A College Application Timeline for Students and Parents
Published on by

A College Application Timeline for Students and Parents
Niels V.

student-parent-collegeThere are two ways the college application process can go down.

It can be a steady, orderly progression toward your final goal of admission. Or it can be a mad dash to the application deadline, full of panic and chaos.

Timing is the difference between these two scenarios. By planning out when you’re going to do which parts of the application in advance, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress and probably end up with a better result.

Although the admissions process can seem overwhelming at first (there’s just so much to do!), the good news is that you can spread the work out over several semesters. With a little advance scheduling, you can make sure you never have to juggle too many parts of the application process at the same time.

Here are the major projects you should plan on checking off your college application to-do list over the three years leading up to college.

Sophomore Year

Think of sophomore year as a year of building up the knowledge you need to successfully complete your college applications. There are three main kinds of research and learning that can start sophomore year:

  • Familiarizing yourself with what you’ll have to do to apply to colleges and getting to know the different parts of the application process.
  • Researching schools to start getting a sense of what individual schools and what types of schools you may be interested in. This can include campus visits.
  • Starting prep for standardized tests. The SAT or ACT is one of the first major milestones in the college application process, so this is the time to be getting ready.

Junior Year

From sophomore to junior year, the pace starts to pick up. Although you won’t be turning anything in until senior year, a lot of the work you do as a junior will set the path for your application:

  • Get more specific in the research and knowledge-building you started during sophomore year. Start drawing up lists of schools you’re interested in, and get serious about campus visits. The goal is to have your college list by the end of the summer after your junior year.
  • Finish strong with your standardized test prep, then take the SAT or ACT. Winter or spring of junior year is a good time to take these tests. The absolute last minute to take standardized tests is fall of senior year, but doing them as a junior will mean (1) you have time to retake them if you aren’t happy with your scores and (2) you aren’t piling on an extra thing to worry about in the most intense part of the application process.
  • Start brainstorming and drafting your essays. The essays are the heart and soul of your application – you don’t want to leave them until the last minute. One nice thing about the essays is that you don’t need your final college list to start working on them. Give yourself time to reflect on what you want to communicate and work through some different ideas.

Senior Year

Senior year is crunch time, and you want to hit the ground running. Aim to have the following finalized by the first day of the semester:

  • A list of colleges to apply to. Use the summer between junior and senior year to put in your last campus visits, then finish off your research and soul-searching.
  • Either the standardized test results you intend to use in your application, or a date to retake the SAT/ACT in the fall.
  • A list of people to ask for recommendations. Of course, you don’t have wait until you’re a senior to ask for recommendations – if you want to get ahead of the game and do this as a junior, that’s great. However, many people find it helpful to wait until they’ve taken more classes and have a better sense of their options. If you do wait until senior year, approach the teachers you’re asking for recommendations as one of the first things to do when the semester starts up – some colleges have earlier deadlines than others, and you want to leave your recommendation writers adequate time.
Want Admissions Help?

Once you have these things in place, it’s time to get really specific. Make a chart with a row for each school you’re applying to, and list the application deadline for each school. Then make a column for each application component each school needs, and come up with a timeline of when you’ll complete each component over the course of the fall and winter, checking each application element off your chart when you finish it.

One application component to include in your chart is financial aid info. An important change this year is that the timeline for filling out FAFSA and CSS is moving up, with the forms now released at the beginning of October. There’s no reason not to get started on these as soon as possible, with parents working on the financial side of things while students are doing their applications.

In past years, financial aid forms were something to do after the deadline for the application itself, but with the recent changes, you can get everything sent in by winter.

imagesAnd that’s it, then it’s over – right?

Well, yes and no. Then the waiting starts. And eventually the results start coming in.

When you hear back from colleges in spring of senior year, a whole new phase of the application process begins – the deciding. This can involve more research, another round of campus visits, or events for admitted students. Sometimes it can mean appealing financial aid decisions or sending out another round of applications if things didn’t go as expected.

This process will lead up to a deadline when you have to commit to a specific school. Once the colleges have made their decisions and you’ve made yours, the application process really will be over, and you’ll be entering a new chapter of your life.

If this all seems like a lot of moving parts to keep track of, not to worry. Here’s a quick summary:

Application Component


Researching schools, visiting campuses

Sophomore and junior year, and potentially senior year


Sophomore year, fall and winter junior year

Taking the SAT/ACT

Winter or spring of junior year and again in fall of senior year if necessary


Starting spring of junior year and continuing into senior year

Finalizing a list of schools

Summer between junior and senior years

Drawing up a college application chart with deadlines and to-do lists for all your schools

As soon as you have your list of schools finalized

Asking for recommendations

Beginning of senior fall semester, or earlier

Filling out applications

Fall of senior year

FAFSA, CSS, other financial aid forms

Fall of senior year (FAFSA released October 1)

As you can see, sticking to this schedule means you never have more than a few things to do at a given time. In fact, by the time senior year rolls around, you’re free to put all your time into finishing off the applications themselves. Compare this with trying to research schools, take the SAT, brainstorm essay topics, and fill out applications all at once, and you can see why timing matters. Keeping things under control by drawing out a timeline in advance will make it that much easier to survive and, you never know, maybe even enjoy the application process!