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College and vocational school

Girl in cap and gown

After high school, you can choose many different paths to continue your education. If you dropped out of high school and received your GED, you can still go to college. It is just like a diploma. One path is to earn a certificate or degree from a four-year college, community college (usually two years), or technical trade school that will train you for a specific career, trade, or profession. Another path is to attend a community college for one to two years and then transfer to a four-year college or university. In choosing a school, you should ask yourself these questions:

  • What kind of career and technical training do I want?
  • Which schools offer the training or program I need?
  • What preparation do I need for a particular job?
  • Will employers accept the training as preparation for employment?

Learn more about:

College admission tests

Many colleges and universities in the United States require SAT or ACT scores to aid in the selection of incoming students. The SAT is a standardized test that measures both achievement (what you already know) and aptitude (a prediction of future performance or potential). The ACT is a two-part assessment test. The first part is a multiple-choice test covering four skill areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. The second part, which is optional, is a writing test that measures skill in planning and writing a short essay.

The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is another standardized test that provides practice for the SAT Reasoning Test. It also gives you a chance to enter National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) scholarship programs. Check with your guidance counselor for more information on the PSAT.

You can prepare for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT exams by taking practice tests and reviewing your answers. Your local bookstore probably carries practice books that contain old copies of the exams. Some people choose to take formal preparation classes to help improve their scores on these exams. These classes can be offered through your school, your local library, or private companies. These classes can sometimes be expensive, but also can provide a structured way to study for the exams.

Did you take the SAT but score lower than you hoped? Don’t worry! You can take the test over and over again, until your scores improves. Taking the test again can’t lower your score.

Choosing a college

College buildingColleges are located in big cities, suburbs, and small towns throughout the country. Some enroll tens of thousands of students; others enroll only a few hundred. Some are public; others are private. Some private colleges are connected with religious institutions; others are not. Some schools enroll only women, others only men.

The type of college that best suits you depends on your needs and talents. You can begin focusing on the choice of a college by considering the following questions:

  • Why do I want to go to college?
  • What do I hope to achieve in college?
  • Do I have some idea of what I want to study or for which job I want to prepare?
  • Do I want to live at home or go away to school?
  • Do I prefer an urban, suburban, or rural environment?
  • Would I be happier in a small college or a large university?

In order to choose a college, you should ask the above questions about the nature and quality of the schools in which you are interested. You may also find answers to these questions in the colleges' catalogs or in reference books on colleges. Ask these questions when you meet staff in the admissions office of the colleges.

Another "real life" experience would be to actually spend a weekend at a college that your older sister, older friend, or friend’s sister attends to get a feel for what the experience would be like at the school. If there is a school you are interested in, you can still schedule a visit, even if you don’t know anyone at that college. Some colleges have programs so that you can visit overnight and stay on campus in a dorm with a ‘host’ student.

The school you choose needs to fit your interests, career goals, your financial situation and other factors. Schools fall into these basic types:

  • Public versus private. Public schools are operated by state and local governments. Tuition is often less at a public school. Private schools are not affiliated with a government organization. They may be non-profit, such as colleges run by private foundations or religious denominations. Or, they may be for-profit businesses, such as many career, trade, or technical schools.
  • Four-year colleges and universities. These can offer bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees, and sometimes include professional schools, like law school or medical school. Universities tend to be larger than colleges.
  • Two-year community and junior colleges. These offer two-year associate degrees and sometimes certifications in particular career fields, like nursing. Because their costs are often lower and admission is more open, many students start their college careers here.
  • Online universities. Earning a degree through an online university is becoming a popular way for people to balance work and school. Online universities can offer both two-year associate degrees and four-year college degrees. You can even earn a Master’s or Doctorate degree via the Internet. Be careful though! Some schools advertised on the Internet are diploma mills. (Learn more about diploma mills.) Not every online university is worth your time and money — some online schools are only interested in taking your money and the degree you earn could be worthless if the school is not accredited. The U.S. Department of Education has published a "positive list" of schools that are accredited by agencies recognized by the Secretary of Education. Here is the list of accredited online schools.
  • Career, technical, vocational, or trade schools. These prepare students for specific careers, such as welding, cosmetology, medical imaging, and electronics assembly. Their programs may be two years or less. Many of these schools are for-profit businesses. Do lots of research to make sure they can deliver what they promise. One way of doing this is to make sure the school is accredited. It is also a good idea to check with the Better Business Bureau closest to where the school is located.

Find the right college for you.

Cost of college

Be sure to ask the college or technical school about the total price of the training or program you are interested in. An important question to ask a school is whether financial assistance or student aid will be available to you. In particular, you should ask if the school participates in the federal student financial aid programs, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Federal student aid programs are the largest source of funding for college. Learn how to apply and how the process works.

Student aid also may be available from foundations, community organizations, and organizations related to your field of interest (for example, the American Medical Association or American Bar Association). Contact the organizations directly for detailed information. Check with your parents' employers to see whether they award scholarships or have tuition payment plans.

Remember that community colleges are less expensive than four-year colleges and universities. You may be able to save money by attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year school. Alternatively, you might want to consider attending school part-time and working.

Preparing to attend college or university

If you think that you’d like to attend college after high school, there are some important things you can do to prepare and increase your chances of being accepted to your first choice school.

  1. Find out which classes are required for college admission. There may be certain classes you need to take in order to be accepted to a college or university. Simply taking the right number of classes to graduate high school does not necessarily mean you will go to college. For example, many want you to take challenging science courses and math classes beyond general math and algebra. A college or university will expect you to arrive with basic computer skills, and some colleges prefer three or four years of a foreign language. Your guidance counselor can help you figure out the high school courses required or preferred by different types of colleges. If you know which schools you’d like to attend, you can also contact those schools and ask about their admissions requirements.
  2. Take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and exams.  If you are up to the academic challenge and your high school offers them, take AP classes. AP courses are college-level courses in approximately 16 different subjects. They help students prepare for college-level work while they are still in high school. If you take an AP course and score a grade of 3 or higher on an AP exam, you may receive advanced placement in college or credit for a college course. This can result in significant cost savings. However, not all colleges and universities give credit or advanced placement for earning a grade of 3 or higher on an AP exam. Write to the admissions office of the colleges that are of interest to you to find out if they give credit for an AP exam grade of 3 or higher.
  3. Keep track of what college admissions officers expect. Colleges and universities consider a lot of different things about each applicant. The admissions office will look at your complete package, not just one or two things. Some of the things they will consider include:
    • Grades
    • Difficulty of your classes
    • Extracurricular activities
    • Standardized test scores
    • Application essay
    • Letters of recommendation

Beginning in the ninth grade, you should keep a file of documents and lists that will be helpful for when it comes time to apply for college. In this file, you can keep any awards you’ve received, or items that can be included in your application. This way, when your senior year arrives, all of your needed items are in one place.

It’s likely that you’ll need letters of recommendation from several teachers to include in your college application package. Start thinking about which teachers you’d like to write your recommendations in the ninth and tenth grades, and keep a good relationship with these teachers. Your teachers will be able to write a better recommendation for you if they truly know who you are and can identify your interests and strengths!


Content last reviewed September 22, 2009
Page last updated April 17, 2015