Applying for College: A Timeline

When it comes to charting a course for higher education, every minute counts.

Applying to college can be a daunting process. There are so many factors and options to be considered, from testing to interviewing to visiting campuses. When I speak with parents and students about navigating the college prep process, there’s a general timeline I suggest. This is by no means a one-size-fits-all guideline, but it is a one-size-fits-many. For recruited college athletes, the entire timeline is different, so better proceed elsewhere. For others, here’s a look at how and when to start the process. 

Freshman and Sophomore Years

Areas of focus: Grades and extracurricular activities

  • Grades: These are the most important factor to college admissions officers. Starting high school strong will not only give students a higher GPA, but it will also put them in a position to take more rigorous classes. Rigor pertains to the level of difficulty of a student’s courses. This includes AP, IB and honors courses. Colleges want to see that students are challenging themselves in the classroom.
  • Activities: Now is the time to start building a resume. Let students choose their own activities. They should find clubs, jobs, programs and teams that align with their personal passions, hobbies, career ideas and intellectual interests—not sign up for every club available. Commitment, leadership and passion will be favored, and quality over quantity is more important in this case.

Summer Before Junior Year

Area of focus: Test prep for the SAT or ACT 

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  • Time management: During the summer, test prep is not competing with homework, after-school activities and various other commitments. 
  • Diagnostics: Have students take diagnostics for the SAT and ACT to determine which test is best for them. Aim to take the first SAT or ACT in the fall.
  • Visits: If summer is a better time for your family, start visiting campuses. Even though school is not in session, it’s a great time to visit.
  • Local tours: I often recommend the “Philly Tour,” since there are so many amazing schools. You’ll get a sense of what types of colleges your student prefers—urban or suburban, small or big, university or liberal arts college, and so forth. 

Fall of Junior Year

Area of focus: Tests

  • PSAT: Take the PSAT, even if you’re taking the ACT. It’s great test-taking experience, and students who perform exceptionally well can qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.
  • Academics: This is the most important year of high school, so stay focused.
  • Testing: Take your first—or maybe even your second—SAT or ACT.

Spring of Junior Year

Area of focus: Everything

  • Academics: Finish junior year strong.
  • Recommendations: Start asking teachers for those letters. They will appreciate the advanced notice so they can work on them over the summer when they aren’t as overwhelmed.
  • Counseling: Make a point of meeting your guidance counselor, and try to form a friendly relationship. They have to write you a recommendation letter, so being kind is in your best interest. 

Summer of Senior Year

Area of focus: Applications 

  • Essays: Start writing application essays, if you haven’t already. Often, the Common App releases its Personal Statement prompts months before the application is available. The questions and supplemental essays rarely change. Many schools release the prompts early if they’re changing that year.
  • Applications: Prepare for them. Most are available starting Aug. 1.

Fall of Senior Year

Area of focus: Applications

  • Apply: For rolling, early-decision and early-action deadlines, submit applications by the end of October. Decisions are generally made by mid-December. Regular deadlines are at the end of December.
  • Academics: Keep working hard in school. Colleges will see your first-quarter grades—and maybe even your second. Slacking will be judged accordingly.

Spring of Senior Year

Area of focus: Where to attend

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  • Admissions decisions: Regular decisions are generally released at the beginning of April.
  • Visit: Go see the schools where you’ve been accepted.
  • Commit: Send your deposit to the college of your choice.
  • Celebrate: Congratulations on graduating and getting into college! 

Eric Karlan graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. He is a cofounder and co-director of Ivy Experience, a local test prep, essay consulting and academic tutoring company. Visit

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