College Application Timeline

If you feel stressed and overwhelmed by the college application process, you are not alone. Many students (and parents) feel this way. Fortunately, the secret to getting admitted isn’t simply to do more and more activities; it’s finding one thing you can do really well. Sure, colleges do care about high test scores and top grades in challenging courses. But they also want students who have demonstrated that they can pursue something with dedication and fascination. Therefore, it’s important to leave yourself free time to dabble in a variety of activities until you find one that really grabs your interest.

Freshman year of high school: Plan out four years of solid academic courses that will challenge you. If you struggle with certain subjects or aspects of school (studying, socializing), seek out the help and strategies you’ll need to succeed. (See our article on special accommodations if you think you’ll need them in college.) Start a resume or log of your accomplishments; it will be a helpful reference guide when it comes time to complete your applications.

Sophomore year: Get to know your teachers and keep an eye out for ones who might be a good source of future recommendation letters. Look out for opportunities to be a leader (e.g., in school or outside clubs). Save copies of your best work for future portfolios. Consider taking the PSAT. Make some college visits during spring vacation, if possible. Research career options; this will help you narrow down your choice of schools and majors.

Junior year: Take the PSAT in October (if you haven’t already) – or the SAT or ACT. Find out which tests are required by the schools you’re considering – for example, some colleges want you to take one or more SAT Subject Tests. Sign up well in advance, take practice tests and get test prep help (or learn anxiety management) if you need it. Register for AP tests, if applicable. If you are an athlete, talk to your coach and learn about eligibility from the NCAA. When college reps visit your school, try to attend these meetings. Start developing a list of potential colleges and learning about them (see below). Do more spring-break college tours. (See our article on demonstrated interest.) If you will be creating a portfolio (e.g., art, music, videos), it’s time to start assembling it. Find out how to upload your work via Slideroom or other platforms. In the spring, talk to the teacher(s) you hope will write your letters of recommendation, and confirm they are willing to do so. Over the summer, work on the components of you applications (e.g., via the Common App), especially your essay(s). Brainstorm essay topics, write drafts and get feedback.

Senior year: Request letters of recommendation in the fall, giving teachers/counselors plenty of lead time and background information about you to make their job easier. Revise essays. Schedule interviews; they are often optional (but advisable), and the deadline for scheduling them may be a month or more before the application deadline. Complete and submit applications. Consider early action/early decision options: if you know where you want to go for sure, getting your application in early can make all the difference. Collect financial information to apply for financial aid; you will need this for the FAFSA and/or CSS. Collect financial records. Know the deadlines – for example, sometimes merit aid deadlines precede regular application deadlines. Use the Net Price Calculators on college websites to estimate what your family may be expected to pay.

Summer after senior year: Prepare for the transition. Continue working on life skills (financial, practical and emotional). Obtain and sign documents to allow parents to communicate with the school and healthcare providers, if needed.

Take a break to feel good about a job well done!

How do you come up with a list of colleges?

Do a self-inventory. How far from home do you want to live? What type of learning environment works best for you? What are your interests and personality traits? What would be the ideal peer group for you in college? Assess whether you’re ready to live away from home. If not, consider taking a gap year, attending a community college or taking steps to develop the independent living skills you’ll need.

Learn about colleges. Go on campus tours, talk to enrolled college students and alumni and find resources to help you. The goal is to find not the best colleges, but the colleges that are best for you.

Based on a balance of the factors important to you, identify 8-10 schools, including some you’re very likely to be admitted to.



Demonstrated interest: what it is, which colleges value it, and what to do about it

Most of you already know about the importance of tests scores, grades and extracurricular activities. But some colleges also look at a factor known as “demonstrated interest.” This means a student has shown through his/her actions a true desire to attend a particular college. In this age of the Common App, it’s relatively easy for students to apply to multiple schools to “play it safe” even if they don’t know or care much about some of those schools.

Some schools – especially elite institutions such as Harvard and Stanford – claim that they do not give much weight to demonstrated interest. (This does not mean that applicants shouldn’t be well acquainted with the schools to which they’re applying, even top-tier ones.) About half of all colleges, however, consider demonstrated interest to be a fairly important factor, and they often monitor students’ interest in great detail.

Fortunately, there are quite a few ways students can show their interest in the schools that do care about this factor:

  • Request information about the school by responding to promotional materials or by contacting them on your own.
  • Make a campus visit. Better yet, visit twice! Ask about more in-depth opportunities than the usual campus tour, such as lunch with currently enrolled students, “shadowing” students in class or an overnight stay.
  • “Like” the school on social media (and make sure there’s nothing on your social media you wouldn’t want schools to see).
  • Interview if possible. Most schools offer the option of interviews (sometimes with alumni), but applicants may need to request one.
  • Apply early decision, if possible. Colleges are increasingly filling their incoming freshman classes with students who apply early. Applying early action (which is binding) can help your chances as well, but students should only do so when they are certain of their top choice school. Even if you apply regular admission, try to get your application in well in advance of the deadline.
  • Write supplemental essays with care, especially when the question is “Why this school?” This shows a college that you are taking extra time on their application. Be explicit about how interested you are in the school.
  • Attend college fairs. Students should introduce themselves to admissions reps and leave their contact information.
  • Contact the admissions office to ask follow up questions. 
  • Send a follow up note thanking anyone who helps you – an interviewer, a rep at a college fair, or anyone you speak to in admissions.
  • If you have the opportunity to be interviewed, take it. Sometimes it’s optional – and sometimes you have to seek it out.
  • If you are waitlisted, follow up immediately to show that you still want to be considered.

These steps take extra time, but they’re worth it. Demonstrating your interest shows that you’re a serious applicant, and colleges want students who are likely to accept their offer of admission.