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College Application: A Step-By-Step Timeline

By: Swamini Patel

As familiar as the college apps process is, it doesn’t seem to be getting easier. There are thousands of steps and missing even one can be a critical mistake. Just like how the planning stages of a vacation are easily more difficult than going on the trips themselves, the starting stages of college application can be the most difficult for many.

So, to help you get started, we’ve mapped out an easy-to-follow timeline so you can efficiently keep track of deadlines and goals to make applying to that dream school a little less stressful.

Junior Year

  • For those of you still a little early in the process, junior year is more of a soft opening to college apps.

  • Essentially, it is just the basics. If you stick to these few steps, you’ll end up in a good place before summer and senior year:

    1. Standardized Testing: SAT/ACT

      1. If you are applying to a school that requires any of these tests, getting standardized tests done early can be a weight off your shoulders when the essay writing and resume-building deadlines get closer come senior year..

      2. Read up on how our friend Arya scored a 36 on the ACT here!

    2. Research Potential Schools

      1. Through word-of-mouth, some easy google searches, or reading interviews like the many AlumniAnswers provides, you can learn which colleges you may want to apply to.

      2. Start making a list and consider planning college visits as well. Many schools offer both virtual and in-person options! Try to start these tours asap, so you don’t have to worry about them once your college apps start!

      3. Follow AlumniAnswers Co-Founder Michelle and her college tour experiences through our Instagram story “Tours”.

      4. Niche is a great way to find schools that fit your interest.

    3. Scholarships

      1. Scholarships are always available for application no matter your grade (they can be a little harder to find as underclassmen), and there is no limit to how many you can earn.

      2. Any questions about Scholarships? Read here to learn more.

      3. Our opportunities page also provides countless possible scholarships for Junior Year students to apply for.

    4. Grades and Extracurriculars

      1. Although grades are no longer the only priority to admissions officers, they are still used to filter out applicants (especially in more selective colleges), it is important to show academic excellence. But remember, that does not necessarily mean earning straight A’s! A large part of your academic consideration is that you display positive change. With some tutoring and a little more study time, I was able to get my American History grade up from a low B to an A last school year. Now, I can easily say it is the part of my academic transcript I am most proud of. So, if you are struggling with a class, don’t see it as a negative, instead, see it as an opportunity to grow!

      2. As for extracurriculars, be sure to show a continuation in your interests outside of school! A HUGE component of college applications today is passion projects. If you have a strong interest or belief in something, create something new with that. By making a difference or having a vital learning experience through your passion project, admissions officers get an idea of you as a person, not just as a student. Passion projects can be anything such as holding fundraisers, starting a club or organization, to blogging online.

      3. If you are interested in a passion project, reach out directly to our co-founders through our email or Instagram for advice on how they started AA!

Junior Year Summer

  1. Standardized Testing: SAT/ACT (Again)

    1. Both SAT and ACT testing is provided 1-2 times in the summer.

    2. The summer can be a great tool to utilize for studying for SAT/ACTs, especially considering you don’t have to worry about all of your classes taken during the school year at the same time.

  2. Apply for Scholarships, Create a College List, Visit Schools, and Maintain Extracurriculars (Again!)

  3. Research/Decide on College Application Deadlines

    1. Many universities often have early action, early decision, regular decision, and countless other options to apply through.

    2. This helpful article explains further what each of these entails.

  4. Ask for Recommendation Letters from Teachers

    1. Some quick tips:

      1. Make sure to be respectful when requesting your recommendation. Be kind!

      2. Come prepared for questions. It is important to be aware of your deadlines and to communicate them to your teachers as well!

      3. Send follow-up emails/meet up to provide resumes, as well as any other information your teacher may request. If they ask for a brag sheet, don’t be afraid to BRAG! Being vulnerable and truthful can really help your teachers write great recommendations.

      4. Be respectful of your teacher’s time!

      5. Uday Tripathi, a UPENN student, explains that:

“most colleges will require two teacher recommendation letters (generally 1 STEM and 1 non-STEM teacher) and a counselor recommendation letter (which will inform the college of how you rank in terms of the school as a whole)....The counselor recommendation is also underrated - …I still made it a point to see [my counselor] a few times every year just so she could write a slightly more customized letter for me.”

5. Draft College Essays

  1. June-July: Read through the year’s common app prompts to see what you may want to write about. Brainstorm and make a list of ideas/topics for your essays, especially for your common app. The Common App is extremely important to your applications. In fact, Noelle Sorich, an alum of Seton Hall University considers it the most important part:

“Admissions counselors will spend the time to read it and ask, “Who is this person? Why does it matter that they want to come to this school? How will they fit in? They just want to get to know you because your resume can only say so many things (It's the same thing when you're applying to jobs)....Though bullet points are great, you still want to pinpoint on why xyz matters.”

b. August: Begin drafting your essays. If you don’t know where to begin, or are struggling to write, AlumniAnswers has countless articles with essay writing tips and experience from alumni.

c. Follow our co-founder Michelle’s college app journey here!

Senior Year

  1. August to October

    1. Apply for Fee Waivers

    2. Continue College Tours

    3. Finalize College Application Deadlines

    4. Write College Essays

    5. Keep applying for scholarships!

  2. October to November

    1. Apply for FAFSA (financial aid)

      1. The sooner you apply after October 1st, the more financial opportunities are provided.

      2. Try to get this done early so it is not a hassle later on.

      3. For more on financial aid, check out this article!

    2. Begin sending any scores, transcripts, recommendation letters, or other information (For those applying with Early Action or Early Decision because deadlines are typically in early November)

    3. Essay Writing

    4. Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships!

  3. November and Onwards

    1. Submit transcripts, scores, letters, and more according to your application deadlines.

    2. You may know it already at this point, but keep applying for scholarships! These are not limited to only before submitting college applications (You can even apply for scholarships throughout college)!


  • For my visual learners, Scribbr provides a great map of a similar timeline.

  • Quick reminder! Everyone works differently. Adjusting your schedule based on your liking is highly recommended because more often than not, you are the only one who knows how you stay productive best!

  • If you feel behind, Luke Drago, a student at Oxford University says:

“...if you didn’t start freshman year, don’t worry. I was the kid scouring the internet a few weeks before the deadline looking for all the information I could. If that’s you, then the best time to start is now. You can still do it, even with a short amount of time left.”

Now, await your results! Remember, it is your own efforts that will make the most difference. Those with the strongest tools for learning, and those with very few can end up at the same level of success.

Thanks for reading!
  • Find this helpful? Check out our Opportunities page for scholarships and other college-related opportunities for you.

  • Subscribe to our newsletter, AlumniAlert, and get a free infographic with the best advice we’ve had about ALL of our topics.

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