College Planning Timeline

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9th grade: 

Fall: Think about extracurricular activities and your list of classes

  1. Meet your school counselor- Your counselor is ready and willing to help you make sense of your college and career options. As soon as you can, set up a meeting to talk about your plans for high school and the future.
  2. Get involved- Extracurricular activities (both school- and non-school-sponsored) are an important part of high school. Make the effort to get involved with groups, clubs, or teams that interest you. These activities are fun and make you a well-rounded student.
  3. Pick the right mix of classes-Make sure you’re enrolled in the appropriate college-prep or tech-prep classes and that you’re taking key core requirements, such as English, math, science, history, and a foreign language.

Winter: Consider a college savings plan

  1. Make the grade- Get off to a good start with your grades because they will impact your GPA and class rank. Although college seems like a long way off right now, grades really do count toward college admission and scholarships.
  2. Explore your interests and possible careers- Discuss your skills and interests with your counselor and take advantage of Career Exploration activities where available. 
  3. Consider a college savings plan- Talk to your parents about planning for college expenses. If your family already has a savings plan, continue to add to it. If not, now is a great time to start saving for college. Your parents can use our financial planning calculator to help them assess their current savings situation and plan for the future. 

Spring/Summer: Learn about college and make summer count

  1. Build your credentials- Keep track of academic and extracurricular awards, community service achievements, and anything else you participate in, so it’ll be easier to remember later. It’ll come in handy when you want to highlight your accomplishments—such as when you’re filling out college applications or creating a resume.
  2. Start learning about college-Look at the college information available in your counselor’s office and school and public libraries. Use the Internet to check out college Web sites. You may even want to start a list of colleges that might interest you.
  3. Begin to get a feel for college life- Visiting relatives or friends who live on or near a college campus is a great way to get a sense of what college is like. Check out the dorms, go to the library and student center, and walk around the campus. Don’t worry yet about where you want to go—just get a feel for college in general.
  4. Make summer count- There are plenty of ways to have fun and build your credentials during the summer, such as volunteering, getting a job, or signing up for an enrichment program.

10th grade: 

Fall: Take the PSAT and explore careers

  1. Take a practice PSAT-Taking the PSAT as a sophomore will help prepare you for the real thing next year. It also allows you to release your name to colleges so you can start receiving brochures from them.
  2. Start getting ready for the ACT-Ask your counselor about practice tests and study materials that will help you to prepare for the ACT. 
  3. Stay on track with your courses-Work with your counselor to make sure you’re enrolled in the courses you need to prepare you for college or a career. Move on to the next level of classes in the core subjects (English, math, science, history, and a foreign language).
  4. Begin learning about the college admissions process-Get familiar with general college entrance requirements. The counselor’s office, the library, college Web sites, and advice articles are all good sources of information.
  5. Continue exploring potential careers-Explore your career options in more detail—research possible careers to learn about the tasks, education, and training necessary for each occupation.

Winter: Read and Write

  1. Take on new roles-Stay involved with your extracurricular activities and work toward leadership positions in the activities you like best. Become involved in community service and other volunteer activities.
  2. Read, read, read-Developing your reading skills will help prepare you for tests and make you a well-rounded individual. Read as many books as you can and read the newspaper to learn about current affairs.
  3. Practice your writing-You’ll need good writing skills no matter what path you pursue, so work on those skills now to get prepared. Find a teacher or another adult who can advise and encourage you to write well.
  4. Get advice from your counselor-Meet with your school counselor to make sure you’re staying on track. You can also discuss your PSAT scores and ask about dual credit classes, advanced level and honors classes offered at your high school.

Spring/Summer: Keep your grades up and reach out to colleges

  1. Keep your grades up-There’s probably a lot competing for your attention, but it’s important to remain focused on doing well in your classes. Remember that your grades affect your GPA and class rank—two factors that colleges consider in the admissions process.
  2. Start your college search-Research online to decide what factors are important to you and make a list of colleges that matches your criteria. Attend college fairs and read the material you get from all types of schools—you may see something you like.
  3. Contact colleges that interest you-Contact schools via their websites and ask for more information about their academic requirements and any programs or activities that you’re interested in. It’s especially important to start this process now if you think you want to attend a military academy.
  4. Get a summer job-Finding steady summer work will look good to prospective colleges and employers. Putting the money you earn away for college will also help you get a head start on a personal savings plan.

11th grade: 

Fall: Take the PSAT and start a list of colleges

  1. Stay on track with your classes and grades-Meet with your counselor to see what you still need to take. Check on your class rank and your GPA. Even if your grades haven’t been that good so far, it’s never too late to improve. Colleges like to see an upward trend.
  2. Take the PSAT-Taking the test qualifies you for the National Merit Scholarship program, which means you could earn money for college. In addition, it’s a good way to practice for the SAT.
  3. Evaluate your education options-Now is the time to follow a more specific path. Decide whether you want to pursue full-time employment, further education or training (such as a vocational-technical school, career college, or two-year or four-year college), or a military career. If you’re interested in attending a military academy, talk to your counselor about starting the application process now.
  4. Make a college list-Your list of colleges should include schools that meet your most important criteria (for example, size, location, cost, academic majors, or special programs). Weigh each of the factors according to their importance to you and develop a preliminary ranking of the schools on your list.
  5. Continue gathering college information- Go to college fairs, attend college nights, and speak with college representatives who visit your high school; use an online college finder and search top college lists. You may be able to narrow your choices or add a school to your list.
  6. Organize a testing plan- Figure out when you’ll be taking important tests like the SAT and ACT  and mark the dates on your calendar. You’ll want to have plenty of time to prepare.
  7. Make sure you’re meeting any special requirements-If you want to play Division I or II sports in college, start the certification process and check with your counselor to make sure you’re taking a core curriculum that meets NCAA requirements.

Winter: Stay involved, organize college lists, and prepare for standardized tests

  1. Stay involved with extracurricular activities- Colleges look for consistency and depth in the non-academic activities you pursue. Taking on leadership roles and making a commitment to the same groups are more important than trying out tons of new activities each year.
  2. Organize your college information- Set up a filing system with individual folders for each college’s correspondence and printed materials. This will make it easier to locate the specific information you’re looking for.
  3. Begin narrowing down your college choices- Make sure you have all the information you need about the colleges you’re interested in (entrance requirements, tuition, room and board costs, course offerings, student activities, financial aid, etc.). Then begin comparing the schools by the factors that are most important to you and rank your choices.
  4. Prepare for standardized tests-Find out if the colleges you are interested in require the SAT or ACT. Register to take the tests you need; most juniors take them in the winter or spring. You can take them again in the fall of your senior year if you’re unhappy with your scores.
  5. Talk to your family-Have a discussion about the colleges you’re interested in. Your family can learn about what you want to pursue and you can hear any concerns or suggestions they might have.
  6. Learn more about financial aid-Examine your family’s financial resources and gather information about financial aid from the schools you’re interested in. High-school sponsored financial aid nights, college financial aid counselors, and advice articles are also good sources of information.

Spring: Search for scholarships and gather recommendations

  1. Prepare a challenging schedule for senior year- Meet with your counselor to determine what classes you’ll take next year and to make sure you’re on track for graduation. When you pick your classes, don’t load up on easy electives. Colleges do consider your senior year courses and grades, so stick with a schedule that challenges you. 
  2. Start a scholarship search-There are lots of scholarships out there; you just need to spend a little bit of time and effort to find them. Check with your guidance office for scholarships from local organizations and use online scholarship search tools to find a wider range of options. The sooner you start looking for scholarships, the easier it will be to select some to apply to during your senior year.
  3. Contact your recommendation writers-Teachers and your counselor are often asked to write recommendations for lots of students. Consider whom you want to ask now and let them know so they’ll have time to prepare before getting tons of requests in the fall. Ask teachers who know you well and who will have positive things to say. Letters of recommendation from a coach, activity leader, or adult who knows you well outside of school are also valuable.
  4. Apply for a summer job or internship-Summer employment and internships in fields you’re interested in will look appealing on a college application or resume. The money you earn can also be used to help pay application and testing fees in the fall.
  5. Set up appointments at your top college choices-You’ll often have to plan ahead when visiting colleges. Call the admissions office to set up a personal interview, tour, and a meeting with a professor or coach if you’re interested.

Summer: Visit colleges and work on application essays

  1. Visit colleges-Visit the campuses of your top five college choices. Take a tour and speak with the admissions and financial aid staff. You may also be able to talk to students if some classes are in session. 
  2. Get advice from other college students-If you have friends or relatives in college, talk to them about what college life is like, especially if they attend a school you’re interested in. Although it’s important to hear what the admissions staff has to say about a school, it’s also important to get the students’ perspective.
  3. Organize your financial aid information-Develop a plan that includes a list of the aid sources, requirements for each application, and a timetable for meeting the filing deadlines. Getting organized will make the process of applying a lot easier because you’ll know where to find important information.
  4. Start working on your application essays-Compose rough drafts of the essays you’ll need for your college applications. Have a teacher read and discuss them with you so you can see what to work on. Make any revisions to your application essays and prepare final drafts. Don’t forget to proofread your final essays a few times.
  5. Make early decision preparations- If you plan to apply early decision to any school, take the time to visit the school again and make sure you’re willing to commit. If you elect to apply early decision, you should start working on your application as soon as possible because its deadline will be earlier than others.

12th grade: 

Fall: Visit the schools and complete applications

  1. Continue to visit schools-Fall is a great time to look at the schools on your college lists because classes are in session and you are better able to meet and talk with students and professors. You may even be able to sit in on a class or two.
  2. Finalize your college list- Use the information you’ve gathered from college visits, interviews, and your own research to decide which schools you will apply to. It’s okay to apply to colleges that you think will be more difficult to get into. But it’s also important to put a few safety schools (where you’re sure you’ll get in) on your list. Talk to counselors, teachers, and parents about your final choices.
  3. Stay on track with your grades and extracurricular activities-Colleges will look at what you’ve done in your senior year, so stay focused on doing well in your classes and maintaining a commitment to extracurricular activities.
  4. Take standardized tests-Register for and take the ACT or SAT as necessary. Be sure you have requested (online) that your test scores be sent to the colleges of your choice.
  5. Keep track of deadlines-You’ll be filling out lots of forms this year, so it’s important to know what form is due when. Make a calendar showing the application deadlines for admission, financial aid, and scholarships.
  6. Ask for letters of recommendation-Give letter of recommendation forms to the teachers you have chosen, along with stamped, addressed envelopes so your teachers can send them directly to the colleges. Be sure to fill out your name and address and the school name on each form. Discuss your goals and ambitions with your teachers so they’ll be more prepared to write about you.
  7. Meet with your school counselor-Your counselor can help you stay on track with admissions requirements. Make sure they know which colleges you want transcripts, score reports, and letters sent to. Give your counselors any necessary forms much earlier than the actual deadlines so they’ll have time to send the forms in.
  8. Complete applications-Finish the application forms for the schools you’re interested in. Proofread them! Make sure you and your school’s guidance office have sent all necessary materials, including test scores, recommendations, transcripts, and application essays. You should plan to get all this done before winter break, so you won’t be rushing to make deadlines. Note: Most early action deadlines are November 1st!
  9. Continue your scholarship search-Apply for scholarships whose deadlines are approaching and keep searching for more scholarship and grant opportunities. Using online scholarship search tools is a great way to find potential aid. Ask colleges about what scholarships you may qualify for. The downtime after applications have been sent is a great time to focus on financial aid. Note: Scholarships offered by colleges usually have a deadline of December 1st or sooner!

Winter: Follow up on applications and submit financial aid forms

  1. Act on the results of early decision applications-If you applied early decision, you’ll soon find out if you were accepted. If you get in, you have to withdraw your applications from other schools. If not, keep your other applications out there and focus on those colleges
  2. Follow up on your applications-Verify with your counselor that all forms are in order and have been sent out to colleges. Check with the schools to make sure they have received all your information, including test scores, transcripts, and recommendations.
  3. Submit financial aid forms-Fill out the FAFSA. No matter what your family’s income level is, the FAFSA is your main priority for financial aid purposes because it will determine how much you’re expected to pay. The FAFSA is due by the end of June, but is open for you to start working on October 1st of each year. Note: It's recommended that students have this completed before winter break. Some colleges have deadlines for financial aid!
  4. Send mid-year grade reports if your college requires them. They will normally notify you via email if you need to submit this information. Ask your counselor to send your mid-year grade reports to the colleges that you applied to. Remember that the schools will continue to keep track of your grades, so it’s important to keep working hard throughout your senior year.

Spring: Compare financial aid packages and make your final decision

  1. Watch your mail and email for notification from colleges-If you applied under the regular application process, you should receive an admissions decision by March or April. Notifications of financial aid awards should arrive by the end of April.
  2. Check out your options if you’re put on a waitlist-Being put on a waitlist is not a rejection. Keep watching your mail; you should receive a decision by May. In the meantime, keep your options open in case you don’t get in. Check out schools that have late or rolling application deadlines.
  3. Compare financial aid packages-Make sure to consider each financial aid award carefully. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact the financial aid office of the college to get more information. Financial aid is a key factor in deciding where you will attend.
  4. Make your final college decision-Notify all schools of your intent by May 1. If you’re not sure which offer to accept, make one more campus visit to the schools you’re considering. Make sure to send your deposit to your chosen school and ask your school counselor to send your final transcript to the college in June.
  5. Follow up on financial aid information-Make sure you have received a FAFSA acknowledgement. If you applied for a Pell Grant, you will receive a Student Aid Report statement. Review this notice, make a copy for your records, and send the original to the college you plan to attend. If necessary, apply for loans.
  6. Complete enrollment paperwork for the college you will attend-Once you accept an offer, you should receive information from the college about course scheduling, orientation sessions, housing arrangements, and other necessary forms. Be sure to complete all required paperwork by the appropriate deadlines.

Sources used to compile this timeline: Peterson's College Planning Timeline,,,