Your college application timeline: When to start each step
Applying for college involves several critical steps, and knowing when to start each one can make the process smoother and more effective. Here's a general timeline to guide you from your sophomore year of high school through graduation.
In your sophomore year
Start preparing for standardized tests (SAT and ACT)
The SAT and ACT are both standardized tests used by colleges and universities to evaluate potential students. The SAT emphasizes math and evidence-based reading and writing, while the ACT includes an additional science section.
It’s highly recommended to begin your test preparation in your sophomore year or during the summer before your junior year. You can take practice tests for the SAT and practice tests for the ACT. By starting early, you’ll have plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the test format, take practice tests and gain a deeper understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.
In your junior year
Take the PSAT/NMSQT
The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is a standardized test that not only provides excellent practice for the SAT but also serves as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
You typically take this test in October of your junior year. While it may not be a direct part of your college application, a strong PSAT/NMSQT score can boost your skills and confidence for the SAT, and potentially qualify you for valuable scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Program. Don’t miss this opportunity to make your college applications stand out in the future.
SAT vs. ACT: Which One Should You Take?
Some colleges require the SAT or the ACT. Some accept either one. And some colleges are test-optional. This means you can send in your scores if you want to, but it isn’t required.
Some test-optional colleges base scholarships on test scores. If you do not submit your SAT or ACT scores, it is possible your scholarship will be worth considerably less. Be sure to check college websites before deciding not to send in your SAT or ACT test scores.
Most students take these exams in their junior year. This gives them ample time to retake the tests early in their senior year if needed. Many students take them two or three times to reach their target score – the one that will earn them the most scholarship money.
Narrow down your college choices
Use your junior year to research colleges and universities that interest you. Attend college fairs, visit the campus and speak with admissions officers. Consider factors such as location, size, majors offered, campus culture and financial aid opportunities. By the end of your junior year, aim to have a list of about 10-15 colleges that you’re interested in applying to.
Take the ACT/SAT for the first time
Most students will take these tests during their junior year, usually in the spring. This will give you time to retake them if needed during your senior year.
Summer before your senior year
Start working on your personal essay
While it may seem early, starting on your personal essay during the summer before your senior year can give you more time to perfect it. Your personal essay is where you get to show colleges who you truly are beyond grades and test scores.
It's your chance to share your story, your passions and your goals. Common prompts may ask about a significant event, class or realization that you have experienced.
Remember, authenticity is key. Write about something meaningful to you and don't be afraid to let your personality shine through. Start early, proofread thoroughly and consider getting feedback from teachers, parents or friends.
In your senior year
Request recommendation letters
Reach out to teachers and counselors early in your senior year to ask for recommendations. Recommendation letters give colleges another perspective on who you are as a student and person. These letters are typically from teachers, counselors or coaches who know you well.
Start asking for these letters at the beginning of your senior year to give your recommenders enough time to write a thoughtful letter. Be sure to provide them with any necessary forms, a resume and a brief description of why you're applying to certain colleges.
Complete and submit your FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is one of the most essential parts of your college application journey. It determines your eligibility for federal financial aid, including grants, work-study programs, and loans. Many scholarships, such as the Michigan Achievement Scholarship that can earn you thousands of dollars in free money, are also based on your FAFSA application.
The FAFSA traditionally opens for you on October 1st of your senior year. In 2023, the FAFSA for students applying to start college in the fall of 2024, will open in December 2023. This is due to an overhaul of the form to simplify the process. After this, the FAFSA will return to its usual Oct. 1 open date each year.
Be sure to fill this out and submit it as soon as possible, as some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Submit applications by college deadlines
Be aware of all application deadlines for each college you are applying to. Make a schedule and stick to it to ensure that you meet each deadline.
Some colleges have multiple types of applications and admission decision dates. Be sure you know the differences and the deadlines for each:
Regular Decision, Early Action, Early Decision, and Rolling Admissions: What's the Difference?
- Regular Decision is the most common option, with deadlines usually in January or February.
- Early Action allows you to apply early (typically in November) and receive an admission decision earlier than regular decision without committing to the college.
- Early Decision is binding—if you're accepted, you're expected to enroll unless the financial aid package is insufficient.
- Rolling Admissions means that applications are reviewed as they come in, and decisions are made on a continuous basis until all spots are filled.
If you’re interested in early admission, be sure to read our blog Everything You Need to Know About Early Admission to College.
Transcripts are official records of your high school grades and should be sent to every college you apply to. Most high schools use an online service for transcript requests, but some may require you to fill out a form in person. Check with your guidance counselor to understand your school's process.
By following this timeline and staying organized, the college application process can be a much more manageable and stress-free experience.
Above all else, it's essential to remember that the college application process should be about finding the right fit for you. While it's important to have good grades and test scores, what truly sets you apart is your passion and dedication towards something meaningful to you. This could be a hobby, a cause or an academic interest.
The college application process can be overwhelming, but by staying organized and starting early, you can navigate it successfully. Don't forget to prioritize completing the FAFSA, taking standardized tests, and crafting a standout personal essay. Remember to also secure recommendation letters and submit transcripts on time. And finally, stay true to yourself and let your interests guide you in finding the right college for you.
If you’re looking for a world-class research university where hands-on learning and career preparation start on day one, check out Central Michigan University. 93.7% of our graduates are working in a field related to their major or pursuing a higher degree within six months of graduation. Schedule a visit to our campus today.