Graduation can seem far in the distance during freshman year. It will creep up quickly, though, and can catch you off-guard if you don’t have a plan in place for what steps to take next.

It’s never too early to start plotting out your post-graduation trajectory. With that in mind, let’s break down the suggested steps you can take each year during your high school career that will put you on the path toward success.

Freshman Year

At this stage, you have plenty of time left in high school. This is the point at which you should be refining the fundamentals you learned in earlier grades, as well as developing the behaviors and habits that will set you up well for later.

  • Take Your Work Seriously: Colleges, especially many of the more elite institutions, may look at your grades as early as freshman year. Be diligent about getting your work done—and doing it well—right from the beginning.
  • Develop Time Management Skills: Habits, both good and bad ones, are hard to break once they’re formed. Take advantage of that by learning to manage your time effectively. The key is organization; getting organized will make it much easier to plan out your time and prevent important dates and assignments from falling through the cracks.
  • Check Out Advanced Classes: There are numerous benefits to taking honors and AP (advanced placement) classes. For instance, they offer a boost to your GPA, and challenge you to remain ahead of the curve. Plus, AP classes may also give you college credits, putting you ahead of the game and saving money in the long run.

Sophomore Year

Most students turn 16 during their sophomore year, making this the point at which many students will get jobs and begin driving. You should also use this time to build on the basic skills you developed the previous year, and start prepping for what lies ahead.

  • Take the PSAT: The SAT (or ACT) is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face during high school. You can make yourself more comfortable, though, by taking a practice SAT. This will be very similar to the standardized test you’ll ultimately take before entering college. The PSAT gives shows you which subjects are your strengths, and which require a bit more study.
  • Create Goals: This is a good time to think critically about what you’d like to do after graduation. Do you want to go to a university, a trade school, or follow another path? Start planning out your goals and aspirations now, and research which steps you need to take to make that a reality.
  • Research Costs: Along with determining what steps to take, you also need to find a way to pay for your eventual path. If you’re college-bound, research costs like tuition, room, books, and other living expenses. This will help you determine where—and how—you want to take classes. You should also start applying for financial aid (more on that later).

Junior Year

You’re more than halfway done now. That means it’s time to get serious about your postsecondary plans. This is the point when you may start taking AP classes, and need to start studying diligently for your SATs, rather than waiting until the end of your time in school.

  • Take Your Standardized Test: Regardless whether you take the SAT or ACT, this is the year to do it. This will let you get the test out of the way so you can focus on other matters. Plus, you may be able to take it more than once, if necessary, to improve your score (it’s cumulative based on your best overall score for each section).
  • Start Researching Schools: Now’s the time to start exploring which schools are best for you, based on the path you selected. For instance, if you like the idea of attending a four-year university, start researching your options. Consider what you want to do with your degree, and research schools with high-rated programs in those areas.
  • Visit a College: Once you narrow down your list of potential schools, it’s a wise idea to pay a visit to your top choices. Many schools host college fairs to connect with students, but you may also visit and even stay on a college campus as a high-schooler to try and get a feel for what campus life is like.

Senior Year

Finally, you made it to your last year of high school. There will be plenty to celebrate this year. The fact that you’re in your last months as a public-school student means the pressure is on, though. With that in mind, let’s finish strong and excel as you prepare to move on to the next chapter in life.

  • Make a Shortlist: If you’re headed to college, you should whittle down your list of top schools to which you’ll apply (between five and ten schools) by the beginning of your senior year. Try to visit those you’re most interested in, possibly even conduct a second visit if there’s time.
  • Submit Applications: Each school has its own application process. In some cases, it’s a simple form, while other require admission essays, and even interviews. Research the process for each of your prospective schools, and be sure to make room in your schedule well-before winter break to get your applications in.
  • Make Your Final Decision: You should start receiving responses from your selected schools in March. Some may take longer, though, depending on the school. If you’re accepted to multiple institutions, you need to weigh the merits of each; for instance, one may be close to home, while another has a better-respected program. Try to nail-down your decision before graduation.

How to Pay for It?

A college education is expensive. Given the incredible cost, the main question on most students’ minds is: “how can I afford to go to college?”

The Paid for Grades blog has plenty of resources. We’ve got everything you need to know about financial aid, grants, scholarships, loans, and more. Check out our College Money 101 series to learn the basics, then begin your search from there. Good luck!