College Planning Timeline

When you first start high school, it probably feels like you have all the time in the world before you need to really think about your post-high school plans. After all, you won’t actually need to apply to any colleges until your senior year.

But time flies, and before you know it, your senior year will roll around, and it will be time for you to submit your college applications. While you might not start these applications until the early fall of your senior year, all of the accomplishments and accolades you put on these applications will be a culmination of your actions and activities throughout high school.

You can’t wait until these applications are due to start your college planning. Depending on the schools you are interested in attending, you will likely need to start planning for college during your freshman year.

Here are some steps you should take during each year of high school to make sure you are ready when it is time to apply for college:

Freshman year

While you don’t need to have a specific list of colleges picked out your freshman year, there are still some important boxes you should check off your college prep checklist:

Meet your guidance counselor

Your guidance counselor can be an invaluable resource throughout your four years of high school. They will help you map out your classes, apply for scholarships, schedule college visits, and make sure you have a good chance of getting into a good college.

While you won’t need help in all of these areas just yet, meeting your counselor will help you get the ball rolling so that your counselor has a good idea of who you are and what you want to do by the time you are a senior.

If you know you’re college-bound, it will also be helpful to meet with your guidance counselor as a freshman to plan out your schedule. For example, while you might think taking Earth Space your first year sounds interesting, your counselor can point out that most four-year colleges want to see that students took Biology their freshman year.

It is never too early to meet your guidance counselor and work with them to create a schedule that will prepare you for college.

Build a strong GPA

When you apply to colleges in the future, you will want to have an impressive GPA. This is especially true if you are looking to attend an Ivy League school or any other prestigious university.

Earning a GPA that will help you get into a good college starts with your efforts during your freshman year. If you don’t do well in your classes in 9th grade, it will have a negative impact on your GPA, and it will be hard for you to make up for these grades your senior year.

Focus on getting good grades your freshman year so you can start building a strong GPA.

Create positive relationships with your teachers

While it might not seem important, forming positive relationships with your teachers during your freshman year and beyond is going to be critical when it comes time for you to ask for recommendation letters down the road.

If you don’t work hard in class or treat your teachers with respect, you may find yourself struggling to get good recommendation letters when you need them.

From the very beginning of your high school career all the way through graduation, try to have a good relationship with your teachers. Make sure they know that you have a strong work ethic, a positive attitude, and great academic potential. Not only will this help you get better recommendation letters, but it will also help you make the most out of each of your classes and better your learning experience.

Get involved

College admissions boards are looking for applicants who will be involved and make a difference on campus. This is why they pay close attention to applicants who participate in extracurricular activities.

A common misconception is that colleges are more impressed by people who juggle multiple activities and that the more activities an applicant is involved with, the better. However, in reality, quality and depth of engagement are far more important.

Colleges don’t want to see that you joined 15 clubs your senior year to pad your applications. They want to see that you have been involved with certain clubs for multiple years, taking on leadership roles and truly investing in these activities.

Your freshman year is the perfect time to get involved in activities that you will be able to continue participating in for the rest of your time in high school.

Sophomore year

In addition to meeting with your counselor, earning good grades, and participating in extracurricular activities, there are a few other steps you should take during your sophomore year to help plan for college:

Take the PSAT

During the fall of your sophomore year, you will have the opportunity to take the PSAT. 

While the PSAT score you earn as a sophomore won’t count for scholarship programs, it will give you an idea of how prepared you are for the SAT, give you access to mail and information from colleges across the country, and provide valuable practice for when you take the PSAT next year.

Start researching colleges

Your sophomore year is a good time for you to start thinking about the type of college you want to attend after high school.

While you won’t need to create an exhaustive list of schools just yet, it will be helpful for you to narrow down whether you would prefer to attend a large school or a small school, a public school or a private school, a school that is in-state in close to home or a school that’s hundreds of miles away.

This will make it easier for you to come up with a list of your top choices in the future.

Junior year

Your junior year is one of the most important when it comes to college planning. Here are a few actions you should take during 11th grade to boost your chances of college admission after high school:

Take the PSAT (again)

Just like during the previous year, it is crucial that you take the PSAT in the fall. This time your score will be a better predictor of how well you will do on the SAT, and it can also help you qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program.

Whether or not your high school makes taking the PSAT mandatory for juniors, you should make sure you are signed up to take this test in October.

Research specific colleges

Your junior year is when you should start thinking about specific colleges you may want to attend so that you can do some research.

Go to college fairs and talk to representatives from the colleges that visit your school. See which colleges and universities might be a good fit for you so that you can plan college visits and see which ones should make the top of your list.

Start looking for scholarships

While the majority of scholarships awarded to high school students are for seniors who will be attending college the upcoming fall, there are many that are available to high school juniors.

During your junior year, you should have honest conversations with your parents/guardians about how much financial aid they will be able to provide so that you can narrow down your options and apply for scholarships to cover any costs that you will have to pay for your schooling.

Take the SAT

Plan to take the SAT in the spring of your junior year. Doing so will give you a baseline score so that you know how much you need to study in order to reach your target score. It will also give you the opportunity to take the test a couple of times before your college applications are due your senior year.

Even the most prepared students often fail to reach their target score on their first attempt on the SAT. By taking it during your junior year, you will allow yourself the chance to take the test multiple times so you can improve your score.

Go on a college visit

If it is at all possible for you to do so, go on at least one college visit during the spring or summer of your junior year. This will help you start thinking about what you are looking for in a school and give you the chance to ask college students and college tour guides about what college life will be like.

Senior year

Your last year of high school is also your last opportunity to work on your college planning before applications are due. During this year, you should do the following:

Narrow down your list of colleges

At the beginning of your senior year, you should narrow down your list of colleges until there are roughly 4-10 options. Put together a spreadsheet or graphic organizer to keep track of the requirements for each college on this list so that you don’t forget any important steps in the application process.

Retake the SAT

Take the SAT a couple more times during your senior year until you reach your target score and are happy with the scores you send to your top schools.

Ask teachers for recommendation letters

As a rule of thumb, you should give your teachers at least three weeks’ notice when you ask them to write a letter of recommendation.

Start thinking about which teachers you would like to ask to write a recommendation letter for you early so that you can give them plenty of time to write a good one for you. Don’t forget to write a thank you note for each teacher who writes a letter for you!

Complete college applications

Before November 1, you should complete your college applications. While many colleges have later deadlines, submitting your applications by November 1 will allow you to consider for more scholarships and allow you to receive decisions from some colleges early.

Once you submit your college applications, you only have a few more steps to take before all of your college planning is complete:

  • Maintain good grades
  • Receive your college acceptance letters
  • Determine which college you want to attend
  • Send your final college choice your final transcript
  • Continue applying for scholarships and financial aid
  • Attend college orientation
  • Enjoy the rest of your summer before college starts in the fall!

Although it might seem like the most important parts of the college planning process occur during senior year, you should be preparing for college even when you are a freshman.

Find out how Prep Expert can help you build a strong GPA, earn high scores on AP exams, and conquer the SAT when you visit our website.