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The college pathway includes any institution of higher education that awards a degree or credential post-high school graduation. 

There is a wide array of choices when considering college, including universities, community colleges, trade schools and more. School counselors and other resources in schools are available to help students and their families to explore college options, prepare applications, and take concrete steps.

Students who choose the College Pathway must submit an acceptance letter or financial aid notice as evidence of their plan to meet the Learn.Plan.Succeed. graduation requirement.

How to Pursue This Pathway

The college pathway has become the premier pathway to economic opportunity. Employment opportunities that require a college degree make up about 56 percent of good jobs, due to employer demand for upskill. This pathway typically leads to a majority of professional and technical jobs, including those held by doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, computer programmers, journalists, architects, and managers, among many others. (Source: Center for Education and Workforce Development)

There are approximately 4,000 colleges in the United States. When choosing a college, students should think about what they might want to do after college graduation and research the education requirements to pursue those jobs.

Different categories of schools award different types of degrees. Categories to explore:

Finding the Right Fit

Different schools serve different purposes. Students should choose the type of school that helps them achieve their goals. Start by considering such factors as:

Consider starting your search in Illinois. The IL Postsecondary Profiles contains up-to-date admission and financial aid information about Illinois institutions and is an invaluable reference source for students and families as they plan for college. The Handbook contains direct links to the website of each school. The costs listed in the handbook are intended to provide a range that can be used to help make enrollment and financial planning decisions. Please check with each institution for exact costs.

It is important to know more about college accreditation because not every institution is what it appears to be. To become a smart consumer, you'll need to have a basic understanding of accreditation in the United States and how it works. You can learn more about the difference between accredited or unaccredited institutions, and the pitfalls of enrolling in a "diploma mill” on the U.S. Department of Education website. A diploma mill is an unaccredited school (or a business claiming to be a school) that awards a degree without requiring classwork that meets college-level standards. Learn more about diploma mills and how to avoid them.

Application Strategies

There are no assurances when it comes to college admission. Some schools are highly selective and accept only a small percentage of the number of students who apply for admission.

To ensure they are are accepted to a school of their choice, students should consider applying to at least one school from each of the following categories:

  • Safety Schools - A safety school is one that a student meets or exceeds the school admission requirements and is very likely to be accepted. A student's Grade Point Average (GPA) through junior year and college test scores (SAT and/or ACT) exceed those of the average incoming freshman class of schools in this category. 
  • Reach Schools - A reach school is one that typically accepts students with GPAs and test scores above a student's credentials. A student's GPA and test scores are lower than the average incoming freshman class, or the school is a "selective institution" that admits a small percentage of the students who apply for admission.
  • Match Schools - A student's GPA and test scores are similar to those of the average freshman class of schools in this category.

Use the College Match Grid and the College Selectivity List to identify a student's general match level and potential colleges of interest.

  Unweighted GPA in Core Courses
< 2.0 2.0 - 2.4 2.5 - 2.9 3.0 - 3.4 3.5 - 4.0
Missing SAT Missing ACT Two Year Colleges Less Selective Four-Year Colleges Somewhat Selective Colleges Selective Colleges Selective Colleges
< 940 < 18 Two Year Colleges Less Selective Four-Year Colleges Somewhat Selective Colleges Somewhat Selective Colleges Selective Colleges
940 - 1050 18 - 20 Less Selective Four-Year Colleges Somewhat Selective Colleges Somewhat Selective Colleges Selective Colleges Selective/Very Selective Colleges
1060 - 1150 21 - 23 Somewhat Selective Colleges Somewhat Selective Colleges Selective Colleges Selective Colleges Selective/Very Selective Colleges
1160+ 24+ Somewhat Selective Colleges Selective Colleges Selective/Very Selective Colleges Very Selective Colleges Very Selective Colleges

NOTE: In 2008, the University of Chicago Consortium introduced the College Match Grid to illustrate categories of access types based on CPS graduates’ GPAs and ACT scores and patterns of college enrollment.

To demonstrate concordance of ACT to SAT, the College Match Grid shown above was adapted from (2017). Guide to the 2017 ACT® /SAT® Concordance

Roderick, M., Nagaoka, J., Coca, V., Moeller, E., Roddie, K., Gillian, J. and Patton, D. (2008). From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College.

Next Steps

If college is a postsecondary option that interests you, consider taking the next steps:

  1. Research colleges
    Different schools serve different purposes. Students should be sure they are choosing the type of school that will help them achieve their goals. For guidance, they should visit their school counselor or college and career coach at the earliest opportunity.
  2. Narrow the list of possible schools
    Students should aim to apply to three to five colleges that provide a range of qualities they seek. The list should include schools in three categories: a reach school, a safety school, and a match school. If they qualify, students can request application fee waivers.
  3. Take the SAT college entrance exam
    All Illinois juniors must take the SAT. Most colleges and universities use SAT scores to make admissions decisions. The test measures a high school student's readiness for college, and provides colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants. Visit the College Board for SAT practice tests, testing dates and locations, and additional resources.
  4. Draft and finalize college essay, if required
    Not all colleges require essays or personal statements. If they do, keep in mind that these documents are the student's introduction to a selection committee and may determine whether the student is invited to the next steps of the application process.
  5. Ask for letters of recommendation, if required
    Students should choose recommenders who know them well and can speak to their strengths. This is not a section of the application to be put off until the last minute. Students should give their recommender(s) time to write the best representation of the student.
  6. Complete scholarships and financial aid applications
    If eligible, students should complete the Free Application for Federal Students Aid (FAFSA) or RISE Act Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid. By December of their senior year or sooner, students should also complete the Academic Works General Scholarship Application, the web-based scholarship application system for students at Chicago Public Schools.
  7. Provide supplementary information, as requested by each college.
    Selective schools may require additional essays, personal statements, and portfolios that showcase student work.

College Exploration

College fairs, catalogs, virtual tours, and websites are excellent resources for learning about college culture and requirements. Here are some tips to help you and your student get the most out of college exploration activities.

College Fairs

College fairs give students and their families a chance to get information from a large number of colleges and to meet college admissions representatives at one local event. Some fairs feature a wide variety of colleges such as regional and national fairs, while others focus on certain types of colleges such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), military colleges, or colleges with strong athletics programs.

To make the most of a college fair, students should prepare in advance by thinking about what school qualities are important to them:

  • Big college or a small college?
  • Big city or small town location?
  • Diversity of the student body?
  • Specific majors or programs?

Freshmen and sophomores may want to visit with representatives from a wide range of types of schools to explore all the possibilities. Juniors may want to narrow their focus on colleges where they might apply. Seniors can use the college fair to make connections at schools where they are applying.

Practical Tips

  • Take a pen and notebook to jot down notes right after talking with college representatives while your memory is fresh.
  • Bring a bag for collecting brochures.
  • Print address labels with your name, address, phone number, email, and year of graduation. This will save you time and let you focus on talking with the college representative.
  • When you arrive, look at the floor plan and decide which tables you want to visit first.
  • Come prepared with your list of questions.
  • Check to see if there are information sessions on topics such as ways to pay for college.
  • Pick up business cards from college representatives. Keep these cards in case you have questions later.

College Visits

College visits increase students' knowledge about specific schools and provide opportunities to experience campus culture. They are helpful in determining if the school or the type of school is the right fit. Take advantage of your school's nonattendance days to plan a visit.

Here are some campus visit options:

  • Many high schools offer college campus tour field trips throughout the year. Students and parents should consult their School Counseling Office to learn more.
  • The district offers several campus visit options during spring break, which are open to all high school students.
  • Many colleges bring prospective students to campus. Always ask about those options when speaking to college Admissions Representatives or visiting Admission Office websites. Numerous community organizations and faith communities offer college tours.
  • A college visit is only a CTA trip away. Check out the list of local colleges.

College Visit Checklist

College catalogs, virtual tours, and websites are great resources for learning about a college, but campus visits provide experiences that can help students decide if a specific school or type of school is the right fit. Here are some tips to help plan a college visit.

  • Visit the admissions page on the college’s website
    Most, if not all, colleges have a website that is only a quick online search away. These pages provide answers to many questions about planning a visit.
  • Learn about visiting the campus
    Schools may offer a variety of ways to interact with and learn about the college, including campus tours, information sessions, faculty panels, sitting in on classes, admissions presentations, etc. Choose options that match your student's interests and schedule.
  • Schedule a visit by registering online, calling the admissions office, or emailing a request
    Be sure to include information about the time you will likely arrive and the date of your visit. If you would like to take a tour, talk to an admissions counselor, stay overnight in a residence hall or visit a class, make the proper arrangements through the admissions office.
  • Arrive 15 minutes beforehand
    This is especially important if you are scheduled for a tour or an appointment. College campuses may take some time to navigate. It is always best to plan for an earlier arrival. Aiming to arrive around 15 minutes before your appointment should give you enough time to find where you need to be.
  • Have questions prepared
    Be sure to research the school before arriving on campus and identify what is important to you. Bringing along a list of questions concerning academics, housing, clubs and activities, professors, classes, sports, campus jobs, or anything else that interests you is a great way to cover everything you set out to ask about.
  • Try to talk to as many students as possible
    Students can provide valuable insight into life at a college that you can’t find in college-generated brochures or websites.

Also, remember to call ahead because tours, interviews, and overnight stays may fill up early, especially during school breaks.

If you can’t travel to a college, there are other ways to learn more:

  • Meet college reps at local recruiting events at your school, citywide, or in the metro Chicago area.
  • Skype or arrange a Google meeting with a college admissions rep.
  • Call the college that you are interested in and see if you can arrange to meet alumni who are based in Chicago.
  • Ask if your school is sponsoring a group tour of schools in a particular region (NY/Boston, California, Washington DC) that might be funded.
  • View personal college video tours narrated, filmed and produced by students to get a feel of what it's like to go to school there. CampusReel offers 15,000 tours of over 300 campuses.

Office of College and Career Success

School Counseling and Postsecondary Advising


773-553-3543 (Fax)

42 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60602