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Making a College Application Timeline That Works For You

July 16, 2019 :: Admissionado

The college application journey is like a snowflake—no two are exactly alike.

It can be easy to get caught up in comparing where you are in the process with your classmates. Don’t! That’s a good way to drive yourself crazy. The important thing is to create an application timeline that works for you—after all, you know yourself and what will work for you best. Of course, there are certain milestones that you should keep in the back of your mind.


College entrance exams play a vital role in the admissions process. The SAT is offered in March, May, June, August, October, November and December. The ACT is offered in February, April, June, July, September, October and December. Basically, you’ve got options folks. Some students choose to take the test during the spring of their junior year. However, most wait to take the test until the fall of senior year. Some do both. Whatever you decide, the last date that you can take the test is December of your senior year. It’s also important to remember that you must register for the test a month in advance! Look up your local testing centers, the dates of the test, and when and how to register well in advance.

Suggested Timeline

Every student tests differently, but we suggest students take the SAT or ACT for the first time by October, at the latest. This allows you the option to retake the test in November and December if you are unhappy with your scores. For those who are really on top of things, take the test in the spring of your junior year, so you have time to adequately prepare for a re-take, if you decide you would like to take it again.

Selecting Schools

This is the critical first step and believe it or not there is a strategy—one could even call it a “formula”—behind selecting the schools you apply to. Here at Admissionado, we suggest that students apply to 6-10 colleges. Given the increasing number of applicants each year, this gives you the best shot at having a range of options when making your final decision. When organizing your list, be sure to include schools that fit into the following three categories: “safety,” “target,” and “reach.”

Safety schools are those that you have an above average chance of acceptance (let’s say 90%-100%). Your GPA should fall well above the school’s average and your SAT scores should be 100-300 points higher than the average accepted student. We suggest having 2-3 safety schools on your final list. While these should be schools you like and would gladly go to, these are your fallback options (did you get that from the name?).

Next up, we want to find 3-5 target schools. These are schools that you have a solid shot at getting into—they are solidly in your range. Your GPA, test scores and overall profile should match with students that have previously been accepted. These will be a step up from your safety schools, and you should feel both pretty solid about your chances and about the possibility of attending.

Finally, your reach schools. These are the schools that may be a bit “out of your league,” but where you still stand a chance to woo the admissions committee. You should feel that tug in your stomach for these schools—these are the “dream” schools. We suggest students apply to 2-3 reach schools, and while you’ll put your all into the applications, recognize that these are “reaches” and that you may be disappointed.

Suggested Timeline

We strongly urge students to complete their school selection August-September during senior year. You should have had a chance to visit most of the schools you are interested in during the spring or early fall at the latest, and if you simply aren’t able to vist in person, do your research online and through contacts at your schools of interest.

Letters of Recommendation

Writing a letter of recommendation is an incredibly personal task and you want to make sure your recommender has enough time to create a truly glowing picture of you. Many teachers will place a cap on the number of letters they write each year. Asking early is your best shot at making their list. Beyond that, remember that you are asking someone for a favor here: we strongly suggest that you ask your recommender not only with plenty of time to spare, but in-person and very politely.

You’ll want to choose someone you have a good relationship with already, so this request shouldn’t come as a total shock. In fact, often, this can be a very nice way to acknowledge a coach or teacher who has had a significant positive impact on your life, and they will appreciate that recognition.

Suggested Timeline

You can begin asking for a letter as early as September your senior year, but no later than one month before they are due. You should check in with your recommender a month before the due date and don’t forget to send them a thank you note once they’ve submitted!

Completing Your Applications

Ok time to get down to business! First, it’s important to figure out which schools accept the Common App, Universal College Application, Coalition Application, and which have their own unique app. It can seem daunting, but the writing prompts in each application can be similar in scope, which means more often than not you can recycle bits and pieces. This will save you precious time and make the whole process less stressful. Get organized so you know which school wants which kind of application from you, and then it’s all about putting in the hours, my friend. Spend the time writing, re-writing, asking others to read your essays for you, revising, and carefully completing any additional forms the school asks for.

Suggested Timeline

The Common App goes live in August, but that doesn’t mean you need to complete your application before school starts! The deadline for regular decision applications is generally between January 1 and February 1, but those of you applying early will have deadline between November 1 and November 15.

We suggest having a final-ish draft completed at least one month before your deadline so that you have enough time to polish everything up. Be sure to take advantage of the resources offered at your school! Your college counselor can help in the brainstorming, writing and editing process. Most importantly, start early. Quality work comes with time.


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is released on October 1st. If you plan on applying for federal financial aid, it’s important to complete and submit your FAFSA by the earliest financial aid deadline of the school you are applying to. Completing your FAFSA can be time consuming and requires financial documents from your parents or legal guardian.

Suggested Timeline

Given the complexity that this task can become mired in, we suggest getting an early start. Generally, a school will accept your FAFSA no earlier than February, but don’t leave this step until the last minute!

Making a Decision

Decision notifications will begin rolling out in March and April. This can be an incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing time. Remember to breath! If you did the work and followed your personal timeline then you will wind up attending an amazing school that will be lucky to count you as a student!

At Admissionado, we have one simple, unshakable, fundamental rule. Let’s call it the Admissionado Golden Rule: go to the best darn school you get into. If that means Harvard, congratulations! If your best school is a local community college, that’s awesome too! Whatever your results, give yourself a pat on the back: you ran the marathon, made it through the gauntlet, walked the tight-rope—the college application process is no easy task, and you deserve kudos for reaching the finish line.


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