College roadsign clipping path

College Application Timeline

Applying to college can be a daunting process. Not only are the applications expensive, but each one has its own requirements and deadlines. Before you start narrowing down your list of potential colleges, you should familiarize yourself with the college application process. The following year-by-year guideline can help make this process smoother and give you a leg up.


Amazingly the college application process can start as early as a student’s freshman year. Although I personally think this is too early, there are a few things to consider:

  • Grades – get the best grades possible! GPA gives colleges a quick look at your academic abilities. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by digging a hole early in your high school career.
  • Take the PSAT – many schools are now requiring students to take the PSAT in 9th While results are basically meaningless, it does give students an idea of what the SAT will look like.


Sophomore year is when things start to pick up a little bit. At this point, especially later in the year, students can start thinking about what types of colleges they’d like to attend. Consider some of the following:

  • Region – where would you like to go to school? Different locations have pros and cons. East coast schools are popular but generally expensive. West coast schools have a lot of outdoor activities to offer but are far away from home. Texas schools can save money but limit students’ exposure to new things.
  • Public vs. Private – I believe that students can get just as good an education at a public school as a private school and typically for a fraction of the cost. However, as many rankings suggest, finding a job is often easier with a private school degree.
  • Size – some students feed off the energy of a large school like Texas and take advantage of their many opportunities. Other students need smaller class sizes that schools with smaller class sizes can offer.
  • Degrees offered – if you have a good idea of what you’d like to study (at this point most students do not and should not), you can check out different schools’ websites to see what types of degrees are offered.


This is the time when the pressure gets turned up. Keeping this in perspective is important. There is an excellent college choice for each student, and getting caught up in other students’ choices can lead to some emotional difficulty. Just focus on your own process.

  • SAT/ACT – preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT is a priority for juniors. I suggest that students take some sort of prep course. Understanding how the SAT and ACT work and taking practice exams will definitely improve your score. Aim for taking the SAT or ACT during the Spring of your junior year.
  • Extracurricular activities – whether you have been involved in extracurricular activities or not, now is a good time to make sure you are. You don’t need to be the star athlete or the lead role in the school play, but you do need to have something besides classes. Joining a team, working on the school newspaper, becoming involved in theater, or serving as an afterschool tutor can add weight to your applications.
  • GPA – many students find that their junior year is the hardest in high school. It’s the year when social demands pick up (driving) and classes become harder. Since many colleges receive you transcript before your senior grades are posted, the junior grades may be the latest ones they see.


This is where it all the hard work comes together. By now you should have a list of 5-10 schools to which you apply. Keep detailed and organized notes about the requirements for each college. Using a master calendar to track deadlines can help.

  • SAT/ACT – if your score from junior year is not as high as you hoped, take it again as early as possible. Most colleges will only take your highest score, so there is usually no penalty for taking it more than once.
  • Letters of recommendation – some colleges require letters of recommendation, though many do not. Teachers, coaches, and other administrators can write letters, so you should choose someone who really knows you and your strengths. Give them several weeks’ notice and make sure to write a thank you note after you receive it.
  • Personal statement – this is a very important piece of the application process, and one that every college will require. You should have a well-written statement that you can tweak based on the various requirements for each college.
  • Financial aid – if you are applying for financial aid, you must familiarize yourself with both private and public aid. There are numerous scholarships available, and each one has its own process. Also, look at for federal loans, which generally offer the best rates.

This is just a rough guideline for the steps to applying for colleges. Having a good plan of what you are doing can save you time and give you the most options. But always remember that this is a process, and you should enjoy it. Before you know it you will be opening the most exciting acceptance letter of your life!