high school senior working on homework

A lot of students think of “college admissions” as “applying to college,” but the college admissions process starts long before you start filling out applications. We’ve broken down some of the biggest college admissions milestones to help you stay on track on the road to college.

Throughout High School – All Four Years

There are certain things that you should do every single year in order to thoroughly prepare for college while building a really strong college application:

Maintain a rigorous class schedule

Challenge yourself with tough classes to really show colleges what you’re made of. Take the toughest classes you think you can reasonably excel in.

Keep your grades up

Your grades throughout high school tell admission officers a lot about your commitment to academics, your abilities, and your mastery of certain subjects – grades certainly aren’t the only thing colleges look at, but they count for a lot.

Don’t overlook extracurricular activities

College admissions considerations don’t end with the final bell of the school day. Colleges seek applicants who are involved in their schools and communities, who demonstrate leadership skills, and who know how to balance their academic and non-academic responsibilities. The best way to demonstrate these attributes is to find a few extracurricular activities that truly interest you and to pursue these activities throughout high school. Don’t just join a bunch of clubs and teams because you think colleges will like them – if you’re going to dedicate a lot of time to something, it should be something you enjoy.

Junior Year – Fall

First semester of junior year is typically the time when students “get serious” about the whole college admissions process. With just a year to go before it’s time to fill out applications, it’s crunch time:


Check out our recent post for more info.

Start your SAT and/or ACT prep

It might be a good idea to take both tests since some students seem to have a natural affinity for one test over the other. Regardless of whether you take both tests or just one, plan to sit for more than one test date so that you can submit your best scores. For advice about which tests to take and how best to prepare, contact your local C2 Education center for a consultation!

Research your options

It’s time to start figuring out where you want to apply. Remember to consider many different variables beyond prestige, rankings, or your favorite NCAA teams, including cost, location, school size, and programs offered. Be sure to include colleges that are safety schools (those you’re pretty sure you’d get accepted at), reach schools (those you think you might possibly get accepted at, but the odds aren’t spectacular), and match schools (those where you fairly evenly match their accepted students in grades and test scores).

Visit schools

If big trips just aren’t in the cards, stick with local schools. Even if you aren’t interested in applying, these visits can help you figure out what to look for in a college.

Junior Year – Spring

If you’ve laid the groundwork in fall semester, spring semester should be pretty busy:

Register for and take the SAT and/or ACT

Taking your admission tests now gives you plenty of time to retake the tests if you want higher scores. It’s a good idea to plan for a second test date because many students perform better on their second try.

Prepare for and take AP exams

It is the exam score – not your grade in the class – that determines whether or not you become eligible for college credit. Make your test score count! Learn more about AP prep here.

Narrow down your list of colleges

You should aim for no more than 10 to 15 colleges on your finalized list. Be sure to consider all factors, including cost, graduation rates, location, size, and programs.

Summer After Junior Year

Don’t waste your last high school summer. Make it count towards college admissions:

Visit potential colleges

If at all possible, travel to your possible schools to see first-hand what they’re like. After all, the school you attend will be your home for several years, so you should make sure you really like it.

Detail your application plans

Figure out application deadlines, weigh your options regarding Early Action and Early Decision programs (read more on that here), and mark your calendar to be sure that you have all the pieces of your applications in place when you need them.

Start on your application essays

A college application essay is not a writing task that can easily be completed in just a few hours. To do it right takes weeks of careful planning, writing, and revision. Check out our recent post for college application essay tips.

Research your financial aid options

Use the net price calculators offered on college websites to estimate your out of pocket costs and explore your financial aid options.

Apply for scholarships

Depending on your college’s policies, scholarships may help to defray your college costs.

Senior Year – Fall

The finish line is finally in sight – don’t lost momentum now!

Identify teachers for recommendations

Do not wait to the last minute – teachers are busy, and you want to give them plenty of time to craft a compelling recommendation for you. Try to give teachers/coaches at least a month’s notice before the deadline. Do the legwork for them by offering them a bulleted list explaining why you chose them and how you feel you performed in their classes; prepare a packet that includes all the information they might need, such as application deadlines, forms, and a stamped addressed envelope for each recommendation.

Take the SAT and/or ACT again

Especially if you weren’t 100% satisfied with your earlier scores, now is a good time to give these tests another go. Remember that most schools won’t take scores for testing dates later than January – taking these tests earlier in the fall leaves you at least one more test date if you really need to take the test one more time.

Revise your college application essays

Now is the time to ask for some outside input from teachers, counselors, or C2 tutors. Be sure to eliminate any and all errors and ask for advice on the content of the essay from those who are familiar with the college admissions process.

Follow your college application plan

Be sure to meet any early deadlines that you’ve planned for. To help ease the process, gather all of your materials (forms, essays, test scores, recommendations, transcripts, etc.) in advance.

If needed, submit your CSS Profile

Some schools require a CSS Profile for students applying early. This is a financial aid form comparable to the FAFSA.

Senior Year – Spring

The end is near – just a few more steps:

Submit any remaining college applications

Some schools have deadlines that fall as late as March – be sure to stay on top of all of your application deadlines.

Complete and submit the FAFSA and any school-based financial aid forms

The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better – some schools give aid on a first-come-first-serve basis. Don’t forget to follow up by submitting updated tax information once your parents have filed their taxes for the year.

Play the waiting game

One of the hardest parts of the entire process is waiting for decisions to arrive. While you wait, be sure to maintain your grades!

Compare financial aid packages from the schools where you received admission

If needed – for instance, if your family’s financial circumstances have changed – reach out to financial aid offices to appeal their offers.

Pick your school

Weigh your options carefully to be sure that you’re choosing the best school for you. Don’t be swayed by prestige or rankings – make your decision based on program offerings, financial aid, location, and fit.

Take your AP exams

Remember that course credit is offered based on these scores!

Maintain your grades

Schools can rescind offers of admission if your grades plummet.

Pay attention to deadlines

Submit all enrollment paperwork and deposits on time.

For more college admission resources, check out this page. Good luck, students!