When to Start Applying to College – A Detailed Timeline

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: June 24, 2021

“When should I start applying to college?” is a question we hear frequently from our rising seniors at the beginning of summer. Should I apply now, before I go back to school? Should I wait until the fall? In today’s post, we’ll answer these questions – and more – about the college application timeline, and share some tips to help you stay on track in order to apply in a timely manner.

Why It’s Important to Start Planning for the Application Process Before Senior Year

In a recent post, we discussed the important of starting college planning early, and how course rigor, grades, and even test scores need to be carefully reviewed early on in high school. At the very least, you should establish a college application plan in your junior year of high school, if not sooner. Why? Starting early gives you time to think about possible majors and careers. You can explore differences, for instance, between philosophy and psychology or think about what it would be like to be an attorney or a doctor. Furthermore, you have time to consider all your college options. An initial college list may include dozens of schools – and we certainly don’t recommend applying to all of them! Starting the college application process early allows you to research and narrow down your list of potential colleges. It gives you time to visit campuses, either in-person or virtually, and talk to admissions officers and current college students about all facets of academic and social life on their campuses. Giving yourself lots of time will help you stay organized. You won’t be rushing last minute to submit applications. Instead, you’ll have your applications ready to go and promptly submitted well before deadlines.Parent Helping Student with College Application

Your Junior Year To-Do List

1. Meet with Your Guidance Counselor in September

When applying to college, you must have a plan in mind. Early in your junior year, make an appointment with your guidance counselor to discuss your post-high school options. Do you want to go straight to a traditional four-year college, start at a community college, or take a gap year to work or travel? With your guidance counselor, begin a list of any and all colleges you are considering and ask for his or her help in finding alternatives to college, if appropriate.

2. Visit College Campuses During October and November

The fall of your junior year is a great time to start visiting college campuses. Take advantage of long weekends or extended breaks to tour campuses. Robust virtual programming makes it easier than ever to connect with colleges, but nothing replaces a campus visit. Colleges are typically open during this time period, giving you the opportunity to not only see the campus through a formal information session and student-led tour, but to talk to current students and feel the school’s vibe. Most college campuses, including their admissions office, shut down for parts of December and January (winter break), so unless that is truly the only time you have available for college visits, avoid early winter visits. You can do additional visits during your spring break as many colleges will be open then.

3. Determine Your College Wishlist (and Learn About Application Requirements)

During your junior year, focus on making and narrowing down your college list. While it’s fine to start with a good number of schools, a manageable college list is generally between eight and twelve colleges, and contains a few reaches and safety schools bookending the list with the remaining majority of institutions falling within the target range. Do your research to find out what each college requires in addition to its application. Most schools ask you to submit an essay, while other schools ask for multiple essays. Many will ask for a résumé and letters of recommendation from your teachers and guidance counselor. Some will require SAT or ACT scores and others may be test-optional or test-blind. Create a spreadsheet to keep track of all application deadlines and requirements to help you stay organized and not miss any important dates.

4. Begin Studying for College Entrance Exams (SAT/ACT)

We’ve discussed testing in many previous posts, but it never hurts to be reminded: establish a good testing schedule so you’re not scrambling senior year to get the scores that you need for your “dream school.” Prepping for the ACT? Many juniors will take this test for the first time in December so they can receive the Test Information Release – a copy of the exam with correct answers and the student’s answers – to help them study for future exams. The SAT provides a similar test release document (the Question & Answer Service) three times/year, and many juniors will also take the March school-day exam. Don’t go into a test unprepared. Study, study, study! Hire an SAT/ACT tutor, if needed.

5. What to Do the Summer After Your Junior Year (HINT: Apply for Scholarships)

Use the summer after your junior year to apply for scholarships. Why? Starting early gives you a greater advantage, as some scholarships require an application, essay, letter of recommendation, or other documents similar to those for a college application. You don’t want to be in the middle of applying to colleges and have to worry about filling out scholarship applications. Some competitive scholarships have deadlines earlier than those of college applications, so don’t inadvertently miss out! Colleges themselves are another great source of scholarships, so pay attention to college application deadlines, as many of them ask students interested in scholarship consideration to apply earlier. There’s a potential for free money! Use the summer to get any outside scholarship applications rolling.

Senior Boy in Front of School

What to Do During Your Senior Year of High School

At last, you’ve reached your senior year of high school. If you’ve followed our junior year recommendations, you should be in a good place with your college applications. Don’t forget these final remaining steps, and you should be well on your way to finishing up college applications and all related components before you go on winter break.

1. Take Your SAT or ACT and Begin Applying to College in August

Early in your senior year (ideally the summer before), make sure you’ve scheduled an upcoming SAT or ACT if you need a higher score. You can take the SAT in August, October, November, and December, and you can sit for the ACT in September, October, and December. Get those tests on your calendar and study! College applications are generally available starting in August, but the Common App and Coalition App are available to start as early as you like, even during your junior year. Many students will begin submitting applications in August. Applying early in the fall ensures that you won’t miss any important deadlines. Don’t forget to submit any supplemental pieces of the application, including test scores, additional writing, résumés, letters of recommendation, portfolio, and transcripts.

2. Make Sure to Complete Your FAFSA in early October

Students applying for financial aid should complete the FAFSA form in early October when it becomes available. Colleges usually have priority deadlines for submitting the FAFSA, but, again, complete this form before the deadline. Many private colleges also ask you to submit the CSS Profile or their own financial aid form in order to be considered for financial aid. Check a college’s admission or financial aid page to see which forms are required and when they must be submitted.

3. Submit All Early Applications by November

Part of your college research should include identifying application deadlines. Many schools offer early deadlines: binding Early Decision or non-binding Early Action. Applying to colleges using these early dates will give your chances for admission a boost – but be sure to read each college’s early application policies (found on its admissions website) to see if there are any restrictions. Colleges with early application programs or priority dates usually ask for the application and all accompanying documents (transcripts, test scores, recommendations, etc.) by November 1, if not sooner! Even if a college has a later or rolling application deadline, it’s still a great idea to submit all applications early.

4. Be Aware of Deadlines in December and January

Ideally, you will have turned in all college applications and supporting documents before December. However, sometimes you may need a bit more time. If this is you, that’s okay – but you’ll want to pay attention to colleges’ final application deadlines, many of which are right around January 1. Keep in mind that many students are sending in college applications at the same time, which can occasionally result in slower submission times on platforms like the Common App. Don’t wait until 11:59 PM on January 1 to hit submit!

5. When Will I Know if I’m Accepted to a College?

You’re halfway or more through senior year! Congratulations! Now, when should you expect those college acceptance notifications? If you’ve applied early, probably sooner than you think. You likely will have received notification from these schools around mid-December. Schools with rolling admission may notify you within weeks of submitting your application, so if you applied in September, you could potentially have a decision by October. If you’ve applied to colleges using their traditional Regular Decision plan (application and all supporting materials in around January 1), you will receive notification in March or early April. Check your email! Some schools may even ask you to log into your applicant portal to receive your decision. Once you’ve received all college offers, you will have until May 1 to accept one offer and decline the remaining ones…unless you’ve been accepted through a college’s binding Early Decision plan. In that case, you’ll need to withdraw all your other applications at that time. Whether Early Decision, Early Action, Regular or Rolling, you’ll need to pay an enrollment deposit and apply for housing by that college’s payment deadline, which is typically May 1. You can begin the student loan process (if needed) as well. If you haven’t already, join your class page on social media and start getting excited about attending college!

A word about the wisest…

Now that we’ve explained a timeline for juniors and seniors, we’d like to share our “secret” about the students who have been consistently the most successful in the college application process: they began their college planning as high school freshmen or sophomores! That’s right. And because of their early start, they benefitted in these ways: They….

  • …had more opportunities to identify their outside interests and engage more deeply in extracurriculars that could have a positive impact on their lives
  • ...better planned out their high school curriculum to maximize their potential for college admission
  • ...made their summers more meaningful by taking earlier advantage of enrichment opportunities
  • ...researched and visited more colleges
  • ...had more self-confidence and smoother sailing through the application process itself

In Conclusion

Applying to college doesn’t have to be confusing! Starting as early as your junior year (or sooner!), you can take the necessary steps to get all your college applications and supporting materials ready to go. Need some help getting started or developing a good college application plan? Give us a call! We can help you get started today. 

Topics: College Admission College Counseling College Planning


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