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Timeline for College Applications

Navigating the College Application Timeline – A Comprehensive Guide

The journey to college is an exciting and transformative one. I went into my college years timid and not expecting much from them, then I graduated with knowledge and people that will last with me a lifetime. 

So, if you’re feeling unprepared and nervous, trust me, I’ve been there and done that. 

To make sure you don’t slip in this grand journey, I’m going to walk you through the entire process of college life and what to do (and not to do) during it.

The college application timeline is a critical aspect of this process and understanding it thoroughly can help you stay organized and increase your chances of successful admission. you can consider this article for how to write college admission essay

In this guide, I’ll be taking you through each stage of the college application timeline, from early preparation to decision day. Additionally, you’ll discover a handy year-round timeline tailored to your class, outlining the key milestones and actions to take at each stage.

Freshman Year: Starting Early

In your freshman year of high school, it’s crucial to build connections with teachers and counselors, consider taking AP classes, create an effective schedule, discover your preferred study methods, engage in clubs and sports, explore various interests, choose your courses wisely, and start early with extracurricular activities while focusing on continuous progress and improvement.

Here is a detailed breakdown.

Enroll in College-Preparatory Classes

Most highschoolers go into college blindly and get bombarded with their subjects and the advanced material. 

To make sure you transition easily, prepare yourself beforehand by taking AP, IB, and other academically demanding courses (ex. Honors courses, dual enrollment, and CLEP) during your high school years. 

Make an effort to focus on the fundamental fields of study, such as Math, Science, English, and history. These classes will not only make college less difficult for you, but they will also increase the likelihood that your application will be approved.

Sophomore and Junior Years: Preparing for the Journey Ahead

During your sophomore and junior years in high school, you can prepare for college by taking challenging courses, attending career fairs, seeking mentorship, researching colleges, and getting ready for standardized college admission tests like the PSAT/NMSQT. Explore scholarships, visit campuses, and consider top programs in your desired major as well.

Fall (September to November)

The college application process follows a clear timeline, with critical deadlines for submitting materials. 

As part of this process junior year, students should practice standardized tests like the PSAT to prepare for critical exams like the SAT that will be required as part of their applications.

Use this to practice for your SAT exams – PSAT practice test

Take Standardized Tests

In your junior year, take some time out to practice for your SATs by taking the PSAT. There are countless PSAT practice exams available online such as the ones provided by Khan Academy, and you can even talk to your guidance counselor for beneficial resources. 

Winter (December to February)

The first winter of your freshman year has come, and it’s going to revolve around your SATs.

Make sure to get in as much as revision as possible, and try to do your best. Some students intentionally don’t put in effort because they plan on retaking the tests another season. It will save a lot more time and money (SAT registrations cost around $60 in the U.S.) if you get it right the first time. 

Sit for Your SATs/ACTs

The time has come! Take your SAT/ACT tests for the first time during the winter. If you notice bad results, don’t worry, it happens to everyone during their first time. 

Note down your mistakes and improve on them, then you’ll notice a much better outcome by the second time you sit for the test in the spring or fall. 

Take the SAT Subject Tests

Some colleges may require grades from SAT subject tests. I made sure to take mine right after finishing the classes while I still had most of the subject material retained, and my results came out better than I anticipated. 

Spring (March to May)

In the spring, the last portion of exam season commences before summer break. Again, try to do your best and bring in the most satisfactory results. 

Take the AP Exams

In May of each year, the AP exams commence, which are an incredible opportunity to earn more credit for your target colleges. 

Summer (June to August) 

Summer has come! But don’t use up your free time on just relaxing, this time is the perfect opportunity to prepare for college. 

You can use this time to draft applications, set financial aid plans, research and prepare for interviews, and more. To draft applications for both admission and financial aid, talk to your student guidance counselor for help. 

Draft Your College Application Essay

While some students may hold off drafting their application essay for senior year, it’s best to get it done as soon as you can. This way, you can have more time for studies and exams in your senior year. 

Begin your first draft in the summer of junior year, and then make edits and adjustments as you go along your senior year. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this!

Prepare for Interviews

Research your target colleges and see which ones offer optional interviews. Do a thorough analysis of their requirements, then sit down with a teacher, friend, or family member to give a mock interview, making sure to take their feedback. 

Prepare Your Recommendation Letters

During the summer, assess which teachers are willing to put in a good recommendation letter for you. Preferably, they should be from your essential subjects, such as Science, Math, and English. 

Then, give your teachers a summarized list of reasons why you chose them as your recommenders and why you believe you have done well in their classes. 

Sort out a Financial Aid Plan

Sit down with your family to discuss your financial aid plan for college. Tuition can be challenging, and while there are various reasons students might drop out, having a well-thought-out financial plan can help mitigate potential financial stresses. 

So, make use of resources such as net price calculators on the websites of your target colleges and make an outline of all the deadlines you have to meet. 

When applying for financial aid, you will need to submit your:

  • FAFSA or CSS Profile
  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • Tax Returns
  • W-2 Forms
  • Bank Statements
  • Investment Statements
  • Other Income Information (if required)
  • Records of Untaxed Income
  • Records of Business and Farm Assets
  • Dependency Documentation
  • Selective Service Registration
  • Additional Documentation

Apply for Scholarships

Consider starting your scholarship applications early and continuing throughout the school year. Many seniors opt to apply to numerous scholarships to maximize their opportunities.

It’s not uncommon for seniors to apply to a wide range of scholarships, with some even reaching out to more than 30 opportunities.

To ensure you have a better chance of getting a scholarship than your peers, consider local options and colleges that require admission essays, since most students steer clear of those out of fear. 

The documents required to file for scholarships can vary according to the college and scholarship provider. However, these are the documents that are commonly asked for:

  • Scholarship Application Form
  • Academic Transcripts
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
  • Personal Statement or Essay
  • Proof of Eligibility
  • Financial Information
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Acceptance Letter or Enrollment Verification
  • Other Supporting Documents (ex. Proof of residency, citizenship status, etc.)

Senior Year to Graduation: A Race Against Time

Senior year of high school can be a whirlwind of homework, deadlines, college research, and applications. Stay focused, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey. Keep organized, talk to your college counselor, and address financial considerations with your parents. It’s a year of transition, both for students and parents, as you prepare to embark on the next chapter of your educational journey.

Fall (September to November)

The college application process follows a clear timeline, with key deadlines for submitting materials. 

For many, the senior year can be the busiest when it comes to college applications.

In this crucial time period, it’s important to have drafts of everything you need to apply to your target colleges at hand. Retake any tests that you might be dissatisfied with, apply for financial aid, gather your necessary profiles and portfolios, etc. There’s no more time to waste!

Submit Early Decision and Action Applications

If you’re certain about a specific college, consider sending in an early decision application. These are typically due in November and, if accepted, you commit to attending that college. 

With early action schools, you’ll get your decision early, but you can take your time until the regular decision deposit deadline to make your final decision.

When applying for early decision and early action applications to colleges and universities, you typically need a set of documents and information to complete the application process:

  • Application Form
  • Academic Transcripts
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Essays or Personal Statements
  • Application Fee or Fee Waiver
  • Additional Materials
  • Early Decision Agreement
  • Financial Aid Forms

Submit Your CSS Profile

If you’re applying early to certain schools, you might need to submit the CSS profile in the fall, even though you can’t fill out the FAFSA until after October 1st. This is something to keep in mind when applying early.

Submit SAT/ACT Score Reports

Make sure to send your official SAT and/or ACT score reports to the early application schools you’re interested in. 

Along with your application forms, letters of recommendation, essays, and other required documents, these schools will need your official test scores. You can do this through the College Board and ACT Student websites for SAT and ACT respectively.

For GRE preperation see this article

Do Early Admission Interviews

When it comes to early admissions interviews, stay confident and relaxed. Some early action/decision schools conduct interviews in the fall. 

Remember, you’ve already prepared by doing your research, so these interviews are more about having a friendly conversation than stressing out.

Winter (December to February)

Exam season has commenced. Now’s the time to retake any tests you might have done poorly in and polish your grades. 

Take the SAT Subject Tests

If certain colleges require SAT Subject Tests, it’s a good idea to take them right after you’ve finished the related class in the fall. This way, the material is still retained in your memory, and you’ll be well-prepared.

Responses from Your Early Applications

If you have applied early to your target colleges, you can expect to hear back by December regarding your admission. 

In case you’ve also submitted your financial aid forms on time, you should receive an estimated financial aid package around the same time.

Submit Enrollment Deposit (Early Decision)

You might have to submit an enrollment deposit in the winter of your senior year if you filed for early decision and the financial aid offer from the school seems favorable. 

Don’t be afraid to contact the school and inquire about the potential of a fee waiver if the expense of the deposit worries you.

Submit Applications for Regular Decision Schools

For regular decision applications, most institutions have deadlines between January 1st and March 1st of each year.

Here are the common documents that colleges require for Regular Decision applications:

  • Application Form
  • Academic Transcripts
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Essays or Personal Statements
  • Application Fee or Fee Waiver
  • Additional Materials Supplementary Documents (ex. Art portfolio, writing samples, etc.)
  • Financial Aid Forms
  • Interviews

Send out Your SAT/ACT Score Reports

Don’t forget to send your official SAT and ACT score reports to the regular decision schools you’re applying to. Along with your application forms, letters of recommendation, essays, and other required materials, these schools will also need your official test scores. You can do this through the College Board (for SAT) and ACT Student (for ACT) websites.

Do Your Regular Decision Interviews

When it comes to regular decision interviews, approach them with confidence. Some regular decision schools conduct interviews in the winter. Remember, you’ve already prepared by sitting for other interviews and doing your research, so these interviews are more about having a relaxed conversation than stressing out.

Submit Your FAFSA

Complete and send in your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s the primary factor for federal financial aid, and you can start submitting it after October 1st of your senior year. 

Many schools prioritize early financial aid applications, so it’s beneficial to submit yours as soon as possible.

Submit Your CSS Profile

Don’t forget to complete and submit the CSS profile or any other school-specific financial aid forms that some colleges may require in addition to the FAFSA. These forms help determine your eligibility for financial aid at certain institutions. 

Again, sending in these forms will make you more eligible for aid as some schools allocate aid on a first-come, first-served basis.

Spring (March to May)

In spring, busy yourself with all the documents you’ll need for application, registration, financial aid, and scholarships. 

To avoid last-minute stress and potential hurdles, it’s advisable to process all required paperwork well in advance of college entry 

Revise FAFSA and CSS Profiles

Now’s the time to update your FAFSA and CSS profile applications with the latest information from your tax returns if you initially estimated your financial details. 

Keeping these forms up-to-date with accurate information is essential for determining your financial aid eligibility accurately.

Send in Tax Transcripts

If requested, be sure to provide tax transcripts for verification to certain colleges. It’s a necessary step to ensure the accuracy of your financial information. 

This can involve sending copies of your or your parents’ tax transcripts to the college that has asked for them.

Response from Regular Decision Applications

For regular decision applications, you can expect to receive your admission decision, which can be an acceptance, rejection, or waitlist, typically in March or April.

Compare Financial Aid Packages

After you’ve been accepted, colleges will provide you with a financial aid package. This package typically includes loans, work and study options, and grants. 

It’s crucial to compare these financial aid packages side-by-side with other target colleges to determine which one best suits your financial needs and circumstances.

Apply for Financial Aid Appeal

In case your family’s financial situation has changed or if a college’s financial aid package doesn’t meet your needs, don’t hesitate to reach out to the college’s financial aid office to discuss a financial aid appeal. 

It’s crucial to do this as soon as possible to explore potential adjustments to your aid package based on your updated circumstances.

The documents you need are:

  • Financial Aid Appeal Letter
  • Supporting Documents (ex. Recent tax returns, documents of unusual expenses, job loss or income reduction documents, changes in family situation, medical records, death certificates, etc.)
  • Appeal Form
  • Contact Information
  • Deadline Information
  • Professional Judgment
  • Additional Letters of Support

Submit an Enrollment Deposit (Regular Decision)

To secure your spot at a college after receiving a regular decision acceptance, you’ll usually need to submit an enrollment deposit. This deadline is typically around May 1st. 

If you’re concerned about the cost of the deposit, I recommend reaching out to the school and inquire about the possibility of obtaining a fee waiver.

Sit for AP Exams

Don’t forget to prepare for and take your AP Exams. These exams, offered every May, offer you a chance to earn college credit and showcase your knowledge in advanced subjects.

Summer (June to August)

You’ve made it through high school! Congrats! 

This is your last summer before college starts, so make sure well-prepared for the years ahead by knowing all the necessary details about studying at your target college. 

Complete Enrollment

After you’ve made your finalized decision on which target college to pursue, stay organized by keeping up with any enrollment paperwork and requirements. 

The college will send you updates regarding scheduling, housing, orientation, and other important details. To guarantee a seamless and trouble-free transition into your college life, make sure to finish all required documentation by the dates listed.

Following these steps can help prepare you for your college years. Good luck!

Full Route Map Through Out the Years

Throughout Your Highschool Years, You Should:

  • Find and Take Part in Extracurricular Activities: Being engaged in extracurricular activities your freshman year is an excellent method to identify your strong suits. As time passes, you can invest more time into the activities you’re good at to sharpen your skills. 
  • Keep Your Grades Up: Does this even need to be said? Your grades are a significant component of your academic profile. They will determine your future studies as a whole. So, if you want to ensure your college application is worth consideration, you need to prioritize your grades the most!
  • Take Part in Volunteering and Part-Time Jobs: When I was in highschool, I used to take up a new job every summer to explore different career fields. Whether it be dog-walking, cashiering, or even mowing the lawn for my neighbors, each job opened my perspective of life while also giving me the opportunity to save up for college! Aside from jobs, you should also take part in volunteering in community service to polish up your application. 
  • Seek Help from All Sources: You’ll be surprised to know how many people around you can give you highly beneficial advice. Sit down with your parents, family members, friends, teachers, or your guidance counselor and talk to them about your plans for college and your career goals. Take heed of their advice and learn from their own experiences with college.
  • Save Up Each and Every Penny: By the time 11th grade rolls in, you’re going to be scampering around to get your fees together. So, it’s best to be responsible with your spending beforehand and save up as early as possible. Discussing financial plans with someone knowledgeable, such as parents, guardians, or financial advisors, can be beneficial. For instance, my parents set up a savings account for me so that I could put my earnings into it for tuition. 
  • Plan It All Out: Take out your calendar and carefully mark the important dates of your college application process as well as the necessary steps to take before. Note down the colleges you wish to apply to, their requirements and tuition fees, the best time to apply, etc. 

From Freshman to Junior Year, You Should:

  • Prepare for the SATs: Starting your SAT prep in junior year can give you a head start, as many students tend to begin later. So, get ahead by taking full length practice exams of your SATs and/or ACTs and track your results to find your weaknesses and strengths. 
  • Research Colleges: To learn more about your options, browse the web, speak with college representatives, attend college fairs, and have a conversation with friends and relatives who have graduated or are now enrolled in college. Even before I started my junior year, I had my sights set on the college of my dreams, so finishing high school came extremely easily to me since I knew what I needed to do to get there. Aside from asking around, I recommend visiting the college campuses during study break in the fall to understand the environment of the college. It’s essential to consider both the academic and community aspects of a college before making a final decision.
  • Make Adjustments to Your Target Colleges: Remember that list of colleges you made at the very beginning of junior year? After you’ve sat for a few tests, it’s good to go back to these targets and make adjustments. Assess your grades so far, then categorize each of your options into “Most Probable” to “Safety Schools”. Also, keep a look out for traditional scholarships that are offered to senior year students. 
  • Take Your SATs/ACTs: If you are not satisfied with your results from the first time, you can take your SATs/ACTs again in the spring. 
  • Re-Take the SAT Subject Tests: Again, you’ll have another chance to improve your results by taking the subject tests for your relevant classes in the spring. Try to take them when you’re confident that you have improved. 
  • Visit Target College Campuses: With the spare time on your hands during the summer, make use of it by taking a tour of your target colleges. Visit the centers, dormitories, classes, etc. and don’t be afraid to ask teachers and staff questions. Some colleges even offer tour times and Q&A sessions for interested students, so check out their official websites for more info. 
  • Plan out Application Deadline for Target Colleges: Early decision and early action applications are usually due in November of senior year. For regular admissions, you’ll typically need to submit your applications between the beginning of January and March. Make use of the Common App, which is accessible in early August and helps by putting all these deadlines in one place for you to see and manage.

From Senior Year to Graduation, You Should: 

  • Take the SAT/ACT: If you want to retake your first or second SAT/ACT tests, this is the perfect time to do it. Consider retaking the tests if you feel you’ve made significant improvements. Be mindful of costs and potential fee waivers. In case you’re worried about a potential loss, you can request your guidance counselor for a fee waiver. 
  • Review Your Application Essays: Sit down with a competent teacher and have them look over your essays with you. Take note of your areas to improve and make corrections according to the feedback they give you. Before application deadlines roll in, prepare a final draft. 
  • Prepare Recommendation Letters: If you haven’t done it earlier, give your recommenders your list of reasons why you believe you’ve excelled in their classes and the necessary documents needed for your recommendation letter. 
  • Gather Your Documents: Alongside your recommendation letters, make sure you have other necessary materials such as test score history, essays, forms, etc. that are needed for application. Have your guidance counselor look over your documents to see if you have everything covered.
  • Take Loans (If Needed): If you find that scholarships, work and study options and grants don’t fully cover the costs, it’s common to consider loans as a way to bridge the gap. Subsidized federal loans, such as Stafford loans (now commonly referred to as Direct Loans) and Perkins loans, often offer favorable terms and are worth considering. However, remember to weigh your options carefully and only borrow what you truly need to minimize future debt burdens.
  • Work and Study Options (If Needed): Exploring work-study opportunities offered by your college is good if you think other options might not bridge any possible financial gaps. You can express your interest in work-study by mentioning it on your FAFSA and by getting in touch with your college’s financial aid office. Work-study programs can help you pay for your school expenditures while also giving you useful job experience.
  • Start Looking for Jobs: If you’re interested in a work-study program, speak with the financial aid office of your school to discover more about your options. It’s a good idea to start your job hunt either in the early fall of your freshman year or throughout the summer before you start college. You’ll have plenty of time to select a work-study position that complements your schedule and financial condition.

Final Thoughts

By understanding and integrating insights from this guide, you can bolster your confidence as you navigate the college application process. 

Prioritize finding a college that aligns with your academic and personal growth goals, rather than focusing solely on acceptance. 

As you start your college career, keep organized, be loyal to yourself, and enjoy the experience that is ahead.

Emily Watson
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