How to Prepare

11th Grade


This is it. 11th grade is the year that college transforms from a distant concept looming in your future to an actual reality to prepare for in the present.

From registering for college entrance exams to building your initial list of schools, there are real, tangible tasks that you’ll need to complete. And while it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, the best way to ease stress and ensure success is to maintain focus on everything that you’re balancing. 

The defining characteristic of 11th grade is focus – focus on your grades, focus on your entrance exams, focus on your college search, and of course...focus on yourself: the activities you enjoy and the interests you want to pursue.

As your responsibilities and to-do lists expand, you’ll realize that organizational skills play a large role in your ability to focus. To help you manage and stay on top of all that you’re juggling, we’ve created a master checklist. Bear with us; it's a long one.  

Your 11th grade college checklist:

Meet with your school counselor and set goals for the year.

Before you even begin your college search, your school counselor can facilitate your journey by helping you understand requirements and ensuring that you are on track to meet your academic obligations. But you'll need to be proactive. It’s up to you to schedule appointments and seek help when you have questions. 

Don’t have a counselor? You have more resources available to you than you probably realize. Talk to your teachers, school administrators, coaches or assistant principals – you can even contact admission officers at colleges across the country. All of these people would be happy to help you think about your future; all you have to do is ask!

Take the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

The PSAT is a standardized exam administered by your high school in October. In addition to preparing you to take the SAT (a standardized entrance exam required by many colleges), the PSAT also serves as a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

PRO TIP: The PSAT will include a reading test, writing and language test, along with a math test. Learn more about the PSAT.

Review your PSAT results with your school counselor, parent or mentor.

Keep your scores in context. Remember that the PSAT is a practice exam that is meant to help you identify areas you may wish to improve.  

PRO TIP: Your PSAT score report comes with a free SAT study plan to help you strengthen your areas of weakness and determine your testing strategy. Learn more about the SAT study plan

Meet with your school counselor to compile your initial list of colleges.

There are lots of colleges and universities out there – and numerous ways to learn which ones might be a good fit for you. Start your college search by attending college fairs and meeting with college admission officers who visit your high school or community. As you learn about various schools, take note of the ones that appeal to you and why you’re interested in them. Is it because of a particular program or major they offer? Is it because of their size or location? 

Then, do some research and talk to your school counselor to gauge how your grades and exam scores compare to admitted students at those schools. Before you know it, your college list will begin to form.

PRO TIP: Visit the Explore Colleges section of our website to learn about the more than 800 colleges and universities that accept The Common Application.

Study and prepare for the SAT, ACT or SAT Subject Tests.

These standardized college admission exams can help colleges assess your level of preparation for college-level work, though it’s important to remember that they only represent a piece of the college admission puzzle. Most four-year colleges require that you submit an SAT or ACT score. However, the more selective a college is, the more likely it is that you’ll need to submit SAT Subject Test scores as well.

To determine which exam(s) you should take, talk to your school counselor and do some research to find out which exam(s) your prospective schools require. And while you may not realize it, there are a growing number of colleges – including some of the Common App Member colleges – that do not require you to submit test scores at all. 

PRO TIP:  The best way to study is to familiarize yourself with the exam formats by taking practice tests. If you’re looking for a place to start, The College Board and The Khan Academy have partnered to offer free SAT prep featuring four official full-length practice tests. The ACT also offers similar resources. 

When you’re ready, register for the SAT, ACT or SAT Subject Tests.

The tests themselves are available for registration several times throughout the year. Talk to your school counselor about the best time for you to take the exam(s) and consult the official SAT and ACT registration websites for official exam dates and other registration information. You’re allowed (and encouraged) to take these exams more than once to attempt to improve your scores. Most students take the SAT or ACT for the first time during the spring of junior year and a second time during the fall of senior year.

PRO TIP: The College Board and the ACT both offer fee waivers for eligible students. If you’re concerned that the exams’ registration fees might impose a financial burden on your family, talk to your school counselor about obtaining a fee waiver. 

Visit college campuses during your spring break (or whenever it is most convenient for you and your family).

There is no better way to determine whether a college or university is right for you than visiting in person. During your visit, you’ll want to attend an information session, tour the campus, and sit-in on a class or two (if possible). While visiting, ask yourself if you can envision your future at the school and assess whether you’d be happy to join the campus community. 

PRO TIP: College admission officers realize that not everyone has the time or financial resources to make a campus visit. If that’s the case for your family, contact the admission office and let them know that you are interested in visiting but unable to do so. By reaching out in this way, you are alerting admission officers that your interest in them is sincere – and you might even find that the school has funds to help make your visit possible. 

Narrow down your initial list of colleges and discuss your list with your school counselor.

Once you’ve had a chance to research, visit, and/or virtually tour your list of colleges, you’ll likely have a better idea of what you’re looking for in a school. Not to mention, you will probably have received at least your first round of admission exam scores and junior year grades, so you’ll know if your credentials fall within the schools’ ranges of acceptance. 

PRO TIP: As you complete your research, you should narrow your list to include solely the colleges that excite you, meet your needs, and match your academic credentials (GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and class rank). Your school counselor can ensure that your list is well-balanced, meaning that it’s comprised of colleges where you exceed the published admission criteria, fall within the range of the published admission criteria, and meet some — but not all — of the published admission criteria. Ultimately, the most important thing about your list is that you’d be happy to attend each and every school on it.

Secure at least one 11th grade teacher to be your recommender.

Letters of recommendation are a critical component of your college application. Don’t wait until senior year to secure your recommenders. Instead, talk to an 11th grade teacher while you’re still in 11th grade and ask him or her to write your letter of recommendation next year. 

PRO TIP: When thinking about which teachers you will ask to be your recommenders, don’t worry about how well they know you outside of the classroom. After all, the purpose of a teacher recommendation letter is to give college admission officers an idea of how you operate in an academic setting. If you’ve spent a year in a teacher’s classroom, trust us: that teacher knows you far better than you realize.

Plan your 12th grade schedule.

It’s important for college admission officers to see that you’ve challenged yourself. When you meet with your school counselor to plan your senior year schedule, ask about advanced options and honors courses. That said, just because you can take every advanced class available to you doesn’t mean you should. Work with your school counselor and your teachers to find the right balance between what will challenge you and what will enable to you to be successful.

PRO TIP: If you take an advanced placement (AP) course, you’ll have the opportunity to take an AP exam at the end of the school year. Earning a high score on an AP exam can potentially place you out of college courses (saving you money on tuition down the road). 

Make meaningful summer plans, but don’t forget to relax.

By the time summer approaches, you’ll likely be ready for a vacation from a rigorous junior year. Reward yourself by taking time to decompress – while also partaking in a meaningful activity. Volunteer in your community. Get a part-time job. Or if you’re an athlete, consider a summer camp in your sport. These activities will do more than develop your character and strengthen your skills; they’ll also signal to college admission officers that you care about your future.   

PRO TIP: The summer is a great time to learn about financial aid and explore options for paying for college. Learn more by visiting our page, How To Pay For College.