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What is the Timeline for the College Application Process? A Roadmap

One of the most frequently asked questions from my clients is about the timeline of the college preparation, search and application steps that I guide them on. This is a 30,000 foot view of the roadmap to the most essential milestones of the journey. In this metaphor, I help build guardrails and a dashboard with a GPS that has the critical waypoints programmed in. Every student is different and every starting point is different, but these are the general reference points that we steer toward.

College Counseling Roadmap

9th grade through spring of 10th grade

The focus of this period of high school life is exploration of activities, and learning to manage your academics to be successful.

Critical Goals:

  • Develop good sleep habits

  • Be kind

  • Get to know your teachers, and ask for help when needed


  • Read and explore

The second half of each of these years provides a chance to plan the following year’s courses and find opportunity for appropriate challenge in your school’s curriculum. When you plan 11th grade, especially, you may have the chance to begin making choices that allow you to deepen your personal interests. These schedule planning points are good times to check in with me (and school counselors/ advisors and teachers) for guidance.

10th grade is a good time to try some personal interest/ potential career inventories to help you begin thinking about potential future directions. I can share access to some useful surveys to begin this exploration.

Visits? In the first two years of high school, if the opportunity presents itself to see a campus near home or to check out a college while on a vacation, it may be helpful to begin orienting to what's out there and the basics of how a college works. I would recommend taking it easy, not planning an intensive college visit trip just yet. See my Guide to College Visits for more tips.

Summer after 10th grade

This is a great summer to explore and deepen interests. There are enriching summer programs of all kinds to look into. There is no “right” activity for college admission. Always make student interest the first priority— look for ways to gain skill, exercise leadership, and share with your community. Self-guided activities are extremely valuable to the student and also demonstrate more to colleges than participating in a paid opportunity! This doesn’t always translate to every category of activity, but keep in mind that authentic and self-driven efforts, when feasible and appropriate, are often more beneficial all around.

Also, having a summer job is a good chance for students to gain useful experience in the world and to take on some financial responsibility.

This is the earliest you may want to consider standardized test prep. It is generally not advisable to take an official ACT or SAT until late fall of grade 11. There is time to take tests through the fall of senior year. The Compass Guide offers a very helpful overview of testing and appropriate timelines.

*Test prep before this time, or test prep over a period of the better part of a year or more, is not an effective or productive use of time! Beware of test prep tutors or organizations who try to sell a different approach!

11th grade Fall

Your school life is priority #1. Many students feel that the transition to junior year comes with a noticeable shift in intensity of coursework and homework. Start off the year with a positive attitude, and figure out what you need to do to be successful in your classes. Junior year is the last full academic year considered in college admission; your best effort and highest levels of engagement are key.

You’ll need to ask two junior year teachers for recommendation letters. Engage in your classroom, talk to your teachers, and be a positive influence on the class dynamic.

Your school may offer the PSAT (Digital as of 2024) or a pre-ACT. These tests are not “official;” they are meant to be practice opportunities (and also chances to get your name and some of your personal information into the “admission funnel.”) Do your best and take away what you can learn about the timed testing experience. Yes, the PSAT, when taken in 11th grade, is a qualifier for the National Merit awards. I still don’t think it’s worth spending much time preparing for the test besides maybe gaining a general understanding of the content and test format. Only testers in the top 1% of their US state will be eligible to become National Merit Finalists, and it’s a one-time award of $2500. Some colleges award additional institutional merit money to Finalists, but the number is diminishing.

Think about taking a first official SAT or ACT late in the first half of the year (December), or in the spring.

11th Grade Winter

Around the middle of the year is the time to dig into initial thinking about college. The best way to start is to take stock of what you’ve learned about yourself and the way you learn. After you can identify some priorities and guiding values (through conversation, guided reflection and some online survey tools), we begin to explore colleges to see what they offer and how different ways of structuring college education might fit your preferences.

We’ll start with a new round of surveys and reflection in the fall, and then move into a process of looking at some different colleges. The more you research and learn, the more it will shape this evolving search.

It’s a good idea to think of the college process as an extra class that you leave room for in your schedule over your junior year spring and senior year fall.

Junior year is a good time to start visiting campuses, if you have the chance. By spring you may have a list that you want to see. In the fall/ winter, it’s not a bad idea just to visit a few colleges that aren’t far from home to experience different sizes and types of colleges. Always take the tour and sit in on the information session. You’ll learn something every time. After you’ve seen 3 different colleges, I think you start to get a sense of the ways colleges and universities differentiate themselves, and the things many of them have in common.

11th Grade Spring

The pace and focus begin to pick up here. These are some of the tasks I'll cover with my clients:

  • Talk about potential teacher recommenders, make some decisions, and find out if there are any special procedures at your school. In most cases, you’ll ask before the summer.

  • Use our college research online platforms for research and list-building.

  • Make sure that you are attending all required college events at your school, engaging with your school counselor, and using any required tools/ platforms there.

  • Talk about summer plans, with an eye on activities that can add depth and meaning to the areas that are most important to you.

  • Plan any potential college visits you can fit in over spring break or other school breaks

  • Revisit testing conversations.

  • Work on preparing your activities list for colleges by recording your experiences into our shared Activities Record document.

  • Continually discuss colleges and keep your list in development.

  • Begin running lists through a data analysis to hone in on our categorization of admissibility in the categories of likely/ foundation, target, and reasonable reach.

  • Make sure you are on contact lists of colleges that interest you.

Summer Before Senior Year

Between June and September, we’ll take on these steps. The actual date depends on the student’s start date with me, their schedule and other summer commitments.

  • Open Common Application account and fill out the personal and education information.

  • Begin process of discussion and initial brainstorming and drafting of the primary personal statement (essay) that will be used for Common App and other applications.

  • Potentially begin same process of drafting U California short essays, if appropriate.

  • Plan any final standardized tests and refresher prep.

End of Summer into Start of Senior Year

This is an exciting time. Students get to take part in the rituals and celebrations of their final year of high school. Of course, this first semester or trimester of senior is a critical time for students to show their best academic effort, as its the last period that may be considered in admission review... and it's important to finish high school on a high note for your own confidence and your start to college.

  • Outline the process of application work to be done by December.

  • Plan for college application work time in the student’s schedule.

  • Student and family make note of all required school presentations on college counseling, required meetings with counselor, and any procedural steps via paperwork, meetings or school platforms like Naviance/ SCOIR.

  • Find out what is needed to make sure transcripts, recommendations and school support materials are sent to the right colleges on time.

  • Check in with teacher recommenders to make sure they have everything they need. As soon as you know your earliest deadline, give them at least one month notice.

  • Find out how to keep track of college admission reps coming to your school between August and November, and to make sure you remember to attend, if your teachers allow.

  • Using MaiaLearning (my platform), Common Application, and any school platforms, make sure you have a general idea of your earliest application due date and a general timeline for your rounds of applications. Generally, most students’ first application is in November or December. Some public universities, mostly in the Southeastern US, have October deadlines.

  • Continue drafting the primary essay. This is best done over time, with a process of drafts, feedback and occasionally putting the work aside to keep perspective on it.

September-October of Senior Year

  • Focused college application work: finalizing Common Application, activities list, primary essay, supplements.

  • Make decisions about application list— begin process of narrowing down to a balanced application list (balanced: Generally no more than 12 applications, focused on “targets” with some great “likelies” and some reasonable “reaches.)

  • Identify by early October any November Early Action, Early Decision (binding— this is a big conversation!), or Restrictive Early Action deadlines in November.

  • Draft and develop application supplements: (usually) shorter essays with specific prompts, often related to why you want to go to that college, your interests, and/ or questions designed to make you think about that specific campus’ culture and values in relation to yourself.

  • Possibly submit scores you’re planning to have considered for November deadlines.

If applying for financial aid, find out which forms are required (usually FAFSA and CSS Profile) and have them completed by the deadline for the colleges (for 2024 entry, FAFSA will open in December.)

November of Senior Year

First applications may be submitted. Make sure to follow all guidelines for support from your school, and be aware of them ahead of time!

The end of November is a good time to aim for a finalized college list. There is still time to make adjustments in the next two months, but by late November we should have a solid sense of your list.

November to Mid-December of Senior Year

Keep the momentum going! We’ll keep working to pull together all the pieces for all known applications.

Our goal is to have all materials for deadlines through the end of January ready to go before the December holiday break from school!

After Applications

Many colleges will send information about admissions portals after application. It is vitally important that students follow these steps and regularly check the portals, as well as their email. Keeping on top of this communication is one reason why too many applications can quickly lead to diminishing returns and more stress for the student.

Every student’s process will vary to some extent up to this point. After this point, even more so. Our conversations will depend on early application results, managing offers like defer and waitlist, opportunities for interviews and spring visits, and more. My comprehensive support packages extend through June after graduation.

Want to know more? Here's more about my background. Give me a call or send me an email to learn more about how I can support your student and family in this annual cycle.

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