The college application process is long and involved, and it seems like every year, students start preparing for college earlier and earlier. But when should you actually start applying for college? Where should you start? There’s a lot to be done! Luckily for you, we’ve here to help. Keeping in mind that everyone’s approach is unique, here’s a rough college application timeline to help you plan perfectly and have as stress-free a college application process as possible.
Testing: Spring of Junior year
Like it or not, one of the first steps you’ll take toward completing your college application is taking standardized tests. It’s hard to miss these, as most schools will host tests for all their juniors and seniors and most of your class will be participating. Depending on which region you are applying from, the SAT or the ACT may be the more popular option, and many students choose to take both so that they can pick their best result. While there are testing dates as early as fall and winter of junior year, make sure that you have registered for the test taking place in the spring of your junior year. That way, if test day goes poorly, you can always fit one more try in during the fall. However, you don’t want to be sitting for these exams for the very first time in the fall.
Choosing your schools: Spring – Summer
Maybe you’ve known since you were an eager eighth grader what colleges or universities you want to attend, or maybe you don’t have a clue where you want to end up. At this point in the process, it doesn’t really matter how much you know about universities. You need to invest some time formulating an application strategy before you can make informed decisions. Sit down with a college counsellor or admissions consultant—failing that, anyone who can act as a reasonable sounding board—and talk through what you want out of the college experience. Are you looking for an institution with some serious research heft, or somewhere renowned for its liberal arts curriculum? Do you want an urban setting, or are you looking for that idyllic, small town college experience? Figure out what you are looking for before you dive into research on specific schools.
The research process should be one of the most fun steps in the college application! This is where you get to dream: browse college websites, blogs, watch virtual tours, and imagine yourself on campus. Where do you fit in? What gets you really excited about college? Once you have a healthy-size list of options, it’s time to make some strategic choices.
You should aim to apply to no more than 10 schools—any more than that and you’ll be stretching yourself pretty thin during the application process. We think about seven is the magic number. In addition, your school choices should break down into three categories based on your estimated odds of securing admission: reach, match and safety. You should have 2-3 schools in each category. Making a list that matches both your personal criteria and a realistic admissions strategy is not easy. That is exactly why we recommend that you start working on this by the spring of your junior year, and have it nailed down by early summer. The list may change as you go—maybe you’ll find you’ve overlooked a school you simply must apply to, or you might decide to toss one or two from the list—but if you start with a strong list by early summer, you’re right on track.
Essay writing: the earlier, the better!
There’s almost no such thing as “too early to write my application essays.” Especially when it comes to the Common Application. It’s all but certain that most, if not all, of the schools you will be applying to will take the Common App, so you may as well get started on this as early as you can. We think the best time to start writing your application essays is early summer, immediately after you have your school list set.
Give yourself a week or so once school is out to put your feet up and turn your brain off—and maybe even get outside! Then start setting aside some time each week to work on your essay. The Common App essay is the core of the creative part of your application—and we won’t lie to you, it’s high stakes. It’s extremely difficult to write a unique, personal and effective essay; an essay that not only conveys an interest or aspect of your personality, but contains your unique voice and captures some “essence,” all while charming the socks off an Admissions Committee that will read thousands of essays. If that doesn’t convince you that you should get an early jump on this essay, we don’t know what will!
Aim to have your Common App essays done before the first day of senior year—trust us, it will feel great starting the year with a major piece of your college application ticked off. If you want to go above and beyond, you can even get a jump on your supplemental essays, doing them in order of the schools’ deadlines.
Early Action deadlines
Early action deadlines tend to fall in the first half of November, with the occasional cheeky October deadline. Make sure that you have confirmed the deadlines for each of your schools on that school’s official website. While blogs or articles that compile deadlines can be useful for a quick reference, your college app is too high stakes to let someone else’s poor research be your downfall. You should typically only be applying to your top choice school on an early action or decision deadline, depending on how committed you are to attending that school (make sure you know the rules of early action—usually nonbinding—and early decision—binding). You may choose to apply to one other school if both are at the top of your list, but check each college’s rules about this, too—some don’t allow you to apply for another school early action if you are submitting an early action application to them (Harvard, for example, has this rule).
Regular Decision deadlines
There is more variety in regular decision deadlines, but typically they fall around the New Year—Jan.1. Some are a few days or a couple weeks later, and a few exceptions fall much earlier (the University of California network of schools has a regular decision deadline of Nov. 30), or much later, in February or March. Just as you did with your early action and early decision deadlines, confirm the application due dates on each school’s website. We suggest compiling these deadlines in one, easy-to-reference place—your digital calendar, a good old-fashioned planner, or even a list posted on your refrigerator.
Once you know your deadlines, begin writing your supplements for each school at least a month before they are due. Supplemental essay questions are often unique, or downright odd, so it is worth giving yourself plenty of time to get familiar with the question, think about what that school is really asking you, and ruminate on how you can best represent your unique and true self and answer the question effectively. Once you’ve given yourself time to think it over, then outline and draft your responses and set it aside. Work on something else for a while—that history project or Spanish presentation, or maybe even some application forms, and come back to your essay a few days later, with fresh eyes. Finally, always make sure you’ve given each piece of the application a final read-through and polish before submitting. You shouldn’t be typing out your last sentence at 11:59pm the day your application is due!
Recommendations: Spring Junior year – Fall Senior Year
You’ve probably heard this from teachers, college counsellors, and maybe even your parents, but you cannot leave the recommendations last. Whether you are putting this off because you aren’t sure who to ask, how to ask, or simply because it seems like a straightforward task you can take care of later, you will be doing your application a major disservice if you don’t ask for recommendation as early as you can. Consider that teachers write your recommendations on top of their regular teaching and prep responsibilities, alongside whatever else is going on in their lives (yes, teachers have personal lives, too), and often for dozens of students. Do you really want your recommendation falling to the bottom of the list and getting the last-minute rush treatment because you failed to ask early?
To the extent possible, ask your chosen recommenders to write a recommendation for you in the spring of your junior year. If there is a teacher—perhaps someone whose classroom you’ve been in for multiple years, or a teacher you particularly connected with during junior year—that you know you’ll want a recommendation from, giving them the full summer and fall to work on your recommendation is not just considerate, but advantageous to your app. If you need some time to consider who you might want a recommendation from, you can still reach out during the summer—while they may disappear for a few months, teachers are still teachers even over the summer. Send a polite email with your request, and they’ll usually appreciate that you are starting the process early and giving them plenty of time to turn around the recommendation letter.
In some cases, you may need to wait until the fall to request a recommendation. Making sure you’ve asked everyone by Oct. 1 is a good rule—if that feels impossible with a specific recommender, you should seriously consider choosing a different person.
Application Forms—don’t leave these for the last minute!
While this might seem like a straightforward step you can save for last, the forms and short-form questions that accompany your applications are often far from straightforward. They won’t require the kind of creative energy, time and revision that your essays will take, but these should not get the last-minute rush job. There’s more to them than you might think! In addition to the usual form-filling, there are sections on your interests and plans for the future, your extracurricular activities, and more. Oftentimes these questions are nested on digital forms where new questions sprout up with each response, so you won’t know how long this task will take until you sit down and start doing it. You need to put time into filling this out carefully—a sloppy, rushed job on the Common Application forms or on supplementary forms for a college will paint a poor picture. We suggest working on your application forms during those times you have set aside during the Fall of your Senior year to work on apps, but when you don’t quite have the creative energy or inspiration needed to work on your essays. Make sure everything gets a final review, and ideally a second pair of eyes, before you submit.
Financial Aid—Late Fall
Once you have your applications under way, you should begin thinking about financial aid. Make sure you know the deal for each school you are applying to, and when the FAFSA is released in the beginning of October, get started on it. You will want to be well on your way in this process by the time you are sending in your final applications in early January.
No doubt, the college application process is a long and complex one—you need to begin thinking about and planning for this process well before your senior year rolls around. That said, if you plan carefully and work ahead, this can be a relatively stress-free process. Who knows, you may even enjoy parts of it—this is a great opportunity to think carefully about what you want out of the next four years of your life and get excited about this next big step!