Reading time: 13 min.
In January 2023, I spoke with our local PTO about what high school students, regardless of grade, and parents can be doing to prepare for (and hopefully simplify) the college application process.
They found my college admissions timeline helpful, so I wanted to share those same tips and pieces of advice with you. Ultimately, I want to give students choices about how they continue life after high school — and I’d love to add some ease and planning into the process, too.
The Common App reported that as of January 2023, application volume (the number of applications students are submitting) has risen 24% — reaching 5,346,000 applications. Students are also increasing the average number of applications they submit. It’s gone from an average of 4 to just slightly over 6, and 17% of applicants are applying to 10 or more schools.
So what does that mean for parents and students? It means that sometimes, the application process can be a little bit overwhelming. There are a lot of balls to juggle. There’s a lot of information to gather. There are a lot of colleges to sift through.
The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do now to get ahead of the college search and application process and make them both a little bit easier when the time comes. Here are some of my favorites, listed out grade by grade.
There are many things you can do every year to help prepare for college admissions and life after high school. Here are three to start working on regardless of your grade level.
Grab one of the many binders you inevitably have hanging around the house (I can’t be the only one). In it, keep a running list of volunteer activities, awards and accomplishments, website user names and passwords, transcripts, test scores, flyers from schools, and other college-related information. Many of these pieces of information might be used in the college application.
For example, schools will ask: What awards have you earned? What achievements have you had? What extracurriculars have you participated in? What classes have you taken?
So starting a binder (or even a file folder) early is a great way to keep track of all those pieces of information.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret: Parents are often much better at remembering (and bragging on) their students’ accomplishments than kids are. So make filling that binder a family activity!
In general, colleges want to see increasing academic rigor for students over the four years of high school — that students are finding ways to challenge themselves. Even during senior year, when students have been accepted to colleges, those colleges don’t want to see kids slacking off and taking a blowoff courseload. (Note: You’ll need to add your senior year courses in the Common App when you apply, so don’t think colleges aren’t looking.)
Depending on the school you’re applying to and even what major you’re applying to, it may matter how many years of foreign language you have or if you took physics or calculus.
Now that doesn’t mean you have to take every AP or dual credit course available to you. We don’t want to overwhelm you. It’s important you pursue your interests. Try new things. Be an office assistant or take late arrival. But make sure you’re taking classes that will get you to graduation and that will also improve your chances of getting in at the school or major you’re targeting.
Another thing I’ll suggest for students of all grades is: Start adding to your college list and doing research on those schools early.
If you’re going on vacation and there’s a college nearby, take a quick tour — even if it’s not somewhere you think you’re particularly interested in. I think it’s really helpful to see the difference between a 1,000-person private college in the Northeast in January versus a 40,000-person state school in the South during the same month. Even if you can’t get on an official tour, just walk around!
Not going on vacation anytime soon? No problem! There are a lot of great insider videos and tours on places like YouTube, where you can get a sense of what college life is like on a particular campus.
Whatever you do, just start early. Start to get a sense of size. Of rigor. Of extracurricular and academic offerings. Of ease traveling to/from home.
And then know that your interests might change as you progress through high school. You may be eager to travel far from home … until it’s actually time to leave. And that’s OK. By then, you’ll have a diverse list of schools that might be a better fit for you.
Now you’re in high school and getting the lay of the land. Awesome! Here are some of the things you can do to make the most of your freshman year.
Get involved wherever you can. Find a club or an extracurricular you might be interested in or that meshes well with your interests. Many schools will say they like to see depth versus breadth. That means to not join every club, just to be able to list it on your resume. They’d rather see you take on a leadership role or increasing responsibilities in a smaller number of clubs.
But it’s OK to spend some of your freshman year exploring several clubs in order to find that perfect match or two.
Side note: Check out onetonline.org. You can enter a potential career — like architect or accountant — and it’ll generate a really nice list of what skillset a person in this career might need to have or what day-to-day activities they might do. You can look to look at these careers and maybe say, “Yeah, this meshes with what I’m good at or what I’m interested in.” And then, you may start to connect those interests with your activities and courses.
You can even create a Common App account now (although you’ll have to manually roll it over every summer to preserve any data you enter). Most students won’t create this account until their junior year, but there’s no reason you can’t do it early. (Just remember to roll it over when you’re prompted to each year.)
If you create a Common App account before the end of junior year, use it primarily for college research, waiting until the summer after junior year to input application data. Creating that account is also just a great way to become familiar with the Common App, the layout, and the information that will be asked of you.
By the time sophomore year ends, you’ll be halfway done with high school! So now is the time to stay (or get) focused. Here are three things to pay attention to.
Again, this applies to students in every grade, but start volunteering. Colleges love to see volunteer and service hours, and it’s important you give back, too. You might even be able to connect your service with a career or major, like volunteering at a hospital or working at an animal shelter recording donations in their accounting software.
Schedules are busy, so don’t let that be an excuse for not serving. There are a ton of ways you can give back from home or on your own schedule, too — like sewing toys for shelter dogs or making bookmarks for the library.
Colleges are continuing to re-evaluate their testing policies, so it’s wise to prepare a testing plan now. Even if you’re applying to a school that’s test-optional, which means they don’t require you to submit test scores to apply, there will still be cases where it benefits you to have not just a test score, but maybe a decent test score. Good scores could impact merit, could impact your ability to get into an honors program or a major, and could improve your chances of acceptance.
Not sure if you should take the SAT or the ACT? Take one practice test of each. Students usually prefer one over the other, but you won’t know which until you try.
Once you know which you prefer, consider coming up with a study plan, whether that’s self-study, group tutoring sessions, or one-on-one work with a tutor. Oh, and sign up for some official tests!
Some schools use demonstrated interest in their admission decisions. That means some schools will give you “bonus points” if you sign up for their email list, if you open their emails, if you click on the links, if you take a tour, if you email admission officers with questions — essentially, if you express any interest in the school.
One way to tell if a school counts demonstrated interest is by Googling [school name] Common Data Set. You’ll get access to a report all schools must complete that gives a great breakdown of things like applicant data, acceptance data, test score, and GPA data, and what a school considers when making admission decisions.
If a school does track demonstrated interest, then you know you should start showing enthusiasm for the school. (And it’s never too early to do that.)
Junior year is when things will obviously start ramping up (even if it seems like they’ve already ramped up). Here are a few things to keep in mind this year.
In the spring of second semester, one thing to think about is who you want to write your letters of recommendation. In March or April — definitely before school gets out — consider asking three teachers (two from core classes and one from an elective) to write these letters. While you can also ask coaches or troop leaders or bosses for letters of recommendation, focus on those three teacher recommendations first. (Not all schools will accept a non-teacher letter or recommendation.)
You should pick someone who knows you well, who you’ve had recently as a teacher (ideally), and who will be sure to write you a good recommendation.
Note: Generally, teachers will hold on to these letters of recommendation and upload them directly (depending on your school) to Naviance or the Common App. If you need letters for scholarships or other purposes, you can ask the teachers to write a separate letter of recommendation.
In some cases, teachers limit the number of letters they can/will write each year, so it’s important to get your requests in before school is out.
As I mentioned earlier, schools are evaluating whether they’ll continue their test-optional policies. Some have reverted back to requiring test scores as part of an application; others remain test-optional.
That makes it important for juniors to keep up with their testing plans. You can continue to study and improve your scores — and potentially increase your chances of earning merit aid or gaining acceptance.
Parents, this one is for you. If you haven’t done so already, now is also a good time to think, “OK, we’ve got this college list. How am I going to pay for it? Do/will we have the financial resources?”
Back to students: You can help pitch in here. You can apply for (and win) scholarships as early as junior high. There’s a lot of different scholarships you can apply for, both locally and nationwide. (Hint: You might even be able to repurpose some of your admission essays as scholarship essays!)
Not sure how or where to get started? This scholarship guide walks you through all the steps.
Once the summer after junior year hits, you can (and should) take a little time off to decompress, but then I really urge you to work on your applications and essays over the summer so most are submitted by the time senior year rolls around.
Nobody wants to do it. I get it. Everybody wants to relax over the summer — especially after a jam-packed junior year — but senior year is going to hit, and it may not be as easy as you think it’s going to be. You’ll be busy. You’ve got sports and activities and friends and work.
The Common App and Coalition App prompts are generally released in the spring, so you can start brainstorming and writing your main essay as soon as they come out. Then when the Common App opens back up on Aug. 1, you’ll be ready to submit some (or all) of your applications shortly thereafter. (You may also be able to submit applications earlier directly through the institution’s website.)
For some schools, your chances of acceptance (both to the school and to the major of your choice) increase if you can submit your applications early. But wait until you have the strongest application (e.g., you’ve put time and effort into it) before submitting.
As much as seniors wish it was, their work isn’t quite yet done. But you’re on the home stretch. Here’s how to get across that finish line and round up the college admissions timeline.
Even through the spring (and sometimes even later), you can still be submitting applications. So if you feel you haven’t found your right fit, there’s still time to do so!
Parents, we’re back to you. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens Oct. 1, and you’ll want to fill that out if you think your student will qualify for financial aid.
In some states, like Texas, completing the FAFSA (or exempting out of it) is even a graduation requirement.
As students start getting acceptances (congratulations!!), parents can join Facebook groups for admitted students and start to get a better feel for what life on campus is going to look like for students. (Students, likewise, may join group chats to meet other admitted and current students and start to plan life after high school and see if XYX University is the right fit for them.)
May 1 is traditionally the decision deadline for most schools, so be ready to commit to a school, submit deposits, and then decline your offers from other schools.
Finally, you can all breathe a sigh of relief as your college admissions timeline comes to a successful close.
Here are links to a few of my favorite resources that can help you in the college planning process.
Books on Amazon
Navigating the College Application Process
Writing the Personal Statement
The college admissions timeline can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. If you start planning early and break down tasks year by year, the process can become a lot more simple and stress-free.
Download my College Application Information Planner today and add it to your college planning binder and make sure you don’t miss a single piece of information for the college applications.