Senior year is a time for making memories and gearing up for your college adventures. But no lie: It's a lot to juggle.
To make it less confusing, this checklist will help you navigate your college search. Each month highlights key tasks to keep you on track of what still needs to be done -- without drowning in calendar reminders.
PRINT OUT THIS COLLEGE APPLICATION TIMELINE.
Hang it near your workspace to see at a glance what you still need to do so you can focus on what matters to you most now. So, let's go over what you need to know about the college application timeline.
Note for uber-planners: Some tasks can be started earlier than listed. Look for those marked with a 🎓
When should you start planning for college?
When you're a high school sophomore, college can feel far away. However, your application deadlines may be approaching faster than you think. It's never too early to start planning for college. After all, there's a lot to do. You need to go on campus tours, take tests, write essays, talk to college admissions offices, and more.
You'll want to get started on your college planning as early as sophomore or junior year. That way, you won't have to spend your entire senior year of high school stressing about test scores, AP exams, and college application deadlines.
The ideal college application timeline
In order to keep yourself organized throughout your last year of high school, we've outlined the ideal college application timeline. This will help you stay on track for college planning so you don't have to rush against application deadlines.
Let's take a look at our ideal college application timeline, starting at the end of your junior year of high school.
End of Junior Year/Summer vacation:
If you are a junior nearing the end of the school year and you haven't started any college planning yet, it's time to start. At the end of your junior year, you should be focusing on the following:
Test time. Take your initial ACT/SAT and any SAT subject tests, especially while the material is still fresh on your mind. (Note: A growing number of schools no longer require ACT/SAT scores. Check your prospective schools’ requirements — you may be able to skip these.)
If they are required — or you think they'll boost your application, your SAT scores or ACT scores can have a big effect on your college application, so you should leave yourself enough time to retake the exams if necessary.
Visit. Arrange college visits for schools you’re interested in. Many are now offering virtual tours. They aren’t the same as an in-person visit, but you can still get a good sense of the school. To help fill in any missing details, check with your school counselors for any resources, including recent alumni or current students you can speak with.
Plan for success. Check your senior schedule to ensure you’ll meet graduation requirements and that you’ve taken classes that maximize your chances of college acceptance. Talk to your school counselors to make sure you have all of the classes that you need.(One more science credit never hurts, right?)
Choose your app.It's a great idea to select a college application that will allow you to apply to multiple schools at once. You can use the common application or the universal app — they both have pros and cons. Make a list of any supplemental essays your specific colleges may require. (Note: Some colleges may not accept the common app. You can still apply directly through their website.)
Brainstorm. List your extracurricular activities, awards and other details you want to include on your application and start inputting them into the app. (Remember, you can start working in the app without having to submit. Give yourself extra time now so you won’t have to rush later.) Later, you can adapt the same information to any schools using their own application.
After the school year starts, you're going to want to start working on the college application process. In September, here's what you'll need to do:
Choose your colleges. Narrow your list of schools and decide which, if any, will be your Early Decision school. Note their application/financial aid deadlines on your calendar. (Pro tip: Set a reminder a week ahead so you won’t have to scramble last minute.)
🎓 Start your essay(s). You’ll want time to really polish these.
Stay involved. Colleges do look at senior year extracurriculars. Keep involved and when possible, snag leadership opportunities.
Get your FSA ID. Your Federal Student Aid ID allows you to submit federal financial aid applications online. It’s also your legal signature when accepting federal student loans. Get yours here.
After you've started selecting schools, prepping for interviews, and outlining essays, you can begin the application process. This should usually be done around October of your senior year of high school.
Start your college applications and submit your Early Decision application – they’re usually due in November. Get feedback on your supplemental essays.
Apply for FAFSA. FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Filling this out automatically qualifies you for federal grants, federal loans, and some state grants and scholarships. You can apply for FAFSA starting October 1 – even if you haven’t sent your college applications. It’s never too soon: Some grants and scholarships have early deadlines you could miss out on if you wait. Note: FAFSA is notorious for being difficult to fill out. Make your life easier -- our FAFSA guide explains each question on the form in plain English.
Review your SAR. You’ll receive your Student Aid Report after you fill out your FAFSA. The SAR reports your financial aid eligibility and lists your FAFSA answers. Review it carefully to ensure you get all the aid you’re eligible for.
🎓 Compare costs. Use our free NitroScore tool to compare the true costs of different schools. You can even see post-college salaries for different majors and a projection of your future student loan costs.
🎓 Get recommendations. Think about who you want to ask to write letters of recommendation and what they need to write an effective one. A short note reminding them about your successes – the science award, teams or groups you led – make your letters more likely to stand out. (Fill out forms for them and provide stamped envelopes, too.)
If you've prepared properly throughout September and October, there isn't much left to be done in November. However, you can take care of a few last minute things if necessary.
Document day. Make sure all your target schools are getting your test scores and high school transcripts. Mail out any applications for colleges with November deadlines.
Through December, your early decision deadlines have likely passed. However, many regular decision deadlines are still approaching. In December, you should take care of the following:
Watch application deadlines. Regular decision applications and rolling admission applications are typically due January 1. Make sure any outstanding applications are finished soon.
Make a decision. Get good news from your Early Decision school? Evaluate the offer – Early Decision is binding, but you can be released from it if they didn’t give you enough aid.
Review scholarships. Yes, again – it’s free money! Check with your school counselor to see if there are any relevant scholarships with deadlines before the end of the year or take a look at these options.
Last chance to ACT (or SAT). If you haven’t already, or want to improve your score, now is your final opportunity. It’s also a good time to take SAT subject tests for any recently completed courses. (Not sure if you need them? Learn more from this post at The College Board.)
January & February
At this point in the school year, your hard work should be (almost) complete. You may have a few last minute deadlines to make, but for the most part, you shouldn't have too much left. In January and February, you should be doing the following:
Schedule interviews. Make sure you’ve set up any college interviews that are required. For any virtual interviews, double check your device works with the interviewer’s platform before the call.
Tend to your stragglers. Submit any remaining college applications with late deadlines.
Send mid-year reports to any colleges that require them.
In March, you're pretty much just playing the waiting game. You're likely going to be waiting on things such as admissions decisions, class rankings, and your final GPA. But, you can always continue your college planning with these steps:
Watch your mailbox. You should be seeing college acceptance letters and financial aid packages soon.
Get real talk about $$. To get an apples-to-apples comparison of your costs at different schools, plug your financial aid information directly into our college cost calculator.
Examine your financial aid packages from different schools. Our NitroScore tool evaluates each school’s unique financial aid package to give you a better understanding of what your finances will look like after graduation.
April is when you'll likely have to make your final decision to choose a college and begin the admissions process. After reviewing your financial aid offers and acceptance letters, you can:
Get another chance at a scholarship. Tell your parents to apply for our Nitro Parent Scholarship. They could win $2,000 to put toward your college costs.
Decision time. Time to notify your college that you accept and send the deposit. We know it’s a huge call, but many schools have a May 1 deadline, so don’t wait too long.
After making your final decision, your college planning process isn't quite over yet. You still need to secure funding for school. Now, you'll need to make sure you have enough loans, financial aid, and scholarships to cover your tuition.
Start applying for college loans. Scoop up all the grants and scholarships you can first, then federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Still short? Check out our picks for the best banks for private student loans.
June … and beyond
After all that, your hard work and patience has finally paid off! All there's left to do now is fill out some paperwork and enjoy the summer!
Revel! You did it. You’re off to college. Take a few days to celebrate but know that. the paperwork isn’t over yet.
Keep watching for last-minute grants and scholarships. You can’t have too many. Check out these tips for last-minute scholarship money.
Before you start your college application process, you should keep important dates organized so you don't forget about them. The top deadlines you should keep in mind throughout the college application process include:
Test dates: There are any days you sign up to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. These scores can make a huge difference in your college application.
Early action application deadlines: You can select one school to be an early action application if you want. But, you don't want to miss the application deadline — it'll be much sooner than the rest of your college apps.
FAFSA deadline: You'll need to make sure you fill out the FAFSA by the deadline if you plan on receiving any type of federal aid. For the 2022-2023 school year, you need to file before June 1st, 2022, but remember, the eariler you do it, the better.
Decision day: The most important deadline to meet is the decision day deadline. You'll need to let your college know that you accept their offer! Most schools have a deadline of May 1st.
After you've marked down your important college application dates, you are free to start planning. We know it can be a stressful process, but you just need to stay organized and start early.
Learn more about college planning with Nitro
Need more help with college planning? Nitro College is here to help. From the start of the college application process through student loan repayment, we can help you at every step of the way.
Check out Nitro College's scholarship resources, college planning tips, and student loan repayment plans. Additionally, you can apply for a Nitro College scholarship worth $2,000 — with no essay required!
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky