How to Make the Perfect Four-Year Plan for You

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Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

It’s officially August, and that means high school starts again in a matter of weeks. Before you let an overwhelming feeling of dread wash over you, just take a deep breath. With a little planning and foresight, your high school years can be both rewarding and fun…I promise. It’s time to figure out your perfect four-year plan!

If you’re already a few years into high school, don’t worry—the earlier you start the better, but a four-year plan is still useful later for two reasons:

  1. You’ll map out the progress you have already made.
  2. You can highlight what gaps you need to fill before you graduate. 

It’s like reverse-outlining an essay! This plan will also help take the stress off your senior year,  a time when you’re already juggling a lot of other logistics. Just fill in your class history until the present, and start mapping out the time you have left in the blanks.

What is a four-year plan?

On a basic level, a four-year plan is a long-term calendar for what classes you’ll take (and when) throughout your high school years. You may have already filled out a schedule with your high-school guidance counselor or teacher to keep on file in the admin office. If so, I’d recommend still keeping a copy for yourself so you can reference it and adjust as you go along. It can also be a great cheat sheet for filling out your academic record on college apps!

Before we start….

When it comes to submitting transcripts to colleges, you may have heard the myth that freshman year doesn’t matter. Consider that myth busted. Not only will these grades still be factored into your overall high school GPA, many schools evaluate your transcript holistically, including ninth grade. There are other reasons it matters too: getting off to a strong start helps you build good habits for your future, and shows schools that you take your education seriously.

Now, are you ready to dig in? 

Now that you know the basics, there are three main perspectives you need to consider to make a truly successful plan for you:

Your high school

There are certain classes you just have to take to graduate. Some of these are mandated by the state, some are just required by your specific institution. Regardless, make sure you check all these boxes to ensure that you’ll be able to walk with your friends when senior year rolls around. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Number of total credits required
  • Science, mathematics, and elective requirements
  • Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs (are they a good fit for you?)
  • Independent study programs (does your school allow you to take college courses, or count your extracurricular sports for a physical education credit?)

Future colleges

Even if you don’t know where exactly you want to apply, it’s a good idea to scope out minimum application requirements for schools in your area so you don’t get taken by surprise. For example, your high school might not have a foreign language requirement, but the UC system requires two years. Here are some more tips:

  • Look at a few schools you’d like to attend and work backward from there. Think about what kind of students your top choice colleges usually accept, then work on making yourself a good candidate.
  • Do you have a GPA goal? It’s always smart to make concrete, tangible goals that you can work toward. Then balance your semesters and ensure your success in each class you choose.


Your high school years are just that—yours! Planning out your time with a good four-year plan gives you the opportunity to personalize your experience. Differentiate yourself from your peers by selecting the classes that interest you. 

  • If you’re unsure where to start, spend some time self-evaluating what your priorities and needs are. Sit down with a parent or mentor and talk about your long-term goals.
  • Get excited by browsing the course catalog! Electives and advanced curriculum classes are a chance to seriously explore your passions.
  • Be authentic. I know it’s fun to take classes with your friends, but make sure you’re making choices based on your needs, first and foremost.

And a few more things to send you on your way…

As you pick out your classes, remember what other resources you have at your disposal.

Check in regularly.

  • Make appointments with a counselor or advisor a few times a year to check in and make sure you’re on track to complete your plans. Empowerly counselors are available to fit your busy schedule and will review your individual plans with you as you move through your high school years as well.

Keep your plan current.

  • If you’re a kinetic learner, print out a paper calendar for all four years and hang it somewhere you see regularly. If you like being able to access your plan from anywhere, sign up for a free Empowerly portal and track all your progress from one customizable dashboard.
  • However you choose to store your plan, make sure that you keep inputting your activities and classes as you move through it to stay up-to-date.

Plan for contingencies.

  • Have a support system for academic support and tutoring. It’s a good idea to select courses that are appropriate for your level but will still challenge you. Reach out for help if you need it, and be ready to adjust your long-term plans.
  • On that note, be aware of deadlines for switching and dropping classes each term. You never know what will come up; maybe you’ll find out that Marine Biology doesn’t interest you at all, or AP Calculus is going to tank your GPA. Stay on top of deadlines for when you need to decide whether you’ll keep a class on your transcript permanently.
  •  If your school offers a “pass/fail” grading option, understand the guidelines and utilize them wisely.

Keep your extracurriculars in mind.

  • Your four-year plan should focus on academic planning, but you can also include academics in your grand scheme. This will help you remember deadlines. For example, setting aside time for summer program applications in the spring, or incorporating extra time to prep for AP exams or SAT crash courses.
  • Planning in extracurriculars will also help balance your work-load around high-commitment seasons. If you already know when you’ll have a big competition on the books, write that in! You’ll be that much better prepared when it comes to crunch time.

Taking responsibility for your educational experience in high school with a well-thought-out four-year plan is a great move. Not only will it help you stay organized and on-task to achieve your dreams, but it will help reduce your stress! Channel that back-to-school anxiety and uncertainty for good. Break down your tasks into manageable chunks so you can focus on one semester at a time. Start now plan ahead, and your path will only become clearer. 

Questions? Let us know!