An Insider’s Timeline to Navigating College Applications

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Applying to college can be daunting. A local expert makes it easier by breaking down everything into manageable chunks.

By Jim Wismer

When I speak with parents and students about navigating the college prep process, there’s a general timeline I suggest. For recruited college athletes, be advised that the entire timeline is different. For everyone else, here’s a look at the process.

Freshman and Sophomore Years
Areas of Focus: Academics & Activities

Obviously, starting high school strong gives means to a higher GPA. It also puts you in a position to take more rigorous classes, including AP, IB and honors courses. Colleges want to see you challenging yourself in the classroom. Now is the time to start building a resume. Find clubs, jobs, programs and teams that align with your hobbies, career ideas and intellectual interests. Don’t simply sign up for every club available. Commitment, leadership and passion are key, and quality matters more than quantity. Colleges don’t want to see the stereotypical “well-rounded student” who does a bit of everything. Think depth, not breadth.

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Summer Before Junior Year
Area of Focus: Test Prep & College Tours

For current seniors, most colleges have gone test-optional due to the pandemic. The degree to which this will be the case for current juniors and younger will depend on how the pandemic progresses. Nonetheless, there will be more test-optional options for students than in prior years. And while students don’t have to submit scores, a good score can still be an asset to a student’s application. During the summer, test prep should not compete with homework, after-school activities and other commitments. Take a diagnostic test for both the SAT and ACT to determine which test is better for you. Aim to take the first SAT or ACT in the fall. If summer is a better time for your family, then start visiting campuses. I often recommend a Philly tour, since there are so many amazing schools locally. You’ll get a sense of the types of colleges you prefer—urban or suburban, small or big, university or liberal arts college, etc. Due to the pandemic, colleges now have more virtual tour options than ever before. For schools that are far away, it’s a great way to determine whether it’s worth traveling for a visit.

Fall of Junior Year
Areas of focus: Testing & Academics

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

Spring of Junior Year
Areas of focus: Everything

Finish junior year strong and start asking teachers for those letters. They’ll appreciate the advanced notice so they can work on them over the summer. Also 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 Before Senior Year
Areas of Focus: Essays & Applications

Start writing application essays, if you haven’t already. The Common App releases its personal statement prompts months before the application is available—and they rarely change. If colleges do change them, most schools will release their individual prompts early. Prepare your applications—most are available starting Aug. 1.

Fall of Senior Year
Areas of Focus: Applications & Academics

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. Keep working hard. Colleges will see your first-quarter grades—and maybe even your second. Slacking will be judged accordingly.

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Spring of Senior Year
Area of Focus: Where to Go

Regular decisions are generally released at the beginning of April. Go see the schools where you’ve been accepted, and send a deposit to the college of your choice. Don’t forget to celebrate, relax and spend quality time with loved ones and others who’ve supported you along the way.

Jim Wismer is the director of Ivy Experience, a local test prep, essay consulting and academic tutoring company. Visit

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