College Application Process Timeline & Tips Guide

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Students should consider beginning the application process during their junior year of high school. The process is a long one, and includes more than simply submitting an application. Any extra time they give themselves before they graduate will allow for flexibility to update or add schools to their list, not to mention allow for time to also apply for scholarships.

As a warning, though—once the process begins, it can quickly become a waterfall of information. Universities have different application deadlines. And many have multiple deadlines ranging from early application to rolling admission.

So in answering the question of when a student should apply to colleges, preparation in the junior year is essential, with seven key actions students and families need to complete to make sure they submit their applications on time.

1. Build a list of preferred colleges in the junior year

In many high schools, professional school counselors will have a "junior conference" with both the student and the parent. During these conferences, the counselor reviews the student’s academic records, discusses senior-year classes, and goes over post-secondary plans. It's at this time the counselor will also suggest the student begin their college search.

With this, you can probably guess that one mistake many high schoolers make is starting the college search too late. So, knowing which institutions will be a good fit for the student will help them narrow down their list. It will also help keep college requirements manageable to adhere to.

Darius Jones, Patel's guidance counselor at George Jenkins, each year meets with juniors and then seniors for a conference to talk about what they want to do after high school. For those on the college track, he provides them a list of the requirements of all public and private Florida colleges and universities, including GPA, SAT and ACT scores, and deadlines for applying. (source)

In the end, it's not uncommon for students miss application deadlines due to a lack of preparation, so starting early is crucial.

2. Create a table to keep track of application requirements

There are a lot of students who want to apply to as many colleges as possible, so if this sounds like your student, you aren't alone. That said, every additional application might lead to unnecessary frustration and stress, so while applying to as many colleges as possible sounds like a good idea per the numbers game, it complicates the application process and can "water down" each other application's impact. 

To help, students should consider focusing on three types of schools:

  • Reach schools
  • Target schools
  • Safety schools

A “reach” school is a college or university with a low rate of admissions but high academic ranges and requirements. Thus, a reach school for one student might be a safety school for another—it all depends on the academic rigor a student has completed.

A “target” school is a college or university a student is more likely to be admitted into, fitting their academic rigor, GPA, and SAT/ACT scores.

A "safety" school is a college or university with a higher admissions rate, with the student's academics surpassing most or all requirement categories.

From there, when students make their college list, they should keep track of the following requirements:

  • GPA
  • Foreign language credits
  • Subject/Credit
  • Early admission deadline
  • Regular admission deadline,
  • Teacher or counselor recommendation letter requirements

Having this information handy will give families a great start when applying for colleges.

3. Prepare a brag sheet

Next, students should create a resume of their accomplishments—a brag sheet. Many Language arts classes have students complete resume assignments and then review them for inaccuracy, but if creating a resume is not a class assignment for your student, they should speak with their school counselor to help draft one.

FastWeb has this brag sheet template:

To get started, listed accomplishments can be club or sports involvement, leadership activities, or if the student held a position within something like a robotics club or other organization. Students can add any awards and volunteer work to their resumes as well.

No matter what is included, it is essential to have the brag sheet on hand to give to a teacher or counselor who has been selected to write a recommendation letter.

Last, ensure your student gives their teacher or counselor ample time to craft a letter. To give a rough idea, fourteen days is enough time for a teacher or counselor to write a solid, eye-catching letter. Of course, if the student waits until the recommendation is due, say in two or three days, they will either get a one-size-fits-all letter or possibly no letter at all.

Respect the school personnel's time, and they will respect the student's. 

4. Know how to request a transcript

A high school transcript is one of the most important documents of a high schooler's career, given that it displays course history and GPA, and confirms graduation status.

Students must submit three different transcripts (initial, midyear, and final) through the application process.

This is a good place to bring up the fact that applying to colleges is not a one-and-done process. After the first application is submitted, the college will request other documents.

All high schools should have websites with a page explaining how to request a transcript for college, and for convenience, most colleges accept transcripts electronically. Either way, each college will inform the student how they like to receive the transcript.

5. Select the mode through which the student will apply to their college of choice.

There are several ways students can apply to colleges, with the most direct being through the college’s website. That is, many colleges have a portal where students can create profiles and upload their personal information and academic records.

That said, many colleges prefer students use a college application website—Common App will allow students to create profiles, upload their academic records, and apply to multiple schools simultaneously. (School counselors should be able to give you and your student more information about these sites.)

Some states, such as Georgia for example, have a state website students can use to apply to colleges. These sites work the same as Common App, but the student can only use it to apply to the schools located in that state. 

6. Visit college campuses

It is in the student’s best interest to visit colleges before applying. Students want to get a feel for the campus, assess their comfort level and have frequent questions answered when on tour. Everyone has a unique experience when visiting colleges; one person's dream college could be someone's nightmare.

One piece of advice you might hear from other parents includes encouraging your student not to be a follower. Meaning, as tough as it is, not choosing a school based on whether or not best friends will be attending, and instead selecting the best place for themselves. Their choice of college should be a personal one and needs to reflect the path they want to go down.

7. Mark August 1st on the calendar

Colleges open their application portals on August 1st, which means students can begin submitting their applications as early as then. Speaking of dates, when does your student want to start attending school?

Some seniors graduate in December (or halfway through their senior year) and will want to enroll in the spring semester right after their senior year. If this is the case, they need to note admission deadlines for spring semester enrollment (if there are any).

Wrapping things up, knowing when to apply is a small part of the application process. It can be a time-intensive endeavor that takes research and patience.

And again, importantly, applying to colleges and universities is different for each student—they are on a personal journey of understanding that will set up them up for their immediate academic future and beyond.

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Ryan has been in EdTech and with iD Tech for 13 years—building experience, expertise, and knowledge in all things coding, game development, college prep, STEM, and more. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn

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