ACT and SAT scores, writing samples, and extracurricular activities. 

More and more frequently, colleges are taking a holistic approach to the admissions process, considering the whole student and not just their grades or quantitative indicators of their ability to succeed in college. A student with a low GPA should plan to provide very strong written work (e.g. the Common App essay) and will likely have the opportunity to compose an essay explaining their low grades and arguing for their preparedness for a particular collegiate program.