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HomeResourcesThe Complete College Admission Timeline: How & When to Prepare to Apply to College
The Complete College Admission Timeline: How & When to Prepare to Apply to College
Updated August 17, 2023
By Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

High school students planning for college can make the process easier by following this helpful timeline to ensure important steps aren't missed. This guide provides you with tips to help you stay organized, remove stress, and stand out on your college application.

How to Prepare for College

While you're still in high school, planning for college can feel a little overwhelming along with all you're doing for classes, extracurriculars, and everything else. You might be wondering how to prepare for college in high school and what steps to take to create a good college plan. While there are many steps in the college planning process, getting an early start and breaking the process down into actionable steps are the keys to success.

Preparing for college requires focusing on academics, extracurricular experiences, and deciding on goals for the future. With clear goals in mind, it will be easier to target the schools to apply to and begin creating a financial plan (including applying for scholarships and grants) to achieve your college dreams. 

Sophomore Year: Planning for College 

Sophomore year is a good time to begin to create a college plan. With a year of high school experience behind you, it's time to start to thinking about life after high school. What are your dreams for the future? What do you want to study? What career would you like to have?

You do not have to be absolute or certain about the answers to the questions. While many students don’t need to have life all figured out, it is a good time to begin thinking through these questions, having conversations with mentors and supporters. The answers you provide help in planning for college and conducting college research.

Academic Advising

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College advising should begin in your sophomore year. High school academic advisors, sometimes referred to as guidance counselors, can help you create a plan for your future and map out the steps to achieve your goals. They can direct you to colleges that might be a good fit for you. Most importantly, they can help you choose appropriate high school classes that will challenge you and meet academic requirements for your college choices.

Advisors can help you plan for taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses and which AP Courses would be the best fit for you. These courses look good on a high school transcript as evidence of rigorous study. Achieving high scores on corresponding AP exams can also count toward college and high school credit.

College admissions committees don’t only look at academics. They are also interested in what you do outside the classroom. Academic advisors can help you select extracurricular activities both in and out of school that interest you and help you build an impressive resume.

Preparing for College Entrance Exams

Sophomore year is also the time to gear up for college entrance exams. You can prepare for the SAT by taking the PSAT-10 or the PSAT/NMSQT. In addition to offering valuable test preparation, the PSAT/NMSQT is used to determine who receives National Merit Scholarships. If you plan to take the ACT, your sophomore year is the last year you can take the PreACT. Academic advisors can help you register for these important exams.

Find Colleges

Sophomore year is a good time to begin making a list of colleges you want to consider applying to. There are so many colleges to choose from that it can be a challenge to come up with a manageable list. How do you know which college will be right for you? Online college finders and school academic advisors can help narrow the search.

There are several things to keep in mind when determining how to find the college that fits you best. Some of them include:

  • Majors Available: If you know what they want to study, finding a college that has that major is key. However, it is also true that many students change their majors once they begin college, so attending a college that has other areas of study you might be interested in is a plus.
  • Location: College is going to be a huge change for a lot of students who have never spent considerable time away from home. Some questions to ask yourself might be whether you want to stay close to home and commute to college? Would you prefer to live on campus but be close enough to go home for weekends or to check in with family? Is the goal to go far away and experience a different part of the country (or even a different country)?
  • School Size: A smaller college can provide individualized support and the opportunity for closer community. A larger school may have more extracurricular offerings and the chance to get involved in more ways.
  • School Reputation: All college degrees aren't created equal, so making sure that yours will be respected by future employers, look into how reputable your college choices are. Are they known to be party schools? Do they employ well-known or highly experienced professors? Is the school inclusive or open to issues that are important to you?
  • Tuition and Other Costs: Tuition rates aren't the only thing to consider when it comes to looking at school costs. It's also important to research each college's fees and other expenses, especially if you'll be living on campus. Textbooks, food, dorm, technology fees, parking and transportation, activity fees, insurance, lab fees, and other miscellaneous costs can add up.

College Scholarships

Speaking of the college costs, as a sophomore you can begin searching for college scholarships and grant opportunities that you might be eligible for. While it might be too early to apply for college scholarships at this point, it is helpful to know what's out there in terms of available scholarships.

Similar to searching for colleges and universities, there are online tools that can help you search for appropriate scholarships. Scholarships are offered by schools, companies, private sources, the government, and other organizations. High school academic advisors may know of local community college scholarships offered by regional organizations that you can also apply for.

One of the advantages of searching for scholarships early in the college planning process is that you can start to tailor your resume to meet the requirements of desired scholarships. While some scholarships are based on factors you may not have much control over, such as financial need, race, or geographic area, others are more interested in your skills.

For example, some scholarships look for academic achievement while others are more concerned about community involvement, leadership skills, athletic ability, or artistic potential. Choosing classes and/or extracurricular activities that illustrate your abilities that align with the scholarship or with your academic and career goals can be very helpful down the road.

Many scholarships require a personal essay. This is your opportunity to set yourself apart from other students. Some scholarships offer essay prompts to get you started. If nothing there inspires you or no prompts are offered, there's still time to pursue experiences during your remaining high school years that might make for a more interesting scholarship essay topic.

Junior Year: College Research

Junior year is the time for you to take college research to the next level. If you haven't yet begun to look at colleges, you can start to find colleges online and discuss how to research colleges with the help of an academic advisor.

Once you have a preliminary list of college possibilities, it is time to hone that list. You'll want to be in contact with colleges you're interested in, get on mailing lists, and begin to explore those colleges in greater depth. College visits, speaking with current students and alumni, and doing online research are all ways to learn more about a school and its community to help decide if it will be a good fit for you.

As a junior, you can also can prepare for and take college entrance exams. In addition, you'll want to consider how you plan to pay for college by continuing to explore scholarships, grants, and other funding options that may be available.

College Advising

It is important during your junior year to take advantage of academic advising to ensure you are on track to meet all high school requirements as well as the requirements of the colleges you plan to apply to. Some colleges and universities have more stringent requirements for admission than what a high school may mandate for graduation. If you know what you plan to major in, an academic advisor can help you select electives that will support that goal. For example, if you're planning to major in a scientific or medical field, you'll want to take additional science electives.

The end of junior year is an appropriate time to begin thinking about who could write you letters of recommendation. You’ll want at least two letters of recommendation, one academic focused by a teacher who knows you and who you have a good report with, and a letter of recommendation from a coach, mentor, or community leader. It can be helpful to have a letter of recommendation from teachers who are in the same academic field you want to pursue in college.

Preparing for College Entrance Exams

In the fall of your junior year, you can take the PSAT/NMSQT exam. If you'd already taken it during your sophomore year, you can opt to take it a second time if you want more prep for the actual test. In addition to providing solid practice for the SAT exam, it offers you the chance at scholarship money through the National Merit Scholarship program as well as through other scholarship programs. You'll sign up for this exam through your high school. If you're homeschooled, you are able to register to take the exam through local high schools.

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The best preparation for taking the PSAT/NMSQT is paying attention in school. It is designed to test much of the material and skills learned in traditional high school classes. However, if you want additional preparation, study guides are available both online and in print form.

In the spring of your junior year, you can take the SAT or ACT exams. It is a good idea to study for these exams and take them during your junior year rather than waiting for senior year because it provides the opportunity to retake the exam and potentially raise your score. When deciding which exam to take, look at the colleges where you want to apply to determine what they require. Some schools have no SAT/ACT requirement, but it's a good idea to take at least one of these exams anyway to keep your options open.

Preparing for the SAT or ACT can be done online, with a tutor, or by using printed preparation materials. Taking practice tests will help you become familiar with the exams and help reduce test anxiety.

Grants and Scholarships for College

If you've narrowed down your college choices and possible majors of study by this point, you can begin a more targeted search for college scholarships. Financial aid offices at the colleges where you plan to submit applications can help you know what institutional aid might be available to you. Many colleges and universities offer site-specific scholarships for academic achievement, athletic ability, or for specific majors, such as STEM fields.

High school academic advisors are also a good resource for information on scholarships for college. They may be aware of scholarships that previous students from your high school have received, especially local scholarships that may not come up on an internet search.

Online scholarship search tools are useful for discovering scholarships you may be uniquely qualified for. It is possible to search for scholarships by major, interests, demographics, financial need, and more.

As a junior, you can get organized by creating a spreadsheet of possible scholarships to apply for, including the scholarship name, due date, application materials required, and contact information. This will help you keep track and not duplicate your efforts. You can also begin working on scholarship essays if those are required.

Visiting Colleges

Online videos and glossy brochures can only tell prospective students so much about a college. It is important to schedule college visits to get a true feel for a school and its environment to see if it is a good match for you.

When to Start Visiting Colleges.

Spring of junior year is an ideal time to begin visiting colleges on weekends and during breaks. By this point in your high school career, you should have a good idea of your academic standing and can target schools that will meet your needs. To make the most of your time and money (since traveling to potential colleges isn't free) prioritize your college list and start with your highest preferences first. However, it can also benefit you to start our by touring a local school, since you can learn a lot about what to ask and what's expected when it comes to visiting your first-choice campuses. 

What to Wear to a College Visit

For most college visits, casual attire is usually going to be fine. At the very least, wear comfortable shoes that are good for walking. Campus tours usually cover quite a bit of distance and having sore feet will not enhance the experience. If an interview with an admissions counselor is planned, wear business casual (bring a dressier pair of shoes to change into for the interview). If the college visit will take place over a weekend or several days, bring a few changes of clothes that will be appropriate for various types of outings.

Questions to Ask When Visiting Colleges

While you're on campus, try to talk to students as well as official school representatives to get a true understanding of life at the school. Some questions to ask include:

  • How are admissions decisions made?
  • What is the average class size?
  • Do professors or teaching assistants teach first-year students?
  • What type of academic support is available?
  • What is the social life like?
  • How are residence assignments determined?

Summer Before Senior Year

The summer before senior year, you might hold a summer job or volunteer positions, but you'll also want to spend time with friends. However, this is a key time to kick the college planning process into high gear. During your break, you can conduct college visits, study for entrance exams, and begin working on the college application process with a little more vigor. Senior year is a busy time both academically and socially, and working on these tasks over the summer can help relieve some of the pressure during your final academic year.

College Application Process

The college application process can seem daunting, but the best tactic is to make a list of schools to apply to along with their required application components and any relevant deadlines to help ensure a positive outcome. There are some items you should be familiar with as you narrow your search to successfully navigate the paperwork involved.

Common Application

Many schools accept the Common Application, which is free to create. Check to see if the colleges on your list are among them. Completing this one college Common Application can be a great time saver. However, some schools also ask for additional materials to be sent directly to them. When getting ready to apply to colleges, be aware of what each of your selected schools requires.

In addition to the Common Application, the Coalition Application is accepted by a growing number of institutions. If you're interested in attending an historically Black college or university, you'll want to consider using the Common Black College Application. Both of these options aim to remove barriers to higher education for traditionally disadvantaged students.

Application Fees

Most schools charge an application fee usually ranging from $30 to $100. These fees can quickly add up when multiple applications are submitted, so it's advisable to limit your list of potential colleges to only as many as you can afford to apply to. It can also help to spread them out as much as possible so you're not taking a big financial hit all at once.

Application fees are non-refundable; however, if you have a demonstrated financial need, you may be eligible for application fee waivers.

The College Board will send a college application fee waiver to all students who received a test fee waiver for the SAT. Many schools accept these waivers. Those who take the ACT can also fill out a request for a fee waiver. The Common Application and Coalition Application have space to request a fee waiver as part of the application.

Application Deadlines

Some schools offer early decision applications. These applications allow you to apply earlier (usually early through mid-November) and receive a decision early. This can remove a great deal of stress from the application process if you get accepted to your top choice early so you don't have to worry about applying to other schools. However, if you opt for early action, you should be sure it's for the school you're set on, since you're often obligated to attend if you're accepted and your financial need is met.

The regular application deadline for most schools is the first part of January, though some accept applications into February. A few schools offer late application periods as late as August, but that doesn't mean they’ll have spots available; you could get waitlisted instead. Keep track of the deadlines for each school and be sure to meet them.

Schools that have rolling admissions do not have a hard deadline. Instead, they accept applications until all seats for the incoming year are filled. If you're truly interested in a school, however, don't delay submitting an application.

College Application Essay & Recommendation Letters

College applications often require an essay and recommendation letters, so start drafting your essay now and thinking about who you want to get recommendation letters from so you can hit the ground running when school starts in the fall.

How to Write a College Application Essay

It can be a little intimidating to write an essay that explains who you are, what you want, and why you should be accepted to a college. Use your essay as a chance for you to share part of yourself with the admissions committee but be careful about getting too personal. While college application essay topics can run the gamut, you should strive to write in an authentic voice and illustrate what matters most to you.

Create an opening sentence that grabs the reader’s attention and follow it up with material that reveals what makes you unique. Write several drafts to refine the essay and have others read it to provide feedback. Be sure everything is spelled correctly and is written in correct grammar.

Remember your essay should show the selection committee that you're a good fit for the school, so while it's okay to reuse parts of your essay if you want to convey a specific message, it's a good idea to customize it to fit the nature and character of each school. Taking some time during the summer to begin your application essay can make the process a bit smoother once you start your senior year.

Recommendation Letters

By the time you start submitting applications, you should have all the letters of recommendation from the people you ask. Most applications want two to three letters of recommendation. If you worked a summer job or volunteered with an organization, think about asking your supervisor for a letter. Make a list of teachers you want recommendation letters from as soon as the school year begins and ask them as soon as possible.

High School Resume for a College Application

Some college applications ask for a high school resume, but even if they don't, it's another way to help your application stand out. A resume should contain all relevant academic achievements and extracurricular activities along with work and volunteer experience. It is a structured showcase of all you've accomplished during your high school career. Your guidance counselor can help you draft a resume that highlights your relevant experience and accomplishments.

College Financial Aid

During the summer, continue searching for college scholarships and begin to apply for as many as you're qualified for. Keep track of scholarship deadlines so you don't miss any opportunities.

At this point, the list of prospective colleges you want to attend should be getting shorter. As soon as you can, reach out to the financial aid offices at these institutions to discuss their financial aid policies. Do you meet their required financial need? Do they offer any grants or loans? What scholarships does the school have that you might be eligible for? Take these answers into consideration when deciding which colleges to apply to.

Sometimes schools with a higher sticker price may actually be more affordable than less expensive institutions once financial aid is taken into consideration. There is no way to know for sure without investigating all the options.

More College Visits

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Summer is a great time to finish making college visits. They can often be combined with a family vacation. If traveling a distance, it can be helpful to visit several schools in the area at the same time or to plot out a travel itinerary that will allow for visiting your top school choices.

Create a college visit checklist that includes the questions that are most important to you. Take notes during or immediately after the visit to record the answers to those questions and write down your impression of the campus and the local area.

One of the downsides of making college visits in the summer is that campuses have fewer students during a summer term, but still make a point of talking to the students who are available and sitting in on a summer class if that's possible to get a true feel for what it might be like to be enrolled.

Taking College Entrance Exams

If you didn’t take the SAT test or ACT test in you junior year or if you want to retake the exams to try to get a better score, summer is the perfect time to study and prepare for the tests so that SAT or ACT scores can be sent to colleges in a timely fashion. Not all schools require college entrance exams, but if you do well on them, it can be a benefit to submit them even to test-optional schools as an additional way to demonstrate your academic potential.

ACT Test

Look up registration dates for the July, September, or October ACT test dates. The deadlines are usually a little over a month in advance. You can create an account and register for the ACT test online. There are many test centers to choose from, so you shouldn't have to travel far to find out. On test day, bring your admission ticket, photo ID, number two pencils, a watch, and an approved calculator.

SAT Test

SAT registration also takes place online. As a senior, you'll want to take the SAT test in August, October, or November. The deadline for registration is one month before the test. As with the ACT, you should bring your printed admission ticket, photo ID, number two pencils, and an approved calculator. You may also bring a watch.

Senior Year: Applying to College

Senior year is the time for all the advance college planning to pay off and start really putting it into action!

Take SAT or ACT tests for the final time, complete all the required application paperwork, and apply for financial aid for college including scholarships. Once acceptances come in, spend some time visiting the remaining colleges on your list, if possible, to help make the final decision. Also, it's time to make some final decisions on financial aid packages and living arrangements for college.

Once decisions are made, take a little time to celebrate! While applying to college and waiting to hear their decisions can be stressful, this is also an exciting time to enjoy the last year of high school and dream of a promising future.

SAT & ACT Test Scores

The fall of senior year is the last chance to take the ACT or SAT and have the scores be available for the traditional college application period. If you'd already taken them but didn't do as well as you'd hoped, a retest can bring up your scores.

However, if you have test anxiety or simply do poorly on standardized tests, all is not lost. Entrance exams are only part of an application. Admissions committees consider many other factors, and there are many colleges that don’t require entrance exams.

You have the option to cancel requests to send scores to colleges once you receive your score if you're not pleased with it and think it will hurt your admission chances more than help. You may wish to apply to some schools that require test scores and some that don't to increase your chances of acceptance.

IB & AP Exams

If you're pursuing an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, tests are given in November and May. Advanced Placement (AP) tests are given in May of each year. You can decide whether to submit scores from your junior year or senior year to colleges.

Applying to College

The big moment has come. It's time to complete the college application paperwork. Create a college application checklist that includes the following:

Colleges and universities: Create a final list of schools to apply to. On the list should be at least one dream school and some that you're pretty sure you have a good chance of being accepted to. 

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College application deadlines: Check your notes for when application materials are due. Early action colleges offer students the chance to apply and receive a decision earlier than the traditional application period. If this is something you want to take advantage of for a first-choice school, begin assembling the required materials to submit as soon as possible. You may want to have a college with late application deadlines on your list as a backup. Note which schools accept the Common or Coalition Application or if there is a special application that must be completed.

College application essay: Most schools require an essay as part of an application. Write down the topics that the individual schools require. Work on those essays, double-checking spelling and grammar to be sure they are the best that they can be.

Resume: Keep honing your resume to highlight your academic and community achievements. Creating a resume can help you consider all that you've done in high school and offer some topics to include in your college essays.

Letters of Recommendation: Ask for letters of recommendation from teachers or community leaders who can speak to your strengths and ability to thrive in college. Provide them with at least a few weeks before the deadline to complete the letters.

FAFSA Application & Applying for Financial Aid

You (along with your parent or guardian) will want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).The FAFSA form becomes available October 1st for the following school year. It's best to complete it online as soon as possible after that date to be eligible for the most aid.

You'll need your family's complete financial information, including income, savings, and investments, to fill out the form. You can indicate which schools you'd like the resulting student aid report sent to. FAFSA student aid may come in the form of grants provided by the federal government, such as the Pell Grant, as well as scholarships or loans.

When planning for college financial aid, it is helpful to apply for college scholarships as those provide money that does not need to be repaid. There are many college scholarships for high school seniors, including community college scholarships, and it's not too late to search for and apply for these opportunities while in the last year of high school. As with applying to college, it's helpful to create a spreadsheet or checklist to keep track of scholarship application requirements.

Wrap Up College Visits

Senior year provides a final opportunity for visiting colleges before applying. You may wish to revisit a school during the school year to get a better feel for the college during the academic year.

Some good questions to ask college admissions representatives include how financial aid is awarded, the types of academic and physical accommodations that are available if those are needed, and the support services that students can take advantage of. You may even want to arrange for an overnight visit to see what dorm life is like and to have the opportunity to shadow a student who's majoring in the same field you're considering. Some schools offer visiting days for accepted students to help them make a final decision about attending their college.

College Acceptance

The applications have been submitted, and the wait for a college acceptance letter begins. What can you expect at this stage of the process?

When do College Decisions Come Out?

Early action colleges tend to send out decisions in December through February. Regular decisions come in during March and April. Rolling admissions may come in any time during the winter or spring depending on when the application was submitted and how much time the school takes to consider it.

College Acceptance Letter

A college acceptance letter may come in the form of an email or a thick envelope that comes in the traditional mail. However it comes, congratulations! This is a milestone to celebrate.

If the decision is a no, don’t lose heart. College acceptance rates vary among institutions, but the reality is that many students who meet the college admission requirements receive at least one rejection.

If you're added to a waitlist, this means the full number of students accepted has been filled but not all have confirmed. If some decide to attend another school, those seats will open back up, and depending where you are on the waitlist, you could still get in. A final decision may not come until August, so it's best to have a backup plan in case the acceptance doesn’t come.

College Letter of Intent

Once you're heard back from all the schools you'd applied to, it's time to make a decision. Consider the financial aid offers from all schools you got into and weigh the options. Colleges generally want you to submit a letter of intent by May 1st.

Decide which college to attend and send in the required deposit. Also, reject the acceptance by other schools that offered one so they can notify the students on their waitlists as soon as possible. Now it's time to take a deep breath and celebrate that your college search has reached a successful conclusion, and the future awaits!

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