Senior year has finally arrived and it’s time to get serious about college applications. Hopefully you have spent your junior year beginning the process of searching for colleges. This may involve sitting down with your high school guidance counselor, talking to parents and teachers, taking the PSAT and most importantly, maintaining your grades.
Senior year is no time to slack off. It is critical that you keep your grades up. You want to have a well-rounded set of extracurricular experience, but make sure your schedule is balanced. Grades are still the most important factor in college admissions.
Below is a month-by-month timeline to keep you on track as you navigate through senior year and complete your college applications. Some dates and information may vary, depending on the college or your own circumstances.
SUMMER BEFORE SENIOR YEAR
Start your list – This summer is a great time to work on your list of colleges. By the end of the summer, you should have narrowed your list of 20-25 schools down to 10 or 12, including reach, match and safety schools.
Common Application – Many colleges and universities use the Common Application, which can be found online. You can register a Common Application account and get familiar with it during the summer. Know what is required, sketch out an application timeline and begin thinking about your essay, a critical component of any application.
ACT – You can usually begin taking the ACT in September. Go online to confirm testing dates and register now. This will give you time to take the test again if you’re not happy with your first score.
Campus visits – Before you’re loaded up with homework and extracurricular activities, use the idle months of summer to visit some of the campuses on your list. Almost any college will be conducting tours throughout the summer.
Guidance counselor – Hopefully you’ve already talked about college with your guidance counselor during your junior year. Now that you’ve had the summer to explore your options, sit down again to review the whole process. Your counselor will give you valuable perspective about the schools on your list and help you chart out the application process. Also make sure that you’re fulfilling all of your requirements for high school graduation.
Letters of recommendation – As soon as you possibly can, ask two teachers to write you letters of recommendation. It is wise to ask teachers from your junior year, especially if you have a good relationship with them and participate in their class. If a teacher doesn’t really know you or hasn’t heard much from you in class discussions, they won’t have much to write about.
SAT – Register for the SAT, which is usually administered in October, November and December. You can also take SAT Subject exams, which is a good idea if there is a particular subject you excel in.
Request applications – It’s time to start getting applications from the schools on your list. By now you want to have your list down to 8 or 10 schools, tops. With each application, write out a schedule of deadlines so you don’t miss anything down the road. This is especially important if you’re thinking of applying for an early decision or early action.
College Essay –Allow yourself plenty of time to formulate your essay. This is crucial. Students who have spent months reflecting on the essay will stand out. These essay questions can be very broad, and it can be a real challenge relating it to your life. Make sure you talk to others about how to approach the essay.
Grades and Extracurriculars – Remember, don’t let your grades sink. Admissions counselors will look at the first half of your senior year to see that you’re still challenging yourself and succeeding. If you’ve already been active in extracurricular activities, explore leadership opportunities. This can mean being captain of a sports team, starting your own club or getting involved with student government. Senior year is your opportunity to transform from a young adult into a student leader.
Narrow your list – By this point, your list should be whittled down to a handful of schools, and you’ll probably have a favorite. Know whether or not your grades are in line with the academic standards of each school. This will help you break your list into three categories: reach, match and safety.
Work on applications – With fewer schools to consider, you can now begin working on your applications in earnest. If you’re using the Common Application, make sure each application is tailored to the school. Don’t make the mistake of copying and pasting and forgetting to change the name of the college.
College Fairs – Most colleges and universities host college fairs in the fall. This is an open recruiting forum where students and parents are invited to see the campus and learn more about academics and student life. These days, most schools also offer virtual fairs online. Find out the fair schedule of each school on your list and take advantage of this opportunity. It will reveal a lot about each school.
High school transcripts – Request your high school transcripts and verify that they are accurate. If anything is wrong or missing you’ll need time to correct it. Reviewing your transcript is also a good reminder to maintain your grades through to the end.
Testing – Around this time you should be taking your SAT and ACT exams. The sooner the better, as you may get a lower-than-expected score and will need time to take the exam again. This is common.
Applying Early – If you are applying to a school through early decision or early action, you will need to complete your application in October. Deadlines for these admissions programs are usually the end of October or the beginning of November.
Applications – By now you should know what schools you’re applying to-5 or 6 ideally. You’ve had a few months to look over the various applications and think long and hard about your essay. Give yourself ample time in November to complete all the applications and get feedback about your essay. Have parents, teachers and other adults in your life read your essay and try to keep an open mind to their constructive criticism.
Financial aid and scholarships – Deadlines for financial aid and scholarships are still further down the road, but the sooner you apply the better. Knowing what kind of aid packages are available will help you weigh the cost of different schools.
Testing – November is still within the normal window to take your SAT and/or ACT, but December will probably be your last opportunity to do so. If you haven’t taken or would like to retake either one, make sure you register now for the December test. Retaking in the spring will be too late!
Grades – November is also a critical month for your high school classes. The semester will end in mid-December, so if you need to improve any grades, now is the time to get serious. Even if you are accepted to a school, the decision can be reversed if your grades take a nosedive.
DECEMBER AND JANUARY
Submit applications – Most colleges have regular application deadlines sometime in December. Make sure you’ve been keeping track of all deadlines; they can vary from school to school. Don’t leave anything to the last minute. For most people, the month of December is always filled with extra holiday-related activities, not to mention the end of the fall semester.
Finalize other application components – By now you’ve taken your exams, written your essays and secured your letters of recommendation. Confirm that your test scores have been officially submitted to every college to which you’re applying. Also verify that any letters of recommendation have been mailed.
Financial aid – Most colleges require you to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Start exploring financial aid and scholarships at the colleges you applied to. By the time you start receiving acceptance letters, you’re going to want to have a grasp of how much you can save, and aid packages can differ a great deal from school to school.
Early acceptance – If you applied to a school through early decision or early action and are accepted, you will receive a letter sometime in December. Make sure you completely understand the timetable and all deadlines. It’s also a great courtesy to notify the other schools you applied to. This will help them open up your seat to other applicants.
Grades – As soon as possible, send your fall grades to every school to which you’ve applied. Even if this is after the application, admissions counselors will incorporate it into their decision. If your high school grades started out poor but steadily improved, your senior year transcript is a way for you to demonstrate this upward trend.
FEBRUARY AND MARCH
Confirm applications – Most colleges will send you a confirmation that your application has been received and is being processed. If you haven’t gotten receipt confirmation on any of your applications, do so as soon as possible.
Financial aid – You submitted your FAFSA in December, and by now you should be receiving a Student Aid Report, or SAR. Review this carefully and verify that everything is accurate. Discrepancies on this form may result in the loss of thousands of dollars in financial aid.
Late applications – Some schools have late deadlines or rolling admissions policies, meaning there is no set deadline and applications may be submitted anytime in the winter or spring. As with everything else, it is still wise to apply as early as you can. You never know how competitive open seats will be.
Acceptance letters – Acceptance, rejection and waitlist letters may start arriving as early as February or March. In most cases, you will have until the end of April to make a decision. If you haven’t received any letters yet, don’t worry. It is common for letters to go out in April.
Make your final decision – With some exceptions, by now you should have heard from all of the schools to which you applied. If you are accepted to multiple schools, weigh all your options before making a final decision. Talk with parents, other family members, teachers, mentors and friends. Take a good, hard look at finances, including financial aid and cost of living expenses at each school. If possible, visit campuses again. Now that you’ve been accepted, your perspective will be vastly different and you can ask much more detailed questions.
Notify other schools – Once you’ve made your decision, notify the other schools that accepted you as soon as possible. They will have plenty of waitlist applicants anxiously waiting for seats to open up.
Open House – Similar to college fairs in the fall, many colleges host spring open houses for incoming freshmen. Find out when this is scheduled and take advantage if you are able. It is a chance to learn more about the school directly from current students. You may also make friends before the school year even starts!
Appeals – If you were rejected from a school, you may be able to appeal the decision. This is an extremely rare occurrence and only applies to certain circumstances. If you feel you may have a chance to appeal, research that school’s admissions policies and talk to your high school guidance counselor.
MAY AND JUNE
Deposit deadline – Typically, colleges will have a deposit deadline of May 1st. You may have already signaled your intent to enroll, but now it’s time to commit financially. Your acceptance letter should include all the details.
Final transcripts – Once you’ve graduated, send your final high school transcript to your new college. This may help you secure a scholarship or qualify for other competitive academic programs.
AP exams – If you’ve been taking AP classes in high school, you’ll be taking your national exams at the end of the school year. This is a huge opportunity that you shouldn’t let go to waste. A high score or 4 or 5 on your AP exam will translate to college credit. Some students begin college with much of their freshman requirements fulfilled through AP credits.
Thank you letters – You didn’t get here by yourself. Chances are there were many people who helped with your college applications. Take the time to write personalized thank you letters, especially to guidance counselors and teachers who wrote letters of recommendation. They will appreciate the gratitude and will be happy to know where you enrolled.
SUMMER BEFORE COLLEGE
Housing – Now you know where you’ll be going in the fall! If you’re planning on living in student housing, you will start receiving information about this, including meal plans. If you’re planning to live off-campus, start researching neighborhoods so you can find a decent place to live that is reasonably close to campus.
Roommate – If you’ve already received your dorm assignment, you will also have the opportunity to make contact with your future roommate, including by phone, email or social media. We’ve all seen the uncomfortable scenes in movies where dorm mates meet on move-in day. Use the summer to avoid this awkward introduction.
Register for classes – As soon as you can, start registering for classes. As a freshman, you will probably feel like you’re flooded with options, but classes almost always fill up fast! Take your time to review the schedule and find classes that are right for you.
Go to college – Congratulations! You’re going to college. Time to start packing.