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College Admissions Timeline

The road to college is long – and sometimes confusing. To help keep you on track, here's a timeline of what college applicants should be doing, and when.

January – February

Don't Forget: If you're a high school senior who was waitlisted in the Early Action or Early Decision round at any of your target schools, be sure your school sends your mid-year report to those schools. Those first-semester grades are sometimes just the thing the admissions committee needs to see to convince it to send an acceptance letter!

Standardized Tests:

  • If you're a high school junior with your eye on next fall's college admissions, this spring is an ideal time to take the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT. That way you'll have your score in hand by the time you begin your college selection, and that will give you a better idea of how competitive an applicant you'll be at your targeted schools. You'll also leave yourself plenty of time to re-take the test in the fall if you're not happy with your first score. Visit our SAT and ACT Test Preparation page for information about these tests.

  • Most high school students now have the option of taking either the SAT or the ACT. Based upon your unique profile, you may be better off taking one test over the other. Don't just arbitrarily choose to take the test that your peers take. This is your future at stake. We've worked with applicants who were  admitted to higher-tier schools precisely because they proactively determined which test better suited their learning style. 

  • If you're a sophomore, think about taking the PSAT either this spring or next fall. The PSAT is not required for college admissions, and your score will not be reported to colleges or influence your admissions outcomes (unless, of course, you do well enough on the PSAT to win consideration for a National Merit Scholarship, in which case you'll have another star to add to your application!) However, the PSAT is a way for you to gain experience with standardized tests before you tackle the SAT. Take the PSAT when you feel ready to get the most out of the experience.

School Selection:

"To simply say, 'I want to go to X University because of the great academics,' doesn't tell the admissions committee much. But if you mention something specific – a certain class or professor, or a notable alum – your reasons for wanting to attend the school will be more specific, and therefore more memorable."

Senior Admissions Consultant Dr. Cleo Leung

Winter is the time for juniors to continue exploring their school choices and begin compiling a list of 'stretch,' 'good fit,' and 'safety' schools. Seniors should have already finalized their school choices.

  • Aim for a list of 8 to 12 schools that you would be happy attending. Include a mix of reach schools, 'good matches,' and safety schools. But remember – apply only to as many schools as you will be able to submit well-prepared applications for. You'll get better results by applying to 6 schools with applications that reflect 100 per cent of your best effort than you will by applying to 12 schools with applications that each reflect 50 per cent of your best effort.

  • If you visit campuses over the coming months, try to avoid periods like mid-terms, finals, and holiday breaks. You'll get a better idea of campus life if you time your visit for a more typical period. Remember, too, that campus life may be more lively when the weather is warmer, or when more students are on campus.

  • If there's a college or university you're especially interested in, find out whether a student ambassador or other school representative might be visiting your area soon.

Academics:

  • Continue to select classes that will challenge and stimulate you, but not overwhelm you. College admissions committees look for applicants who stretched themselves in high school. You'll be a stronger college applicant if you take challenging classes. This will be even more important to your admissions outcomes if your high school is one of the many that no longer name valedictorians or report class standing.

Extracurricular Activities:

"Community service should clearly come from the heart and not appear to have been motivated just by a desire to 'add another bullet point to the resume.'"

– Senior Admissions Consultant Nancy Peterson. Nancy has over 15 years of college admissions committee experience and is the former Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Southern Methodist University.

  • Enjoy extracurricular activities that appeal to your interests – but don't overdo it. Admissions committees can sniff out applicants who only became involved in the community in order to enhance their college candidacies. Selective colleges will be more impressed with evidence of a substantive commitment to one or two activities than by a long list of superficial memberships.

  • Extracurricular activities can be a great way to show there's more to you than simply good grades and test scores. With the proper strategizing, your after-school activities could produce the 'wow' factors you need to be successful at the very competitive schools where the vast majority of applicants clear the high academic qualifications hurdles.

  • If you want to play sports in college, continuing participating in appropriate NCAA-approved sports this winter and spring.

Strategic Positioning:

  • If you're a junior, start thinking ahead to how you can position yourself as a college applicant for next fall. What makes you different from other applicants? How does quality that make you an especially suitable candidate to attend your target school? These are ideas that can serve as the story themes and 'wow' factors that will make your application stand out from the crowd!

  • The college admissions committees will be taking a hard, critical look at your  profile. You must do the same thing first. Only by understanding your candidacy from their perspective can you best mitigate your weaknesses, highlight your strengths, frame your fit, and employ the 'wow' factors that will differentiate yourself from the many other highly qualified applicants in your demographic.

  • Your weaknesses. Sometimes it is best not to bring attention to a weakness. Other times, it must be acknowledged and explained. Weaknesses can be mitigated in the personal statement, addendum, or letters of reference.

  • Your strengths. You need to become a self-promoter without coming across as arrogant. You also need to prioritize your strengths as you will not likely be able to highlight all of them in adequate detail within your applications.

  • Your story themes and 'wow' factors. What are the most important points you need to make about your background, values, beliefs, and experiences? Have you adequately prioritized these points? If you attempt to convey too many different points, you risk coming across as unfocused. You also risk not covering any of your points in adequate detail to successfully distinguish your candidacy. Ask yourself what makes you unique in a way that is going to make any admissions officer just really want to recruit you to their school?

  • Your fit. Why are you a match made in heaven for the specific school being targeted? Why will you be a better fit and contribute more to the program and community than the other applicants? Does your application convincingly argue that, if admitted, you will gladly attend the program?

  • If you are a freshman or sophomore, now is a good time to take a critical inventory of your college candidacy. Will you clear the academic qualification hurdles at the schools you are targeting? Would you benefit from taking a summer enrichment program? Should you find some additional extracurricular activities to improve your candidacy? (Remember, though, that you want to avoid giving the admissions committees the impression that you only got involved in these activities for reasons of expediency.)

Applications:

  • If you're a senior who applied to any schools under their Early Action or Early Decision programs, you should have received notification of your admissions outcomes in December. Make sure you understand what steps you need to take to acknowledge and/or accept any admissions offers.

  • If you're applying to any schools with later or rolling deadlines, keep working on those applications. Keep a list or calendar with reminders about which schools you applied to, when, with notes about what you still need to do to complete any pending applications. Save a copy of each application you submit.

  • Plan to complete and submit your online applications several days before the actual deadline. You'll be doing yourself a big favor by avoiding the technical problems that invariably crop up on deadline day due to high traffic at application websites. Trust us – you don't want to spend New Year's Eve at your computer, trying to upload the final rewrite of your essays to an agonizingly slow server.

  • If you're using the Common Application, make sure you understand whether your target schools also require school-specific supplemental forms to the Common App. Check that you're submitting those forms through the right channels and by the appropriate deadlines.

  • Use the final weeks before submitting your applications to review and revise your essays. Don't just check for spelling and grammatical errors – check the substance of your essays, too. Ask yourself  how well your essay topics convey your optimal story themes. Look at your essays the way the admissions committees will holistically, and as part of your overall application, rather than as stand-alone application components. Your essay topics should highlight your strengths, mitigate any weaknesses you need to explain, and ensure that your candidacy doesn't look like everyone else's. Our consultants can help you polish your content and carefully scrutinize each essay for opportunities to advance your case to admissions committees.

Waitlisted and Deferred Applicants:

  • If you're a Fall 2016 applicant who's been waitlisted or deferred, make sure your high school sends your midyear grade report to the college or university in question.

  • Exercise careful judgment about submitting any additional supplemental application material. Many students make the mistake of sending supplements that are amount to 'more of the same.' They send additional recommendation letters that make the same points the earlier ones did, or updated activities lists that are longer versions of what was submitted before. To be effective, your supplements need to answer whatever question it is that your application left open in the admissions committee's mind. Our consultants can help you understand what those questions might be and how you can put them to rest.

Our College Admissions Timeline page will be updated on March 1.


Do you have questions about any of the items you see here? Please call us at 1.800.809.0800 (+1 703.242.5885 outside the US and Canada) or email us if you do. Our consultants can help you with school selection, application strategies, application and interview preparation, and all other aspects of the college admissions process.

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