The Ultimate College Application Timeline: From Search to Acceptance
The college application process can be incredibly stressful. From campus tours to letters of recommendation to essays, you have a lot to keep track of. With so much to do, it’s hard to know where or when to start!
To make sure you’re on the right path, we’ve created the ultimate college application timeline. Through junior and senior year, follow along with our comprehensive blog and printable timeline to make sure you successfully go from college search to acceptance!
September – January
- Attend college fairs. Virtual or in-person, college fairs can be a great place to acclimate to the college search process. Here’s our guide on making the most of college fairs.
- Begin test prep and take the PSAT. If you haven’t already taken it, now’s the time. College Board, the host of the PSATs, has your prepping needs covered.
- Register for SAT/ACT. The futures of the SAT and ACT tests are unknown, with some universities cutting them altogether (in part due to COVID-19). But for now, they’re still an important part of the admissions process.
March – June
- Take the Niche College Quiz. After you’re done taking our quiz, visit your suggested schools’ profiles and research those you’re interested in.
- Make your list of colleges. Start with 15-20 schools—including safety, target and reach schools—for now and narrow them down later. To start adding colleges to your list, consider factors like location, tuition, reputation, size, selectivity, and if the school has a strong program for your intended major (if you know it yet).
- Attend campus visits and/or information sessions. Colleges can seem like a dream on paper, but there’s not always the same feeling once you get there. When you visit, get a feel for academic offerings, campus layout, dining options, dorm situation and social scene. To make the most of your visits, plan them properly. If you can’t go in-person, explore virtual visit options.
- Explore possible majors. For some, this is a simple feat. For others, it’s simply nerve wracking. There are many factors to consider when choosing a major.
- Prepare for and take the SAT/ACT. Know all the tips and tricks before you show up on test day. We’ve got plenty of suggestions for proper test prep to help you earn your ideal score. If you don’t like your score, set a new goal, hit the books, and try again in the fall—or superscore it. Still need help? There are more test prep resources.
- Keep your grades up (or bring them up). Junior year grades are the most closely analyzed by college admissions teams. Give that extra effort so you’re putting your best academic self out there.
- Ask for teacher/counselor letters of recommendation. Ideally, ask your junior year teachers or, if you know your intended major, a teacher who teaches a relevant subject. We have some pointers for getting counselor recs, too. Ask weeks, if not months, ahead of time. Here are all the details you should consider when asking for a letter of recommendation.
- Get summer experience. Spend your summer wisely by volunteering, getting a job, job shadowing, or participating in a summer college program or camp. Your best bet to impress schools is to do something relevant to your interests, skills or goals.
- Brainstorm ideas for your personal essay, AKA personal statement or Common App essay. This is your time to share something about yourself to your prospective universities. Get the creative juices flowing.
- Talk with parents or guardians about who’s paying for college and how. It can be a touchy subject, but it’s best to hash out the financial responsibilities before you get too far along in your search. Work your way through our financial aid checklist for the most productive convos.
- Start researching scholarships. A good place to get started? Niche’s list of college scholarships, of course.
- Get your FSA ID. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines your eligibility for student financial aid. Even if you think your family won’t qualify, submit a FAFSA. Create a username and password (FSA ID) on the FAFSA website to get started. The first day you can file is Oct. 1.
- Narrow down your list of colleges.
- Make an activities/honors list. As you begin filling out college and scholarship applications, a high school resume will be extremely helpful. List your activities, accomplishments, awards, volunteer work, and actual work experience from ninth grade until now. Mention the tasks you accomplished, skills you gained and/or leadership roles you held. Creating an all-purpose brag sheet can also help you prep for your personal essay, scholarship apps, alumni interviews and more.
- Draft your personal essay. It goes without saying that writing an essay can be challenging. For a little inspo and insight, check out our guide to acing the college essay.
- Create necessary application accounts (Ex: Common App, Coalition App, ApplyTexas, UC Application). Each application account serves different universities, so do some research to see which application is accepted by your potential colleges.
- Understand what types of admissions deadlines you’ll face. Admissions types and deadlines greatly affect your approach to applying. Know whether you’re interested in applying early action, early decision, restricted early action or regular decision (most common). Not sure? We can help you decide which admissions types best fit you.
- Follow up with recommenders. Follow our guide to reminding your recommenders and you’ll have your letters of recommendation in no time.
- Continue narrowing down your list of colleges. Trim your list down to the 5-10 colleges that you love the most. Be strategic: Choose at least two safety schools, several target schools, and one or two reach schools.
- Retake the SAT/ACT (if needed). If you weren’t happy with your previous SAT score, now is the time to take it again.
- Complete your CSS Profile, if required by any of your schools. Here’s the most up-to-date list of schools that require a CSS profile. And here are all the ins and outs on how to create a CSS Profile—and why.
- If applying to a University of California (UC) school, draft your early application. UC deadlines are earlier than most. All apps are due Nov. 30.
- Keep researching and applying for scholarships. Explore 5 scholarships you can apply to right now. No joke.
- Complete and submit your FAFSA. Submit your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as close to Oct. 1 as possible. You’ll need a lot of financial docs, and we give the whole rundown in our comprehensive FAFSA guide.
- Finish your personal essay and activities list.
- Draft college-specific supplemental essays. For more essay-writing insight, explore these tips on writing supplemental essays. If you’re applying early decision/early action, finish them now.
- Submit early application/early decision applications. Most early application/early decision deadlines are Nov. 1 or Nov. 15. The Common Application early decision deadline is typically Nov. 1.
- Ask your school counselor to send your transcripts. Protocol varies at each high school, but you’ll want to request them at least two weeks before they’re due. For the whole spiel, check our comprehensive guide on requesting transcripts for college.
- If applying to a UC school, finalize your supplemental essay.
- If applying to a UC school, submit your application. The deadline is Nov. 30.
- Finalize college list. Hear a student’s perspective on how to tackle and trim down your college list.
- Edit supplemental essays.
- Search and apply for more scholarships. Consider this your friendly reminder!
- Send test scores to your schools. You can choose your score recipients before or after you take the test. Here’s how to submit your SAT scores. And here’s how to submit your ACT scores.
- Review early decision/early action acceptance letters. If accepted, celebrate! If deferred, send a letter of continued interest. If rejected, review your application and its essay, and decide whether to make improvements for future applications.
- Finalize your supplemental essays.
- Submit your regular decision applications. Before you do: Read our last-minute reminders. Most regular decision deadlines are Jan.1 or Jan. 15. The Common Application deadline is typically Jan. 1. After hitting “submit,” there are still a few things to wrap up.
January – February
- Submit mid-year grade reports. Some colleges require mid-year or second semester grade reports. If this is the case, make sure your counselor has the necessary forms.
- Prepare for and complete alumni/admissions interviews. Do all the prepwork for a successful interview, including how to navigate a virtual interview.
- Apply for more scholarships. The internet is your friend—most of the time. Here are really easy and inventive ways to use Google to fuel your scholarship search.
March – April
- Review acceptance letters.
- If deferred/waitlisted, reach out and write a letter of continued interest.
- If rejected, send an appeal letter.
- Review financial aid packages. If you need help understanding the lingo, we’ve got a simple explainer on how to read your financial aid award letter. If you’re happy with their offers, great! If you’re not, you may want to appeal for a better package.
- Decide on your top schools.
- Study for and take AP exams. It could help with earning college credit ahead of time. Learn more about how AP exams could benefit you.
- Apply for more scholarships.
- Make a final decision by May 1. Yes! You did it. After you notify your school (and let the others know you’re heading elsewhere), it’s time to celebrate!
- Notify your supporters of your decision—and thank them! They’ll be so happy for you. A note, a gift, a high five—just let them know you appreciate their support. Here’s a rundown of all the people you should be thanking.
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