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Timeline for College Applications

Navigating the College Application Timeline – A Comprehensive Guide

College journey is exciting and transformative. I resumed my college years timid and unexpectant; nonetheless, I graduated with lifelong knowledge and relationships. 

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

I have provided a comprehensive overview of college life, highlighting what to do (and what not to do) to ensure you don’t sink this monumental voyage.

Navigating the college application timeline is critical, and a thorough understanding of it can help you stay organized and increase your chances of successful admission. 

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

Freshman Year: Starting Early

In your freshman year of high school, build relationships with teachers and counselors, take AP classes, create an effective schedule, understand 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.

In details:

Enroll in College-Preparatory Classes

Most high schoolers enter college naively and are overwhelmed by their subjects and advanced materials. 

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

Focus on the fundamental fields of study, such as Mathematics, Science, English, and History. These classes make college easier and boost your chances of acceptance.

Sophomore and Junior Years: Preparing for the Journey Ahead

You can prepare for college in your sophomore and junior years by taking courses, attending career fairs, seeking mentorship, researching colleges, and getting ready for standardized tests including the PSAT/NMSQT. Furthermore, explore scholarship opportunities, visit campuses, and consider top programs in your desired major.

Fall (September–November)

The college application process follows a well-defined schedule, with specific deadlines for submitting materials. 

Take Standardized Tests

As a junior student, practice standardized tests, such as the PSAT, to prepare for critical exams (including the SAT) that will be required for your applications.

Use PSAT practice test to prepare for your SAT exams

You can assess other practice exams including those provided by Khan Academy, and even ask your guidance counselor for beneficial resources

Winter (December-February)

Your freshman year winter will center around SATs.

Ensure to revise extensively, and give your best. Some students deliberately avoid studying because they plan to retake the tests another season. You will save a lot of time and money (SAT registrations cost approximately $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. Don’t worry if you get disappointing results; it happens to everyone in their initial attempt. 

Identify your mistakes and improve on them. Subsequently, you’ll notice a much better outcome by the time you sit for the test again in spring or fall. 

Take the SAT Subject Tests

Some colleges may require grades from SAT subject tests. Ensure to take the examination immediately after classes while you still have most of the subject material retained, and the results will surpass your expectations.

College applicants should begin preparing their early decision/early action or rolling admission applications as soon as possible. Colleges may require test scores and applications to be submitted between November 1 November 15 for early decision admission.

Applicants should request letters of recommendation from counselors or teachers if needed.

Spring (March-May)

In spring, the final phase of exam season commences before the summer break. Again, make every effort to achieve desirable outcomes. 

Take the AP Exams

In May of each year, the AP exams commence, which provides an incredible opportunity to earn additional credit toward admission to your target colleges. 

Summer (June–August) 

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

Use this time to draft applications, set financial aid plans, research, and prepare for interviews. To draft applications for both admission and financial aid, consult your student guidance counselor for help. 

Draft Your College Application Essay

It’s best to draft your application essay as soon as you can to allow for additional time on studies and exams in your senior year. 

Start the initial draft in the summer of your junior year, and subsequently revise and improve it throughout your senior year. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this!

Prepare for Interviews

Research your desired colleges and check for those that offer optional interviews. Perform an exhaustive analysis of their requirements. Thereafter, conduct a simulated interview with a teacher, friend, or family member, and ensure to document their feedback. 

Prepare Your Recommendation Letters

During the summer break, 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, Mathematics, and English. 

Next, give your teachers a summarized list of reasons why you chose them as your recommenders and your perception of your performance in their courses. 

Sort out a Financial Aid Plan

Sit with your family to discuss your financial aid plan for college. Tuition payments can be challenging, and although numerous reasons exist for students dropping out, having a well-thought-out financial strategy can help mitigate financial constraints. 

Therefore, utilize resources such as net price calculators on the websites of prospective colleges and outline all the deadlines you have to meet. 

When applying for financial aid, 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

Start your scholarship applications early and continue throughout the school year. 

Many seniors apply for a wide range of scholarships (over 30 in some cases) to maximize their 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. 

Documents needed for scholarships vary according to the college and scholarship provider. However, these documents are commonly required:

  • 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 (including Proof of residency and citizenship status)

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; nevertheless, 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 for the next phase of your educational journey.

Fall (September–November)

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

Therefore, it is essential to have drafts of all the requirements needed to submit applications to your target colleges readily available. Retake any tests that you might be dissatisfied with, apply for financial aid, and gather necessary profiles and portfolios. You have no more time to waste!

Submit Early Decision and Action Applications

Consider sending in an early decision application if you’re certain about a specific college. These are typically due in November and you commit to attending the designated college if accepted. 

You’ll get an early decision with early action schools; however, you can wait until the regular decision deposit deadline to make your final decision.

Typically, you need the following 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

You might need to submit the CSS profile in fall if you’re applying early to certain schools, even though you can not fill out the FAFSA(Free Application for Federal Student Aid) until after October 1. Keep this in mind for early applications.

Submit SAT/ACT Score Reports

Send your official SAT and/or ACT score reports together with your application forms, letters of recommendation, essays, and other required documents to the early application schools of your interest

. You can do this through the College Board and ACT Student websites for SAT and ACT, respectively.

Do Early Admission Interviews

Stay confident and relaxed for your early admissions interviews. Some early action/decision schools conduct interviews in the fall. 

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

Winter (December–February)

Exam season has commenced. Now is the time to retake any tests you might have performed poorly and polish your grades. 

Take the SAT Subject Tests

It is a good idea to take SAT subject tests right after you’ve finished the related class during the fall if required by prospective colleges. This way, the material is still fresh in your memory, and you’ll be well-prepared.

Responses from Your Early Applications

Expect feedback by December regarding your admission if you have applied early to your target colleges. 

Similarly, you should receive an estimated financial aid package around the same time if your financial aid forms were submitted early.

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. 

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 1 and March 1 of each year.

Early decision deadlines mean applying to a college earlier and getting an admission decision around December. Unlike regular application, you’re bound to attend if admitted.

Some colleges offer a second early decision deadline in December/January. Compared to early action, both have earlier deadlines and decisions, but early decision is binding, while early action is not.

Here are the common college application materials needed for high school students:

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

Send Your SAT/ACT Score Reports

Forward your official SAT and ACT score report along with your application forms, letters of recommendation, essays, and other required materials to the regular decision schools you’re applying to. These schools will also need your official test scores. You can send them using the College Board (for SAT) and ACT Student (for ACT) websites.

Do Your Regular Decision Interviews

Approach your regular decision interviews with confidence. Some regular decision schools conduct interviews in the winter. Remember, you’ve already prepared by sitting for other interviews and conducting research hence, approach them with a sense of ease and not apprehension.

Submit Your FAFSA

Complete and send in your FAFSA. It’s crucial for federal financial aid, and you can start submitting it after October 1 during your senior year. 

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

Submit Your CSS Profile

Complete and submit the CSS profile or any other school-specific financial aid forms in addition to the FAFSA. These forms help determine your eligibility for financial aid at certain institutions. 

Again, submitting these forms makes you more eligible for aid as some schools allocate aid on a first-come, first-served basis.

Spring (March-May)

In spring, gather 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

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.

Send in Tax Transcripts

Provide your tax transcripts for verification if requested. Ensure the accuracy of your financial information. 

To do this, you need to send copies of your tax transcripts or those of your parents to the college that has asked for them.

Response from Regular Decision Applications

For regular decision applications, 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 includes loans, work and study options, and grants. 

Compare these financial aid packages with those of other target colleges to determine which one best suits your financial needs.

Apply for Financial Aid Appeal

Don’t hesitate to reach out to the college’s financial aid office to discuss a 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. 

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

You need these documents:

  • Financial Aid Appeal Letter
  • Supporting Documents (including recent tax returns, documents of unusual expenses, job loss or income reduction documents, changes in family finances, medical records, and death certificates)
  • 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, submit your enrollment deposit. The deadline for submission is typically on or before May 1. 

Contact the school and inquire about the possibility of obtaining a fee waiver if you’re concerned about the cost of the deposit.

Sit for AP Exams

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–August)

You’ve made it through high school! Congrats! 

This is your last summer before college starts; therefore, ensure you are well-prepared for the years ahead by familiarizing yourself with every aspect of your chosen college

Complete Enrollment

After you’ve finalized the 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, ensure to complete all required documentation before deadlines.

Following the aforementioned steps can help prepare you for college years. Good luck!

Full Route Map Throughout the Years

Throughout Your Highschool Years:

  • Find and Participate in Extracurricular Activities: Being engaged in extracurricular activities during your freshman year is an excellent method to identify your strengths. As time passes, you can invest more time into the activities you’re good at to develop 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. Therefore, prioritize your grades if you want to ensure your college application is worth consideration.
  • Take Part in Volunteering and Part-Time Jobs: 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 has the potential to change your perspective about life while also giving you the opportunity to save up for college! In addition, volunteer for community services 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 guidance counselor and talk to them about your plans for college and 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. Thus, be responsible with your spending 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: Carefully mark the important dates of your college application process on your calendar and highlight the necessary steps to take beforehand. Identify your preferred colleges, their requirements and tuition, and the best time to apply. 

From Your Freshman Year to Junior Year:

  • Prepare for the SATs: Starting your SAT preparation in junior year can give you a head start, as many students tend to begin later. Therefore, get ahead by taking full length practice exams of your SATs and/or ACTs and track your results to highlight your weaknesses and strengths. 
  • Research Colleges: To learn more about your options, browse the web, speak with college representatives, attend college fairs, and interact with friends and relatives who have graduated or are now enrolled in college. Aside from asking around, visit the college campuses during study break in the fall to understand the environment. 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 and categorize each of your options from “Most Probable” to “Safety Schools”. Furthermore, search for traditional scholarships that are offered to senior year students. 
  • Take Your SATs/ACTs: You can take the SATs/ACTs again during spring if you are not satisfied with the initial results. 
  • Re-Take the SAT Subject Tests: Again, you’ll have another chance to improve your results by taking the SAT subject tests of relevant classes during spring. Sit for them when you’re confident that you have improved. 
  • Visit Target College Campuses: Use your spare time during summer to tour your target colleges. Visit the centers, dormitories, and classes, and feel free to ask teachers and staff questions. Some colleges even offer tour times and Q&A sessions for interested students; you can check out their official websites for more information. 
  • Plan out Application Deadline for Target Colleges: Early decision and 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 to keep track of these deadlines.

From Your Senior Year to Graduation: 

  • Take the SAT/ACT: This is the perfect time to take your first or second SAT/ACT tests. 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 review your essays. Take note of the areas where you need to improve and make corrections based on the feedback. Prepare a final draft before application deadlines. 
  • Prepare Recommendation Letters: Give your recommenders the list of reasons why you believe you’ve excelled in their classes and the necessary documents needed for your recommendation letter if you haven’t done it earlier. 
  • Gather Your Documents: Ensure you have other materials, such as test score history, essays, and forms, that are needed for application. Have your guidance counselor check your documents to confirm if they are complete.
  • Take Loans (If Needed): You can consider loans as a way to bridge the financial gap if scholarships, work and study options, or grants don’t fully cover the costs. 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,  to minimize future debt burdens, borrow only what you need.
  • Explore Work and Study Options (If Needed): Take advantage of work-study opportunities offered by your college if you think other options might not bridge any possible financial gaps. Express your interest in work-study by mentioning it on your FAFSA and contacting your college’s financial aid office. Work-study programs can shoulder your school expenditures while also giving you useful job experience.
  • Start Looking for Jobs: Speak with your school’s financial aid office if you’re interested in a work-study program 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 resume college. You’ll have plenty of time to select a work-study position that complements your schedule and finances

Final Thoughts on College Application Deadlines

This guide will help you feel more confident as you navigate the college application process through appropriate use of the details therein.

Furthermore, prioritize applications to colleges that align with your academic and personal goals, rather than focusing solely on acceptance. 

As you begin your time in college, remember to stay prepared, be loyal to yourself, and enjoy the experience. Buckle up!

Emily Watson
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