Take a deep breath— applying to college doesn’t have to be difficult.
We’ve put together a simple guide for you to follow for every season of the college admissions process– when to research, apply, contact, visit, and all the other verbs related to finding the right college for you.
Click below to view your to-do list and things to be thinking about for each season of the college admissions cycle:
- Fall of Junior Year
- Spring of Junior Year
- Summer of Junior Year
- Fall of Senior Year
- Winter of Senior Year
- Spring of Senior Year
Fall of Junior Year
The theme of this season is just getting prepped for the college search process, which starts with considering standardized tests and finalizing your plans for after graduation. Here are the big items you should tackle during this time:
1. Take the PSAT
What’s the PSAT? It’s an optional practice SAT exam from the College Board that colleges won’t see. Taking the PSAT allows you to test your own abilities so you can get a feel for what topics you’ll need to study more before taking the real thing. One benefit of taking the PSAT is that you’re automatically screened for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The College Board’s scholarship partners also use the PSAT to find qualified recipients, which is a great way to get ahead on the scholarship search.
If you’re a junior, you will be taking the PSAT/NMSQ. The dates for 2017 are:
- Primary test day: Wednesday, October 11
- Saturday test day: October 14
These exams are taken at school and you can prepare for free on CollegeBoard.com.
2. Plan your SAT/ACT dates
Typically, the registration deadlines for both the SAT and ACT are about a month before the actual test date, so you can take your time to decide the dates that work for you. The tests loosely occur pretty frequently from September till June.
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?
|Test||Components||Important Features||In a word?|
Components Mathematics test (60 minutes), reading test (35 minutes), science test (35 minutes), English test (45 minutes), writing test (optional; 1 prompt, 40 minutes)
Important Features Designed to measure academic achievement in English, mathematics, reading, and science. Scores based on the number of correct answers. No penalty for incorrect answers. Includes enhanced scoring for reliable college and career planning insights.
In a word? Measures what a student has learned in school
Components Math (80 minutes), Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Reading Test (65 minutes) Writing and Language Test (35 minutes) Essay (optional; 1 prompt, 50 minutes)
Important Features Continued emphasis on reasoning. Greater emphasis on the meaning of words in extended contexts and on how word choice shapes meaning, tone, and impact. Scores based on the number of correct answers. No penalty for incorrect answers.
In a word? Measures aptitude, reasoning, and verbal abilities
3. Evaluate what type of school you want to attend
Not everyone takes the traditional route— luckily there are many options for all after graduation if you plan on continuing to higher education. Here are the main institutions of higher education and the details of each:
Traditional, 4-year college or university
- Students graduate with a Bachelor’s degree
- Typically a liberal arts education, where your education spans different subjects and topics
- Can be public or private
- Students typically choose between liberal arts colleges and large universities.
- Provides tertiary education, or supplemental education after secondary education (high school)
- Primarily public 2-year colleges, where you can choose to get an associates degree or certification
- Community college students typically move on to traditional, 4-year colleges to finish their bachelor’s degree.
- Also called a vocational school, aimed to give you job training for a specific career
- Unlike a traditional school, classes do not focus on liberal arts subjects like English, mathematics, history, or chemistry— classes primarily provide job training and hands-on experience.
- Examples of programs include: Electrician, mechanic, welder, or HVAC professional
4. Start to put together you college list
Once you’ve figured out which type of school you want to apply to, you can start building your list! How do you know which schools to apply to? Here are a few ways to start:
- Use our College Search tool to find schools based on personalized criteria.
- Find out what the most popular colleges are among students.
- Check out our suite of college rankings to find the best colleges in every category.
- Be sure to click “Add to List” on Niche when you come across any schools you’re interested in.
Spring of Junior Year
1. Potentially take your first SAT or ACT exam
Many high school juniors start to take their SAT or ACT exam during this time, and then plan to take it again in the fall of senior year to see if they can get a better score.
What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT? Refer back to the chart above.
2. Start to get serious about scholarship search
You want to give yourself plenty of time to apply for scholarships before starting college, so you’re not scrambling for much-needed funds at the last minute. Spring of junior year is a great time to put this task on your radar.
Niche has a great scholarship search tool for you to filter scholarships by interest, major, location, and more. Not only do we have our own monthly scholarships that we list on-site, but our site also lists hundreds of scholarships from other providers as well:
Want to get the ball rolling? Here are some easy to apply scholarships that don’t require essays, GPAs, or recommendations.
3. Contact your recommendation writers
Many colleges require recommendation letters from teachers or other adult figures in your life. You’ll want to pick those who have seen you grow as a student or a person, demonstrating leadership qualities, good organizational skills, or a strong work ethic.
You may not think you have somebody in your life that you can ask for a recommendation, but don’t be give up hope— you don’t have to be a brilliant, straight-A student to get a recommendation. Success comes in many different forms, and your teachers understand that.
Maybe start by thinking about the classes or activities you enjoy the most. It’s likely that since you like those classes/activities, you’ve done well in them compared to other classes/activities.
No matter what, give your recommendation writers lots of time to prepare and write. Because they’re doing you a huge favor, it’s important to be respectful of their time.
Summer before Senior Year
1. Schedule college campus visits
At this point, you’re starting to have a better idea of what kind of college you’d like to go to. Sometimes the only way to know for sure if a college is right for you, is to get a feel for actually being on campus by scheduling a visit.
There, you can schedule admissions interviews and tours, get a feel for the student body, and ask a lot of questions. Admissions websites usually have a whole section devoted to prospective students, which makes it easy to get more information on how to organize your visit. On Niche, we have a link to the admissions website on all college profiles— here’s an example of the University of Florida’s Niche profile.
Interested in the non-academic aspects of college life? Check out our suite of Campus Life rankings to see which schools have the best dorms, best campus, and best college food.
2. Start finalizing your college list and begin applications
After visiting some campuses and digging into your college search, now is a good time to start picking your final list.
Which criteria should you consider when choosing the college for you?
You could take a look at our Best Colleges ranking for inspiration, where we rank colleges based on the factors we think are most important. Here are the factors in order:
- Quality of the professors
- Student life
- Student reviews
- Campus quality
- The local area quality
Click on each to see the Best Colleges in those categories.
You can then add those colleges to your list on Niche, and reference them anytime by clicking “Your List” under your account:
3. Talk with your parents about what you need in terms of financial aid
First, it’s a good idea to get a good idea of what college will actually cost you and your family. We have plenty of data on each college profile for you to view and discuss with your parents.
On our Niche college profiles, we display the net price, which is the average cost of yearly tuition after accounting for scholarships and grants.
Navigate to the “Cost” section of a college profile to see the net price, net price by household income, in-state and out of state tuition, loan and financial aid stats, and more. Here’s an example for the University of Pennsylvania:
Second, you will want to figure out which of the colleges on your list will give you the most bang for your buck. Luckily, we rank the Best Value Colleges based on net price, alumni earnings, graduation rates, and student debt.
Third, you’ll want to go back to our scholarship search page to find loan and scholarship options for any extra cash that you and your family can’t cover alone.
4. Prepare for Early Decision/Early Action
What are they and is they right for you? Early decision and early action are for those who have a pretty solid preference for a particular university. As in, yeah they’re sure they wanna go. The important thing to remember is that early decision is binding and early action is not.
The important thing to remember is that early decision is binding and early action is not. This means that if you apply early action, you receive an early response to your application but you don’t have to commit to that school necessarily— you’re free to pick a different college. If you apply early decision, you are formally committed to that school if accepted.
Here’s a breakdown:
|Early Decision||Early Action|
Early Decision Apply early (around November)
Early Action Apply Early
Early Decision Recieve an admission decision usually by December
Early Action Receive an admission decision by January or February
Early Decision Agree to attend the college if accepted
Early Action Consider acceptance offer; do not have to commit upon receipt
Early Decision Apply to only one college early decision, but can apply to other colleges under regular decision
Early Action Apply to other colleges under regular decision
Early Decision Withdraw all other applications if accepted, and send a non-refundable deposit well before May 1
Early Action Give the college a decision no later than the May 1 national response date
Source: College Board
And that’s a wrap for junior year!
You’ve laid the groundwork to make some very solid, well-researched decisions about your future, so give yourself a pat on the back. Only another year to go before you head to college!
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