The Ultimate College Planning Checklist and Preparation Timeline

college planning

By The Admit Advantage Team

Planning for college early is paramount for successful results. We see it every year – parents and students tend to overestimate the amount of time they have to submit applications while underestimating the amount of work and time it takes to create a strong college application. Time flies, school gets busy, and before you know it, students are panicking about their looming deadlines and rushing to submit essays that were written at the last minute. To minimize distress during an already stressful period, here is an ideal timeline of milestones that you should keep in the back of your mind as you are planning ahead.

When to take the SAT or ACT

College entrance exams play a vital role in the admissions process. The SAT is offered in March, May, June, August, October, November and December. The ACT is offered in February, April, June, July, September, October and December. You must register for the test a month in advance! Look up your local testing centers, the dates of the test, and when and how to register well in advance.

Students should start studying during their Junior year to take the test during the spring. Ideally, they will have already taken it once or twice during their Junior year. However, many choose to wait to take the test until the fall of their senior year. If you choose to do this, we strongly suggest students take the SAT or ACT for the first time by October, at the latest. This allows you the option to retake the test in November and December if you are unhappy with your scores.

How to Make a College List

This is the critical first step and, believe it or not, there is a strategy—one could even call it a “formula”—behind selecting the schools you apply to. Most students apply to 10-15 colleges. Given the increasing number of applicants each year and the competitive nature of some schools, this gives you the best shot at having a range of options when making your final decision. When organizing your list, be sure to include schools that fit into the following three categories: “safety,” “target,” and “reach.”

Safety schools are those that you have an above-average chance of acceptance (let’s say 90%-100%). Your GPA should fall well above the school’s average and your SAT scores should be 100-300 points higher than the average accepted student. We suggest having at least 3 safety schools on your final list. Choose schools that you like and would gladly go to, even though they are backup schools.

Next up, we want to find 3-5 target schools. These are schools that you have a solid shot at getting into. Your GPA, test scores, and overall profile should match with students that have previously been accepted. These will be a step up from your safety schools, and you should feel pretty solid about your chances and about the possibility of attending.

Finally, your reach schools. These are the schools that may be a bit “out of your league”. You should feel that tug in your stomach for these schools—these are the “dream” schools. We suggest students apply to at least 2-3 reach schools, and while you’ll put your all into the applications, recognize that these are “reaches” and that you may be disappointed.

We strongly urge students to complete their school selection August-September during senior year. This will serve as a blueprint for your essay writing timeline. You should have had a chance to visit most of the schools you are interested in during the spring or early fall at the latest. If you simply aren’t able to visit in person, do your research online and through contacts at your schools of interest.

​​How Many Letters of Recommendation for College are needed?

Most schools will ask for two letters of recommendation. Writing a letter of recommendation is an incredibly personal task and you want to make sure your recommender has enough time to create a truly glowing picture of you. Many teachers will place a cap on the number of letters they write each year. Asking early is your best shot at making their list. Beyond that, remember that you are asking someone for a favor here: we strongly suggest that you ask your recommender not only with plenty of time to spare, but in-person and very politely.

You’ll want to choose someone you have a good relationship with already, so this request shouldn’t come as a total shock. In fact, often, this can be a very nice way to acknowledge a coach or teacher who has had a significant positive impact on your life, and they will appreciate that recognition.

You can begin asking for a letter as early as the spring of your Junior year. As soon as possible if you start working with them later, so ideally September of your Senior year. Don’t ask for a letter one month before they are due – they will not appreciate the time crunch. You should check in with your recommender a month before the due date and don’t forget to send them a thank you note once they’ve submitted their letters.

When should you apply to College? 

The Common Application goes live in August, but that doesn’t mean you need to complete your application before school starts! The deadline for early decision and early action applications is November 1. For regular decision applications, it is generally January 1 (with some exceptions). 

Time to get down to business! First, it’s important to figure out which schools accept the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and which pmes have their own unique applications (UC, MIT, etc). It can seem daunting, but the writing prompts in each application can be similar in scope, which means more often than not, you can recycle bits and pieces. This will save you precious time and make the whole process less stressful. Get organized so you know which school wants which kind of esays from you, and then it’s all about putting in the hours. Spend the time writing, re-writing, asking others to read your essays for you, revising, and carefully completing any additional forms the school asks for.

Ideally, you will have brainstormed about what to write for the common application in the summer before your Senior year. If you’re aiming for early deadlines, you’ll want the first drafts of your common application essay ready by mid-September, giving yourself plenty of time to complete supplemental essays and polish up the common application essay. We recommend compiling a list of supplemental essays required for each school after you have finalized your school list, and allocating at least two weeks to complete each set of supplementals. The first several schools will take the longest to complete, but after you’ve completed a couple of sets, you’ll find that you can recycle bits from prior supplemental essays. Remember to go back and tailor essays to the school (so don’t blindly copy and paste without proofreading).

Applying for Financial Aid as the final step

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is released on October 1st of every year. If you plan on applying for federal financial aid, it’s important to complete and submit your FAFSA by the earliest financial aid deadline of the school you are applying to. Completing your FAFSA can be time-consuming and requires financial documents from your parents or legal guardian.

Given the complexity that this task can become mired in, we suggest getting an early start. You should submit your FAFSA by early February (check your schools because the earliest deadline for each school varies). Generally, a school will accept your FAFSA no later than end of June, but don’t leave this step until the last minute!

When do college decisions come out?

Decision notifications will begin rolling out in March and April. This can be an incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing time. Remember to breathe! If you did the work and followed your personal timeline then you will wind up attending an amazing school that will be lucky to count you as a student!