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The Four-Year College Application Process Timeline

January 10, 2024 :: Admissionado Team


The college application process is shifting from a cross-sectional model to a longitudinal model. This means that college applications must now tell the four-year story of the high school student, rather than capture a snapshot of the student as they are at the beginning of their senior year.

“The early bird gets the worm,” as the saying goes. This is especially true for the college admissions process. Just as shoppers on Black Friday strategize for the best deals, students need to plan ahead to secure their spot in top colleges. The competition is fierce, but by starting early, you can strengthen your application and stand out. With so much information and advice out there, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. This guide will help you navigate the process, providing practical steps to prepare for college admissions long before you fill out that first application form.

What this means:

  • The road to college starts in the 9th grade, rather than the 11th.
  • Students now have the opportunity to show growth over time.
  • 11th grade becomes less of a “make-or-break” year.
  • Students can be more intentional about the areas of study and types of activities they explore.
  • Students are allowed to fail and make mistakes along the way — because they have the opportunity to show how they have learned and worked through those mistakes.
  • Students can dive deeper into their interests to show colleges their dedication to their studies and activities over time.
  • Students can position themselves to stand out by taking paths less traveled throughout high school.

What this does NOT mean:

  • Parents should put more pressure on their children at the beginning of high school.
    • Explanation: Families ultimately will decide how to implement this new model and adding additional pressure will create counterproductive student stress. If anything, this new model should lessen the make-or-break nature of junior year, and spread that importance more evenly over a much longer, more meaningful timeframe.
  • Students should shy away from risks at any point in their high-school career.
    • Explanation: Trial and failure are well understood traits of life’s most successful individuals and the lack of an appetite for risk may expose a student as being uninspired, out to please, and driven by external – not internal – motivators.

The Four-Year Timeline

When you’re in elementary school or junior high, of course, you want to do well and have a great academic record, but it doesn’t REALLY matter until you start high school. From Day 1, your actions will have an impact on your chances of getting into the best colleges out there, so it’s time to get serious.

Freshman Year: Start Challenging Yourself

If you haven’t been serious about your grades yet, NOW is the time to start studying. If you come into your first year a great student, chances are you’ve placed in advanced placement classes, which already gets your application track off to an awesome start.

So, what should you do? Start taking challenging classes. If you have a choice between a regular level class that you’ll ace or an advanced class in which you might only get a B, take the advanced class. This is also the time to start looking into activities that excite you – clubs and sports that you can really commit to over time. This isn’t just about filling in some profile that’ll look good to a college, this is about becoming a well-rounded person, which benefits both you AND your prospective college.

Sophomore Year: Find a Balance

You’re a year in, now it’s time to set your balance. Your first year you were feeling out the challenges, now you’re growing to manage them. Don’t overwhelm yourself with overly difficult or time-consuming classes or activities, as you’ll burn out quickly. At the same time, don’t make things too easy on yourself, otherwise you won’t be prepared for the challenges ahead. It’s about equilibrium, dude.

This is also where you’re going to learn the value of quality over quantity. What’s that mean? Well, it means being getting more involved in a few clubs instead of showing up twice a year to 15 clubs. It also means that you’ll start looking into taking more responsibilities in those activities – maybe become a leader? Academically, quality means building relationships with your teachers and starting to look into colleges. Talk to alumni at different schools, start looking into standardized test prep, and (if you’re not a native English speaker) start working on your conversational English. That said, it’s WAY too early to start applying. Hold your horses, buckaroo.

Junior Year: The “Most Important” Year

Believe it or not, THIS is your most important year of high school. This is the year that college adcoms look at most closely, not only to see that you’ve been steadily improving and growing over the years, but because this is when you’re going to start taking AP classes and potentially accruing that ever-so-precious college credit before setting foot on a university campus. That’s right, folks, that means taking the AP tests, NOT just taking AP classes. This is also when you’re going to be taking your standardized tests, so don’t procrastinate on it.

This is the time in your high school career that you’ll be cementing those teacher-student relationships with two or three of your closest teachers. These are the folks you’ll be looking to for LORs, so remember – quality over quantity. This is also the time you’ll start figuring out where you’ll be applying. Find the right balance of places to apply, and aim high. You want to attend the best school you can get into. Start developing your essay topics and your writing skills to maximize your chances of crushing the app essays.

Senior Year: Finish Strong

Wait, before we start talking about senior year, let’s talk about the summer before senior year. This is the time for you to do something meaningful, both personally and globally. Take your talents and your passions and apply them to joining a summer academic program, a sports/activities camp, a volunteer organization, or even an international trip. Make it special and meaningful, because it will help you grow into the kind of person that will succeed in college. Whatever you do, DON’T slack and sit on your butt for the summer. DO something.

Now, for your last year of high school, don’t loosen up just because your junior year was the “important one.” Finish strong and aim high; your first semester grades will be going along with your college apps, so don’t let them slip. If you need to retake any of those standardized tests, now’s the time. You’ve been maturing for over three years, now it’s time to apply that to your school choices. Decide where you’re going to apply and do it right. Set up checklists and make sure you do everything you have to do complete those college applications. You’re not a kid anymore, so step up and go for it.

Tips to Starting The College Application Process Early

Understand Yourself and Your Interests

One of the keys to a standout college application is demonstrating what makes you unique through your interests and activities. It’s important to do some self-reflection and experimentation to figure out what excites you. For instance, if you’re interested in politics, you might volunteer for a campaign to discover whether you prefer canvassing or communications. The goal is to find a specific area that you are passionate about and can talk about with expertise.

Convert Interests into Accomplishments

Once you have identified your interests, it’s time to take action and achieve meaningful accomplishments. Planning ahead allows you to combine your interests in unique ways. For example, if you love running and politics, you might start a political journal at your school and organize a fundraiser run for a local cause. This approach shows colleges your leadership skills, creativity, and dedication.

Optimize Your Academic Performance

While top grades and test scores alone aren’t enough to guarantee admission to top schools, they are often a minimum requirement. Ensure you are performing well academically and preparing thoroughly for standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. This foundation will support your other achievements and make your application more competitive.

Develop Strong Writing and Communication Skills

Top grades and achievements are essential, but you also need to communicate your story effectively. Colleges want to see your authentic voice in your essays and interviews. Start honing your writing and introspection skills early by keeping a journal, writing creatively, and practicing interview techniques. This will help you articulate your experiences compellingly.


Preparing for college admissions is a marathon, not a sprint. By starting early and strategically planning your high school years, you can build a compelling application that stands out. Focus on understanding your interests, converting them into significant accomplishments, maintaining academic excellence, and developing strong communication skills. Each step you take will bring you closer to your college goals, ensuring you’re ready to seize the opportunities ahead.

By following these steps and staying committed to your goals, you can navigate the college admissions process with confidence and success. Remember, it’s never too early to start preparing for your future.