When you apply to college, colleges review your entire high school experience, which means that the college admissions process starts much earlier than many people realize. Everything a student does starting on the first day of high school becomes part of the cumulative academic record that will help determine college admissions decisions.
Since the college admissions process is long and complex, let’s break it down.
All Four Years of High School: Building a Strong Record
Throughout high school, students need to focus on building strong academic records by earning top grades in challenging courses and by establishing good relationships with the counselors and teachers who might write recommendation letters when it’s time to apply to college. Learn more here:
- Get an overview of the college admissions timeline with College Admissions: What to Do When
- Learn about why colleges examine your grades so closely with What College Admissions Officers Look For: Grades
- Find out what your course selections tell admissions officers with What College Admissions Officers Look For: Course Rigor
- Read tips for choosing the best classes with Pick the Right Classes to Get into Your Dream College
- Get help fixing bad grades with On the Bright Side: My GPA Stinks Right Now
Freshman Year: Explore Extracurricular Interests
Freshman year counts—but it counts the least. Your freshman grades make up the cumulative GPA that colleges will look at, but since colleges are more interested in the person they might bring onto their campus, they’re much more concerned with who you are at 18 than at 14.
By the time you apply to college, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate a commitment to following through on clearly defined passions and interests—in order to do that, you need to find those passions and interests. Freshman year is your opportunity to explore.
Early in the school year, most school groups will hold informational meet and greets for prospective new members. Attend as many as you can! You won’t actually join every group that you attend a meeting for, but you’ll have seen what’s out there so that you can make more informed extracurricular choices.
When it comes to picking your activities, don’t worry about “what looks good to colleges” or “what makes me seem well-rounded.” Worry about what you’re interested in because “what looks good to colleges is an applicant who pursues well-defined interests with passion and gusto.
Learn more about leveraging freshman year in the college admissions process with College Admissions Timeline: What to Do Your Freshman Year.
Sophomore Year: Things Start to Get Serious
During sophomore year, you’ll want to continue doing all those things you should be doing throughout high school: getting good grades in tough courses and cultivating good relationships with the counselors and teachers who will help you on your road to college.
But there are a few other things you’ll really want to tackle as a sophomore.
First, let’s talk about extracurriculars. If freshman year is your time to explore, sophomore year is your time to narrow things down. By the time you apply to colleges a senior, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate commitment to your interests through leadership positions and carefully cultivated extracurricular activities. This starts with narrowing down your extracurricular activities so that you can become deeply involved in just two or three areas rather than shallowly involved in half a dozen activities.
The second big thing to consider as a sophomore is test prep. It may seem early to worry about SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores when applications are still two years away, but test prep is a marathon, not a sprint! The most successful ACT or SAT test-takers are those who prepared slowly over a long period of time, building the fundamental skills needed to ace these tests.
For those students hoping for top test scores, starting test prep in sophomore year has an additional benefit: students can simultaneously prep for the SAT/ACT and the PSAT in order to compete for the National Merit Scholarship as juniors. In 11th grade, the PSAT acts as the qualifying test for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship; students who advance in the scholarship competition have a valuable honor to add to their college applications.
Learn more about how your sophomore year can help you get into your dream colleges with College Admissions Timeline: What to Do Your Sophomore Year, and check out these test prep resources to get a jump start on your SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test prep:
- Make your testing plan with College Admissions Testing: Which Test to Take When
- Find out what college admissions officers learn from your SAT/ACT scores with What College Admissions Officers Look For: SAT/ACT Scores
- Get actionable steps to take if you get a disappointing test score with On the Bright Side: Handling a Bad SAT or ACT Score
- Learn about SAT Subject Tests with
- Get our Top 10 SAT and ACT Prep Tips
- Find out How to Get a 30 (or Higher!) on the ACT
- Check out our to learn about the National Merit Scholarship and PSAT prep
- Learn how to leverage practice tests to boost your SAT or ACT scores with The Key to Good Test Scores: Practice, Practice, Practice
Junior Year: Start Your Engines
The race is on. Junior year is when Things. Get. Real. You’re neck deep in the college admissions process now.
The start of the new school year features the lead up to the October PSAT/NMSQT, the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. If you’re hoping to be one of the chosen few who can put this prestigious prize on your college applications, check out our Complete PSAT Guide.
But aside from the PSAT, there’s not much to distinguish fall of junior year from the start of any other school year. That will change in the second half of the year.
In the spring, everything comes to a head: you have limited time to finalize SAT/ACT scores; you’ll need to finalize your college list and research policies at those schools so that you know about any unique requirements (like SAT Subject Test scores); you’ll probably have a slew of AP exams to prepare for; if you haven’t already visited college campuses, you’ll want to do that during spring break and summer vacation; and don’t forget about searching and applying for scholarships.
It’s a lot. We’ve got you covered, though. Check out Junior Year Survival Guide for tips on navigating this busy semester.
Summer after Junior Year: The Application Season Begins
If you’re applying to college early, your deadlines are probably in October. In June, October seems light years away! You’ve got plenty of time!
Four months might sound like a lot of time, but there’s also a lot riding on what you do with the four months between now and your application deadlines. A successful application season means:
- Triple checking application deadlines and requirements for every school you’re applying to.
- Creating a detailed plan to ensure that all applications are completed, edited, and submitted on time.
- Finalizing your SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Test scores.
- Following each stage of the writing process for each application essay or writing supplement—even the super short ones.
- Carefully completing each application, curating supplemental materials like transcripts and test scores, double- and triple-checking each application for typos, and submitting application in advance of the deadline.
- Requesting and following up on recommendation letters from teachers, coaches, mentors, and counselors.
We’ve put together some great resources to help you through the whole application gauntlet:
- Download our College Application Planner to help keep yourself organized.
- Check out Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College Apps to learn about the whole process.
Senior Year: The End Is in Sight
The start of senior year will be dominated by your college applications. Life is a lot easier if you get as much of the college application work done during the summer as you possibly can. This way, you can focus most of your energy on your classes instead of scrambling to meet your application deadlines.
Make no mistake: your senior year classes are still important. You’ll want to take steps to avoid senioritis for several reasons:
- It doesn’t happen often, but colleges can and do rescind offers of admission if a student’s grades slip too low.
- If you’re waitlisted and you decide to remain on the waitlist, your grades from both semesters of senior year will likely play a big role in deciding whether you get in.
- If you apply through regular decision, your first semester grades will most likely appear on your applications.
- You can start out a lot stronger in your college classes if you maintain good grades by putting forth consistent effort throughout senior year.
- If you’re in AP classes, the best thing you can do to boost your AP exam scores is to do well in class. Sustained effort will help you get the AP exam scores you need to earn college credit.
Once you start receiving admission decisions, you’ll have a whole new set of tasks before you. If you didn’t get into your dream school, you’ll need to process the decision and find other schools that pique your interest. If you got into several great schools, you’ll need to decide where you really want to attend. Visit the campuses of the top contenders; even if you’ve already visited some them before, schools tend to look different when you know there’s a spot there waiting for you.
Once you’ve made your decision, make sure to submit your deposit by College Decision Day (May 1), and explore your financial aid options. Fill out the FAFSA, even if you think you won’t qualify for aid.
And finally, you’ll be done with the whole college admissions process! Now the next challenge begins: College.