Ultimate College Application Timeline for High School Seniors

Mike Brown Updated on September 23, 2020

Senior year is a time for making memories and gearing up for your college adventures. In 2020, that looks a little different.

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.

Note for uber-planners: Some tasks can be started earlier than listed. Look for those marked with a 🎓

End of Junior Year/Summer vacation:

Test time. Take your initial ACT/SAT and any SAT subject tests, especially while the material is still fresh on your mind. (Note: Many schools are waiving tests for 2020. Check your prospective schools’ requirements -- you may be able to skip these.)

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 guidance office for any resources, including recent alumni 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. (One more science credit never hurts, right?)

Choose your app. You can use the common app 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 still require applying on their site.)

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.

Apply for scholarships. We know -- but, it’s never too early. Find out why the founder of How2WinScholarships says that summer is the best time to apply.

September

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.

🎓 Plan for the interview. You don’t want to wing this, but also don’t want to sound overprepared. Princeton Review provides tips for making the best of your interview.

Watch for scholarships. Check in regularly with your guidance office to learn about new scholarship opportunities. You can also check out our resources for financial aid by state.

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.

October

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.

Fill out your CSS Profile. Many private colleges use the College Scholarship Service Profile to determine financial aid.

Take two! If needed, retake the SAT or ACT.

🎓 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.)

November

FAFSA final chance. If you haven’t applied for FAFSA yet, do it now. Check out our question-by-question guide for help.

Polish your supplemental and essays. They should be ready to send. Need some help? Find out how to start a scholarship essay.

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.

December

Watch application deadlines. Regular admissions 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

Schedule interviews. Make sure you’ve set up any college interviews that are required. For 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.

March

Take another look at scholarships. You can find them in surprising places. Like … right here. We award a $2,000 scholarship every few months. Learn more.)

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

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.

May

Improve your aid. Get less financial aid than expected? Write a successful financial aid appeal letter and you might improve your overall package.

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

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.

Complete all forms for your college, including enrollment, orientation, course selection and housing. It’s a lot, we know. But at least now you know how you’re paying for it all.

Planning on filling out the FAFSA form? Looking for guidance on how to prepare? Learn more <>

About the Author
Mike Brown

Mike is responsible for the editorial and marketing direction of Nitro. He has a history of helping people through his educational background—first as a teacher at the Pennsylvania State University and then through 15 years of development and marketing of education programs. Read more by Mike Brown

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