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 – Schools with seats left open for this fall will begin calling waitlisted applicants in May. If you’ve been waitlisted at one of your top-choice schools, see the ‘Waitlisted Applicants’ section at the bottom of this page.
Juniors – 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 – but if you plan ahead 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.
Sophomores and Freshmen – Not all 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.
- Juniors who haven’t taken the SAT or the ACT may need to start preparing themselves to take those tests this fall. Visit our SAT and ACT test preparation pages for more information about these tests.
- Don’t forget: A large number of colleges have already announced they will waive the SAT and ACT for the Class of 2021. Please call us before investing any time or money in test prep; it may be an unnecessary expense depending on your particular list of target colleges.
- 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 you may have 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 webpage for this year’s available test dates.
- If you’re a sophomore, think about whether you’re going to take the PSAT sometime during your junior year. PSAT scores do not go into your college application files, but the test can help familiarize you with the SAT, which will help you do a better job on that test 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!
“To simply say, ‘I want to go to X University because of the great academics, doesn’t tell the admissions committee that you have even read their catalog! But if you mention something specific – a unique major or special programs that they offer, or a notable alum – your reasons for wanting to attend the school will be more specific, and therefore more quantifiable.”
– Senior Admissions Consultant Nancy Peterson.
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 2018-2019 data when you look at school admissions statistics. This year was quite the anomaly given the pandemic. Some small- and mid-sized schools have seen dramatic increases in their applicant pools in the last few years, which means that acceptance rates posted just 2 or 3 years ago may be completely outdated. Be honest with yourself about acceptance rates when you draw up your list of target schools, too. 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 for visitors. You may be seeing the only residence hall that’s been renovated in the past 5 years.
- If you’re visiting a college or university that you’re especially interested in, ask if you can schedule an interview. Although many of the largest and most selective schools no longer offer on-campus interviews, many smaller schools do, and they can make a difference. 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.
- A Summer program or internship can be an excellent way to learn more about the subjects that interest you while adding some shine to your academic record. For tips about summer program and internships, check out our video on Internships Versus Summer Programs.
- 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 article 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 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.
- 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 sports camps and/or leagues this summer.
“Schools will tell you they treat everyone the same, but I suspect that on occasion there are some regular decision applicants who might get a ‘sweeter package’ of financial aid – meaning ‘more grant and less loan,’ for example.”
– Senior Admissions Consultant Dr. Cleo Leung. Cleo reviewed applications for Harvard University.
- Start thinking ahead to how you can position yourself as a college applicant for Fall 2021 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!
- 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, cliched statements that doom many borderline applications?
- Rising seniors should start brainstorming for the Common Application essays, which the Common Application announced back in January remain unchanged once again from last year.
- 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 have 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 admit fewer waitlisted candidates.
Our College Admissions Timeline page will be updated on July 1.