College Application Timeline for High Schoolers
No doubt about it – the college application process can be confusing and intimidating. At times, you might feel like you’re jumping the gun and should slow down, while at other times you think you’ll never catch up!
Are you taking the right courses? Are you involved in enough extra-curricular activities? Should you re-take the ACT or SAT exam? Is it time to ask for recommendation letters? The list of worries goes on and on. But rest assured, your classmates have the same concerns.
We’ve compiled a timeline to help you stay on track and anticipate what’s coming up.
But first, there are a few things you should be doing all along the way. Always.
- Keep your grades up. Colleges aren’t just looking at a single GPA averaging your whole high school career. They want to see stability. Make sure your academics are a priority.
- Stay involved in extra-curricular activities. Find a few sports, clubs or organizations that you’re passionate about and keep with them. Devote meaningful time to each, but be sure you have time for your studies and rest.
- Apply for scholarships. While there are many that are only open to seniors, there are also plenty that aren’t. The more scholarships you apply for, the better!
- Seek out college info. Attend the college fairs, sign up for the mailings, talk to college grads, and, perhaps most importantly, tour all the campuses you can get to. It’s important to have all the information before making this big decision!
So keep each of those points in mind throughout the whole process. And here are the things you should place extra focus on during each of your high school years.
Your freshman year is not too early to start thinking about college! You’re laying the foundation, and the steps you take now can help save you time and headaches in future years.
College Application Timeline for Freshman Year
Study hard. Start off on the right foot, with good grades. The grades you make now will impact the GPA colleges will eventually look at to determine your admission. Do your best.
Get involved. Now is the time to explore. Try out a few sports, academic clubs, volunteer organizations and so on to figure out what you’re passionate about and want to devote your time to.
Talk to your guidance counselor. Let your guidance counselor know what your goals are in terms of college and a career. If you’re unsure, discuss your interests and how you can narrow down your options.
Make a high school plan. Determine what steps you will need to take to achieve your goals. For example, which classes should you take now to prepare you for advanced and college preparatory courses during your Junior or Senior year? If you already have a college or university in mind, find out what courses they require (e.g. 2 years of a foreign language).
Get test-ready. Consider taking practice tests to prepare for the ACT or SAT. If your school offers it, sign up to take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT).
Search for scholarships. Believe it or not, there are scholarships open to freshman. Check out search sites such as Fastweb.com and start applying!
Make your summer count. Look for opportunities to volunteer, job shadow, take classes or get a job.
Grab your planner! Your sophomore year is when things really get rolling.
College Application Timeline For Sophomore Year
Register for and take the PLAN and/or PSAT exam. The PLAN is otherwise known as the pre-ACT, while the PSAT is the pre-SAT. These will help prepare you for the real exams later on.
Meet with your guidance counselor again. Review your course plan and make sure you’re still on track.
Get and stay involved. Colleges will favor quality over quantity, so narrow down your extra-curricular activities to the few you’re most passionate about. Devote meaningful time to each and take on leadership roles when available.
Attend college fairs. Make it a point to attend any college fairs in your area. Review the material you receive and start thinking about what factors are most important to you in a school.
Reach out to colleges. Get on the mailing list for the schools you are interested in, and request additional information about admission requirements, specific programs or anything else you’d like to know more about.
Tour campuses. School breaks and days off school are the perfect time to tour college campuses. Even if you can’t get to the school(s) you’re most interested in, tour a nearby college to get a feel for college life, determine what features you’re looking for and come up with good questions.
Start saving. Put away a portion of what you earn at your after school or summer job.
Search for scholarships. There are quite a few scholarships available to sophomores. Check out search sites such as Fastweb.com and start applying!
Make your summer count. Again, look for chances to volunteer, job shadow, take summer classes or get a job.
As you approach your junior and senior year, you will be increasingly busy! You will have more deadlines to remember and paperwork to complete.
Let’s take a close look at what to expect during each season of these important years.
College Application Timeline For Junior Year
Take the PSAT. As a junior, you can take the PSAT as practice for the SAT exam, and to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program.
Prepare for the ACT or SAT. Take full length practice tests and check out resources such as books or tutoring opportunities to help you do your best.
Make a list of important college criteria. Consider what factors are most important to you in a college. These may include academic programs, athletics, extra-curricular opportunities, location, cost or size.
Research colleges. Determine which schools may be a good fit based on the criteria you listed above. Gather more information about each by searching online, talking to guidance counselors, or attending college fairs. Use the information to help narrow your list.
Meet with your guidance counselor again. Review your course plan as well as the colleges you’re most interested in and their requirements.
Take the ACT or SAT. This is your first try and you will be able to re-take it.
Search / Apply for scholarships. Continue to use scholarships search sites such as Fastweb.com to find and apply for scholarships open to you.
Take the ACT or SAT. If you didn’t take it in the winter, it’s time now. If you did, now may be a good time to see if you can improve your score.
Take AP Exams. Take any exams related to any AP courses you’ve taken during your junior year.
Tour colleges. Check college websites for details about tours, interview opportunities and informational sessions they may be offering over the summer.
Find out deadlines. Check college websites to find out their application deadlines. Early decision and early action applications are usually due in December of your senior year, while most regular applications are due between January 1 and March 1.
Draft your essays. Start with an outline, and then work on your first draft.
Think about recommendation letters. Which teachers, counselors or coaches know you best? Decide who you’d like to ask for a recommendation letter.
Search/Apply for scholarships. Use scholarship search sites and apply, apply, apply!
College Application Timeline For Senior Year
Take the ACT or SAT. Take the test a second or third time to see if you can improve your initial score.
Narrow down your list of schools. You should have 1-2 “safety schools,” a few that are a good fit, and 1-2 “reach” schools. Get feedback from parents, guidance counselors and teachers about the schools on your list, and try to visit as many of them as possible.
Tour colleges. Fall is a great time to visit colleges since classes are in session. You may even be able to meet with a professor and/or sit in on a class.
Revise your essays. Review and polish your application essays. Ask a teacher to proofread them so you can work on your final drafts.
Request letters of recommendation. Provide the individuals you’ve chosen with a few notes about your academic record, extracurricular involvement, and accomplishments. Be sure to give them any guidelines or forms the school has provided as well as stamped and addressed envelopes. Let them know the deadline, which should be at least a month out!
Meet with your guidance counselor again. Make sure you are on track with college admissions requirements. Let them know where your transcripts and test scores should be sent, and provide any additional forms the college requires.
Submit early decision applications / early action applications or rolling admissions applications, if desired. The application deadlines will vary, so keep a close eye on those dates for each school you’re applying to!
Fill out the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is available on October 1. This application determines your access to federal, state and even some private aid. Be sure to submit it as soon as possible, as many schools award aid on a first come, first served basis.
Complete the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, if required. Find out if your school requires applicants to submit this additional financial aid application.
Search/apply for scholarships. Continue to apply for scholarships! Ask your guidance counselor about local scholarship opportunities, too, which will have fewer applicants.
Send in your application. Regular applications usually have due dates January 1 to March 1.
Follow up with colleges. Make sure your application, recommendation letters, test scores, transcripts and all required materials have been received.
Search/apply for scholarships. Senior year is full of scholarship opportunities so keep looking and applying!
Do well in your interviews. Stay calm and confident!
Update FAFSA info, if necessary. If you estimated, be sure to enter accurate information when it’s available.
Watch the mail for application responses. Acceptance, rejection and wait-list letters generally arrive in March and April.
Compare financial aid packages. Take a good look at what is being offered by the schools that accepted you. Carefully consider the total costs of your top choices. If you have questions, if your family’s circumstances have changed, or you simply can’t afford your top choice school, reach out to the financial aid office right away.
Make your decision. It’s finally time to decide which school is the best fit and communicate that decision to all the schools by May 1.
Submit your deposit. Once you’ve chosen your school, you will need to pay a deposit to secure your spot. This is usually due on May 1.
Take AP Exams. Be sure to take the exams for any AP courses you took during your senior year, so you can receive college credit.
Keep track of college deadlines! Be sure to stay on top of deadlines regarding financial aid, orientation, housing arrangements, class scheduling, etc.
Remember that if you choose the early decision or early action application route, or if your school has rolling admission, your timeline may vary from that above. For those schools, you will need to gather dates and keep a close eye so as not to miss anything.
As you make your way through your high school years, you may feel as though you’re juggling more than you can handle. You’re not alone!
Check in with your guidance counselor for reassurance that you’re on the right track. He or she has guided many other students through this same process, and is likely very familiar with each step. Talk also to your classmates, who can relate to the stress you’re feeling. And lean on your family as needed, as they want to support you, too.
Don’t look at this timeline as a whole. We’ve broken it down into smaller, less intimidating sections so you can focus on what’s coming up next – over the next school year or season.
You can do this! Stay focused from beginning to end and the acceptance letters will be your reward!