The college application process takes planning, but you can keep it manageable by breaking it into steps. Stay on track with our year-by-year guide.

High School student begins her college search
Sophomore year

  • Take challenging classes — like Honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate — and get involved in extracurricular activities. Tip: Start a résumé so you can keep track of your activities, including the amount of time you spend on them, and awards.
  • Research colleges online or in guidebooks. Attend a college fair and sign up to receive emails and snail mail from schools that interest you.
  • Consider taking the PSAT for practice.
  • Visit colleges in your city or when you travel. This is a good time to explore large and small college campuses and start thinking about what would be the best fit for you.

High School students tour St. Edward's  Junior year

  • Make sure you take the PSAT this year when your high school offers it. This year’s PSAT is the one that counts for the National Merit Scholarship Program competition.
  • You should also take both the SAT and ACT this year. Some students do better on one test than the other.
  • Keep up your grades, and continue taking challenging courses. Your junior-year grades are the last ones that will most likely show on the transcript you submit to colleges.
  • Take on leadership positions in some of your clubs, sports or volunteer groups.
  • Attend college fairs, study the websites and mail from colleges that interest you, and make a list of all the colleges where you might apply.
  • Attend structured campus visit programs for juniors at the colleges that interest you, or schedule a tour and appointment with an admission counselor.

The summer between junior and senior year

  • Make a short list of colleges where you’re going to apply, including schools that are a “reach,” schools that are a good fit, and at least one school where you’re certain you’ll be admitted. Tip: Make a spreadsheet of the deadlines, application fees and required documents for each school.
  • Include in your spreadsheet which application the college accepts (Common Application? ApplyTexas?) and whether you need to apply separately for scholarships or housing.
  • Apply for outside scholarships, like those offered by large companies (such as Coca-Cola), your parents’ employers, and local organizations like the Rotary Club.
  • Start your application essays.

Senior year

  • Take a full academic schedule, including Honors, AP or IB courses, math, science and an additional year of foreign language.
  • Be a leader in at least one activity. Update the résumé you started sophomore year so you can use it for your college applications.
  • Retake the SAT or ACT in the fall.
  • In October and November, ask your school to send transcripts to colleges where you’re applying. Request letters of recommendation. Work on your essays. Aim to finish at least one application before Thanksgiving — possibly sooner if you’re applying early action or early decision.
  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, after it opens Oct. 1.
  • Take advantage of senior visit days at the schools on your short list.
  • Aim to finish at least one application by Thanksgiving — sooner (consult your spreadsheet!) if you're applying Early Action or Early Decision. A nonscientific survey of college websites and a review of College Board info suggests EA/ED deadlines are often Nov. 1.
  • Keep track of your acceptance or waitlist letters, scholarship offers and financial aid awards as they arrive in the spring. Talk to your admission or financial aid counselors if you need help understanding what you’ve been awarded.
  • Keep up your grades — you’ll send a final transcript to the college you attend.
  • Commit to a college by May 1: Return your statement of intent and accept the parts of your financial aid award you want. Be sure to let other schools that offered you admission know about your decision.