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.

Don’t Forget – the Common Application is now available. Many public universities will start taking applications over the summer, too.

Rising Seniors – This summer is when your college search will move into top gear. The list of things you’ll need to do might seem overwhelming at times. If you plan ahead, though, you’ll be able to control both your workload and your stress levels. Check the items below to see what you should be focusing on this summer.

Rising Juniors – 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 in the coming year.

Standardized Tests:

  • Rising seniors who have not yet taken the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT, or who are unhappy with their previous scores, should make (re-) taking the test a top priority for this fall. The next SAT you can register for will be given on August 24, with a late registration deadline of August 13. The next ACT you can register for will be given on September 14, with a late registration deadline of August 30. For more information, visit the College Board webpage (for the SAT) or the webpage (for the ACT).
  • Over the summer, work on test prep. Visit our SAT and ACT test preparation pages for more information.
  • Most 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.
  • Don’t forget to plan for any SAT Subject Tests you still have to take as well. 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 web page for available test dates.
  • If you’re a rising junior, think about taking the PSAT this October. PSAT scores will not be part of your college applications, but the test can help familiarize you with the SAT and do a better job on it the first time around. And remember, if you do well enough on the PSAT, you’ll win consideration for a National Merit Scholarship – which would certainly be a plus on your application! Ask your school for more information about when the test is being given.

School Selection:

“One mistake I’ve seen students make is to simply choose a school because a friend loves it, a boyfriend/girlfriend attends it, etcetera… You want to make sure that your happiness at college does not depend solely on having a particular friend available to help you make the transition from home to college.”

– Senior Admissions Consultant Dr. Cleo Leung who evaluated applicants for Harvard University.

Summer is the time for rising seniors to focus on their school choices and to narrow down 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 that might have more modest infrastructure but more interaction between faculty and students? To learn more about the types of schools you have to choose from, see our webpage on “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 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 over the summer.
  • Make sure you’re looking at last year’s data when you look at school admissions statistics. For most applicants, it’s not realistic to limit your list to highly selective schools. You should include at least one institution that you’d be happy at and that you can be fairly confident of winning admission to.
  • If you visit college campuses this summer, do some research ahead of time to identify issues you might have specific questions about. Try to see dining halls, dorm rooms, and recreational facilities in addition to the classrooms and public areas you’ll be shown on a standard tour. Try asking the tour guide how typical the facilities you’re seeing are of the entire campus. Remember, everyone likes to show their best face to visitors. You may be seeing the only residence hall that’s been renovated in the past 5 years.
  • Check out this article to find out more regarding campus visits and why they can spare you a transfer later.
  • If you’re visiting a college or university that you’re especially interested in, ask lots of questions. 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. For details, read this article on “9 Questions To Ask a College Ambassador.”


“I think people sometimes forget that the amount of work involved in applying to college is like picking up an additional class – or two! – in your last year of high school.”

– Senior Consultant Tom Steffen. Tom served on the admissions committee at the Duke University.

  • Are you an athlete? While athletic ability is an important part of the college admissions process for a student, it will mean little without the academic strength to back it up. For tips academics for student athletes we suggest you read our article, “Athletes: Understanding the Academic Importance.”
  • Are you planning on taking any AP courses this fall? If so, make sure you understand what coursework you will be expected to complete over the summer. Don’t overload your schedule. The time you’ll have to devote to AP work means less time for other things that matter to you. Remember that AP classes are not the only (and sometimes not even the best) way to position yourself for your college applications. For details, see our page on why “It Takes More Than AP Credit to Make Your App Stand Out.”
  • Start thinking in general terms about which classes you want to take over the coming year. Remember that 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.

Extracurricular Activities:

  • 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. Learn what admissions committees look for in extracurricular records in this case study.
  • Use this summer to enjoy the 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.
  • If you want to play sports in college, continue participating in appropriate NCAA-approved sports this summer.

Strategic Positioning:

  • Start thinking ahead to how you can position yourself as a college applicant for this next admissions cycle. 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!
  • Very shortly, 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 the Common Application leaves you looking too much like a ‘common applicant’ to school X, you may want to consider using the school-specific application instead. It may give you a better chance of highlighting your ‘wow’ factor.”

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

  • Start keeping a set of folders with the information you need for your applications. This includes activity lists as well as notes about extracurricular activities, paid employment and volunteer service, and summer study. It’s also a good place to keep a list of which schools you applied to, when, with reminders about what you still need to do to complete your applications.
  • Rising seniors should look for the Common Application, which is scheduled to go online July 1. Even if you’re not planning on using the Common App, it’s not a bad idea to download a copy as a sample of what a college application will involve.
  • Also look for individual colleges and universities to release their applications and/or essay topics over the summer.
  • Start making notes for your application essays. Look at the questions and topics that your target schools used in their past year’s applications to get an idea of what you might be asked to write about this year. Think about how your various ‘wow’ factors could be worked into essays on similar topics. (Keep in mind that questions may change from year to year. Wait until the this year’s questions have been released before beginning serious work on your writing.)
  • Check the websites of your target schools over the summer to see what their application deadlines will be. Think about the deadlines you will need to meet and decide when you will need to begin serious work on your applications in order to meet those deadlines.
  • Think about whether you want to apply to any schools under their Early Decision or Early Action deadlines. Make sure you understand the difference between binding ED and non-binding EA admissions, and that you know which type of program your target school uses.
  • Don’t forget that our consultants can explain the differences among early admission policies and help you understand how EA, ED, and SCEA applications might affect your admission chances and financial aid outcomes. Click here to learn more about our services.
  • Rising seniors should think 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’ve been home-schooled, you’ll benefit from having a letter from an adult who can give an independent and objective assessment of your intellectual achievements and your readiness for college.

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

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