For many students and their parents, the college application process is a source of tremendous anxiety. Fear not. If you familiarize yourself with this process and devote enough time to it, I’m confident that you’ll be able to make it through unscathed and end up at a quality college.
In this article, I’ll take you through the complete college application timeline, detailing what you should be doing at each point in your high school career to ensure that you can submit exceptional college applications.
Overview of the College Application Process
If you want to successfully complete the college application process and make yourself as competitive for college admission as possible, you will be directly or indirectly working on your college application well before your applications are due. In fact, if you have any intention of applying to selective colleges, this process can really begin as early as your freshman year.
The major components of your application that will be evaluated are your transcript, your standardized test scores, your recommendations, your personal essay, and your extracurricular activities.
In this article, I’ll walk you through an ideal college planning timeline to ensure that you’re able to have every aspect of your final application be as strong as possible.
Freshman and Sophomore Years
While you don’t have to seriously think about what colleges you want to apply to before your junior year, your first two years of high school will influence the quality of your college application. Even though there are a few colleges including University of California schools that won’t consider your freshman grades, your sophomore grades will definitely factor into your high school GPA and help determine whether you’re accepted to the college of your choice.
Pay attention to what classes you take. Selective colleges want to see that you’ve excelled in rigorous classes throughout your high school years. Some high schools are hesitant to allow students to take honors or AP classes in their junior years if they haven’t taken advanced classes in their first two years of high school.
Furthermore, colleges are concerned with how many years you’ve taken core subjects (math, English, science, history, and foreign language). If you don’t take a foreign language or history class in your freshman or sophomore year, you’ll be a less competitive applicant.
Also, make sure you’re involved in extracurricular activities. Colleges like to see that you've committed yourself to your extracurriculars. The student who has excelled in the same extracurricular activity throughout high school is a more impressive applicant than the student who first starts doing an extracurricular in his junior year.
Start studying for the SAT/ACT. Generally, you should start studying for the SAT/ACT in your sophomore year or the summer before your junior year. We recommend that you take the SAT/ACT for the first time in the fall of your junior year. Start studying early to prepare yourself thoroughly.
Fall of Junior Year
In the fall of your junior year, you should take the SAT or ACT for the first time. Also, start researching colleges. You don’t need to finalize your list of schools at this point, but if you identify colleges you’re interested in, you’ll have a better sense of what you need to do to make yourself competitive for admission. Additionally, you’ll be able to determine your target score for the SAT or ACT.
Spring of Junior Year
In the spring of your junior year, you should make a preliminary list of colleges you want to apply to. Use college finders, college search websites, and ranking lists to help you. Having this list will give you ample time to complete all your application requirements and ensure that you can reach your target scores on your standardized tests. Divide your list into reach, target, and safety schools.
If necessary, retake your SAT or ACT. Ideally, you’ll achieve your target score this time around. Again, make sure you’re prepared.
Also, if you’re considering applying to any schools that recommend or require SAT Subject Tests, I advise you to take them in the spring of your junior year. Read our SAT Subject Test articles to figure out your target scores, help decide which ones to take, and for assistance in preparing.
Finally, you should ask teachers if they’re willing to write recommendation letters for you. If you ask them early, your teachers will have more time to think about them, and you may get better recommendations. Keep in mind that many teachers will be bombarded by students asking for recommendations during your senior year.
Summer Before Senior Year
In the summer before your senior year, try to finalize your list of colleges. Make sure you’re familiar with the application requirements for each school.
If you still need to take the SAT or ACT to reach your target score, do some intense studying over the summer.
Also, start thinking about and preparing for your college application essays. Come up with ideas and write first drafts. The more you do over the summer, the less you'll have to worry about during the school year.
Fall of Senior Year
Most likely, the fall of your senior year will be rather busy. In the fall, you have to make sure your college applications are ready.
Formally ask for recommendations early in the semester. Don’t wait until one week before your application deadlines to ask. Teachers who are too busy or inundated with recommendation requests may decline to write your letters or will be unable to write you a good recommendation at the last minute.
Polish your college essays. College essays take much more time than you think. Even though the essay isn’t that long, writing a great college essay can be time-consuming. Write multiple drafts, and if possible, allow your teachers and counselors to review your essays and offer advice. For years, I spent many hours helping procrastinating students revise college essays the night before their applications were due. I'm having painful flashbacks. Let's proceed.
Typically, early decision and early action applications are due by November 15. If you apply early, the Oct. or Nov. SAT/ACT will most likely be your last chance to take the test. Early applicants are usually notified by early December regarding admissions decisions.
For most colleges, regular decision application deadlines are January 1st, but some popular colleges have earlier deadlines. For example, the deadline for University of California applications is the end of November. Be aware of the deadlines for all the schools on your list.
Make sure that you have submitted all necessary applications, forms, and score reports. Make a checklist for each school of what you need to submit. Luckily, your life may be easier because more colleges are using the Common Application.
If you still need to take the SAT/ACT, do some quality studying and take the test in time so you can get your scores to the colleges. For most schools, the December tests will be your last opportunity, but a few colleges will allow you to submit scores from January or February.
If you need financial aid, begin working on the financial aid process. Each college has its own financial aid requirements. Check the school’s website and financial aid office for requirements and deadlines for financial aid. If you want to be eligible for financial aid, make sure you complete the FAFSA. Become knowledgeable about financial aid and explore all your options to pay for college.
Spring of Senior Year
You'll hear about your regular decision applications by late March or early April. Hopefully, you'll be accepted by multiple colleges.
Continue researching the colleges that accept you to choose the college that will be best for you. If you applied for financial aid, the colleges that accepted you will give you their financial aid offers shortly after they accept you.
You can use the financial aid packages to determine how much you’ll have to pay for each school and factor that into your college decision. Typically, you have to decide which school you’ll attend by May 1.
Special Message to the Procrastinators
The college application timeline I’ve given you is ideal for maximizing the quality of your application and minimizing stress. Admittedly, many students don’t begin thinking about the college application process until the fall of their senior year. Some of these students are still able to successfully complete all of their applications and attend the college of their dreams.
However, I think every student benefits from sticking to the college timeline I laid out. I know students who were unable to submit applications on time because they waited too long to start writing their essays. I know students who severely limited their college options because they didn’t do enough college research. Also, the majority of students I’ve worked with could have done better on their standardized tests if they had given themselves more time to study.
Furthermore, you’ll be busy with school and extracurricular activities during your senior year. If you don’t start contemplating the application process until the fall of your senior year, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed given all of your other responsibilities. If you devote more time to this process earlier, it will be easier and you'll be more likely to accomplish your goals.
Do you need more information to successfully stick to this college application timeline? We've got tons of other guides and resources to help you plan.
If you're struggling to find extracurricular activities, learn about the 3 best extracurricular activities for your college application.
Are you starting to work on your college essay? Make sure you know how to write a great college essay.
Finally, to help you stay on track, review the important college application deadlines you can't miss.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.