When to Apply to College: A 6-Step Timeline

College Degree Finder

College application calendar

Although there are many tasks associated with applying for college, it doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. The following 6-step timeline explains when to apply to college and how to meet application deadlines with confidence.

  1. Develop a List of Prospective Colleges

Checklist of college choices

When to begin: Junior Year (Spring)
Deadline: Senior Year (Fall)

Starting junior year, school counselors help you to formulate a plan for college. The goal is to select colleges that meet your needs and academic credentials. In addition to choosing schools that match your GPA and standardized test scores, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions when adding schools to your list:

  • Where is the school located?
  • How small or large is the campus?
  • Does the school have a good reputation?
  • Is the school accredited?/li>
  • Does it offer a program that meets your career goals?
  • What is the cost?
  • Do they rank well on college ranking lists?

Your final list should include a mix of colleges: schools where you exceed admissions requirements, schools where you match the admissions requirements, and schools where you meet some of the requirements. With such a range, you will increase the likelihood of being accepted to a school that will be the best fit.

  1. Take The SAT or ACT Examination

ACT and SAT College Application Tests

When to take: Spring Junior Year (1st time), Fall Senior Year (2nd time, if needed)

The reason most colleges require applicants to submit standardized test scores is because they reflect how well prepared prospective students are for college-level work. The two most common exams are the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Test). Both exams are offered several times a year, making it possible for students to retest to improve their scores.

Three sections: Math, Reading, and Writing (with a written essay)Four sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science (optional essay section)
Offered January, March, May, June, October, November, DecemberOffered January, March, May, August, September, November

Some colleges require students to take one or more of the 20 SAT Subject Tests that cover English, History, Languages, Math, and Science. Taking them can be a good idea, even if not required because scoring well demonstrates how well you have mastered class material. SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same dates as the SAT except for in March.

  1. Visit The Campuses On Your List

campus visit and experience

When to visit: Junior Year (Spring-Summer)

The best way to discover whether a college is the right one for you is to visit in person. A campus visit provides the opportunity to attend an information session, join a tour, and possibly sit in on a class. Because schools schedule campus visits at different times, check college websites as early as possible to register.

During your visit:

  • Talk to other students about campus life
  • See if you can stay overnight in a dorm
  • Eat in the dining hall
  • Pick up the college newspaper
  • Make contact with coaches for any sports you play

Exploring the campus is the ideal way to learn about a school. If the campus is too far from home to make the trip, find out if there is a virtual tour option instead.

  1. Complete College Applications

College application

When to begin: Senior Year (September)
Deadline: January 1st

Your application is your opportunity to show schools why you are a good fit. By sharing your personal story, you get a chance to stand out from the competition, showcasing your strengths and highlighting your talents. College applications usually contain the following components:

  • SAT/ACT Scores: Applicants must arrange for testing agencies to send official scores directly to the school. Each college has a code that you can add to your exam registration.
  • Transcripts: All high schools the applicants attended must send transcripts or GED scores directly to the college.
  • Resume: Most applications have an achievement section or resume requirement. Applicants should include employment information, internships, volunteer experiences, and summer activities.
  • Essay: Colleges determine how much weight to place on the essay section of the application. In some cases, it can be a major factor in making an admissions decision. Admission officers look at how well students can support their ideas with logical arguments.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Applicants should choose the teachers they ask for letters of recommendation very carefully because it can make a big difference in a college acceptance. The best letters of recommendation showcase student ethics, leadership ability, and motivation to learn.

  1. Fill Out The FAFSA and Other Scholarship Applications

Financial Aid and Help

When to complete: Senior Year (January)

Students must fill out the FAFSA each year they need financial aid. Awards are made based on financial need. Applicants must have a high school diploma or the equivalent, U.S. citizenship, and a valid Social Security Number to be eligible.

Types of Financial Aid

FederalPerkins Loans: Fixed-rate, low-interest to those with the greatest need.
Direct Loans: Fixed-rate subsidized and unsubsidized loans
Parent PLUS Loans: High interest rate loans for parents based on credit history.
StateState-sponsored grants and scholarships. Visit the NASFAA site< for more information.
PrivatePrivate lenders, schools, and organizations offer private loans with varying interest rates.
InstitutionalGrants: Need-based aid that does not need to be repaid (PELL, FSEOG, TEACH, etc.).
Scholarships: Companies, nonprofits, and other organizations award billions of dollars in scholarships.

The federal deadline for completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is June 30th for every state. However, state deadlines vary. Visit the FAFSA site to find out the deadline for your state.

  1. Choose a College

Girl considering colleges

Deadline: May 1st

Colleges send out acceptance letters in March and April. Once they begin to arrive, students usually have until May 1 to send a Statement of Intent to Register (SIR). It’s unethical to tell more than one school that you are accepting their offer – and can result in losing all of your offers.

Before making a final decision:

  • Compare financial aid and scholarship offers
  • Discuss your options with your family and guidance counselor
  • Visit campuses you may have missed

In addition to sending in your SIR and deposit, look for deadlines to fill out and return housing, meal plan, and other forms. Also, arrange for your final high school transcript to be sent.

By following these six steps, you will be prepared for every part of the college application process. Applying to college is time-consuming, but it is the beginning of an exciting time in your life, both personally and academically.


Jennifer Koebele - higher educationJennifer Koebele, MS Ed. is a writer and educator living in Charlotte, NC. She specializes in topics related to higher education and online learning.