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.
Seniors – At this point in the application cycle, there’s little left for you to do but sit tight and wait for your admissions decisions. At many schools, the college admissions committees meet in March to make their final admit/deny/waitlist decisions, and then send notifications to applicants starting April 1. Good luck!
Juniors – You’ll be spending a good part of the rest of this year on your college selection and applications. Check the items below to see what you should be focusing on this spring.
Sophomores – You still have some time left before you need to start serious work on your college plans. Only a few of the items on the following list refer specifically to you. However, it’s not a bad idea to look over the entire list to get an idea of what you’ll need to be prepared for next year.
- Spring is an ideal time for high school juniors to take the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT. Having your scores in hand this spring will give you an 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 set of scores. Visit our SAT and ACT Test Preparation pages for more information about these tests.
- Don’t forget: The next (US) SAT test date you can still register for is May 4. The regular registration deadline is April 5 and the late registration deadline is April 24. The next ACT test dates are
April 13 and June 8. Their late registration deadlines are March 25 and May 20, respectively.
- 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 settle for taking whichever test your peers take. Your choice of test can make a difference in your college admissions outcomes. We’ve worked with applicants who were admitted to higher-tier schools than they might have been because they took the trouble to identify the standardized test that better suited their learning style.
- Spring can also be a good time to get SAT Subject Tests (previously referred to as SAT IIs) out of the way. Many selective colleges and universities require scores from 2 or 3 Subject Tests as part of their application. Check the requirements of the schools you’re thinking of applying to, and then check the College Board website for this year’s test dates. Think about how many Subject Tests you want to schedule for the same day, and whether a test date would overlap or conflict with AP exams or finals.
- If you’re a sophomore, think about taking the PSAT sometime before your junior year, for practice. The PSAT will not be required for college admissions, and your score will not be reported to colleges or influence your admissions outcomes. But a practice PSAT can help you do better on the PSAT in your junior year, which could mean winning consideration for a National Merit Scholarship – which would certainly be a plus on your application!
“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. Cleo worked with the admissions committee at Harvard University.
Spring is the time for juniors to continue exploring their school choices and to continue compiling their lists of ‘stretch,’ ‘good fit,’ and ‘safety’ schools.
- Think about what type of college or university you would be happiest at – a big urban campus, or a small outdoorsy one? A large, well-endowed school with state-of-the-art labs and classrooms, or a school with more modest infrastructure but more interaction between faculty and students? To learn more about the types of schools you have to choose from, see “Your College 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. Plan to 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 college campuses this spring, try to avoid periods like mid-terms, finals, and holidays. You’ll get a better idea of campus life if you time your visit for a more typical period. Ask to see dining halls, dorm rooms, and recreational facilities in addition to classrooms and public areas. Ask how representative the facilities you’re seeing are of the entire campus. Remember, you may be seeing the only residence hall that’s been renovated in the past 10 years.
- If there’s a college or university you’re especially interested in, think about scheduling an interview. Many of the largest and most selective schools no longer offer interviews, but it can make a difference at the smaller colleges and universities. Prepare yourself ahead of time by researching the school and coming up with a list of questions about what it’s like to be a student there.
- Continue to select classes that will challenge and stimulate you without overwhelming you. Admissions committees look for applicants who stretched themselves in high school. Having challenging courses on your transcripts will be even more important to your admissions outcomes if your high school is one of the many that no longer provide class ranks.
- Take AP and IB classes if you have the opportunity to and are genuinely interested in the course being offered. Think about how much schoolwork you can handle at one time, or want to. Don’t forget that the extra time you must devote to AP or IB classes means you’ll have less time for other things that matter to you. You should also be realistic about how much impact having one more AP class on your transcripts will have on your admissions chances. For details, see “It Takes More Than AP Credit to Make Your App Stand Out.”
“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 has over 15 years of college admissions committee experience and is the former Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Southern Methodist University.
- 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.
- Continue enjoying 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.
- Start thinking about what you’re going to do over the coming summer. Do you want to devote more time to a favorite activity, or take a summer academic program, or get job to save up some money for college? Or just take a break between your junior and senior years? There’s no single ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to spend your summer when it comes to your college applications, so long as you can explain the choice you made.
- If you want to play sports in college, continuing participating in appropriate NCAA-approved sports this winter and spring.
- Start thinking ahead to how you can position yourself as a college applicant for Fall 2020 admissions. What makes you different from other applicants? How might that quality that make you an especially attractive candidate for 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!
- Less than a year from now, 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? Does it express your genuine desire to attend the school in question, or does it include the kind of insincere, clichéd statements that doom many borderline applications?
- If you’re a senior, there’s still time to apply to a few schools for admission this fall – but just barely. Some schools with rolling admissions policies will continue accepting applications until April 1, or even later. Don’t wait for those final deadlines to apply. Because of the ever-higher number of applications that most colleges and universities receive these days, many schools fill their available class seats before the application cycle formally ends. If you still have applications to submit, do so immediately.
- Juniors might want to start thinking about which teachers, coaches, or supervisors they will ask for recommendation letters from this fall. Think about which points you will need your recommenders to address to support the rest of your application. If your GPA or test scores are weak, you might want to approach a teacher who can attest to the quality of your academic work; if you don’t have many extracurriculars, you may want a letter from someone who can attest to your interpersonal skills and your non-academic interests.
- If you’re a fall applicant who’s been waitlisted at a school you hope to attend, make sure you let that school know of your continuing interest. However, you must use careful judgment in submitting additional application material. Many applicants make the mistake of sending application supplements that amount to ‘more of the same.’ To be effective, your supplements need to answer the questions 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.
- Waitlisted applicants also need to be realistic about their chances of receiving an admissions offer. The number of waitlist acceptances at a given school can vary enormously from year to year, depending on acceptance rate and applicant yield. In recent years, however, the trend at most schools has been to waitlist more candidates.
Our College Admissions Timeline page will be updated on May 1.