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College Application Tips, Steps and Timelines for Juniors and Seniors

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

college application tips steps and guidelines

In this blog post, I share key college application tips, steps and timelines for high school juniors and seniors. While everyone’s college application process looks different and depends on a wide variety of factors, the guidance here should give you an idea of what needs to happen and when.

For many students, the college application season starts in the summer between junior and senior year.

Because the college application process contains many moving parts, the sooner you start, the less stressed out you’ll be when deadlines hit.

Reminder: Applying to college is a big deal. Choosing where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life involves a lot of research and decision-making. But the entire college application process doesn’t have to be stressful and intimidating as long as you start early enough and keep your eye on the deadlines.

College Application Tips, Steps and Timelines for Junior Year

The College application process during junior year in high school usually includes standardized testing, college research and college visits. You will also reach out to teachers for college recommendation letters.

Standardized Testing

For most students, junior year is the time to take The SAT or ACT. All colleges accept both tests and view both tests equally, which means you should take the test that you perform better on. The only exception to this rule is that some 

How do you know if you should take the SAT or ACT? As with many things, you don’t know until you try. That’s why I always suggest that students take a practice test for each, and then choose the test based on the following criteria:

  • which one did you like better?
  • which one did you score higher on?
  • which one did you feel less rushed on?

Where to Get Practice SAT and ACT Tests

When taking a practice SAT or ACT test to determine which test is best for you, you have a few options. You can sign up for an official PSAT or Pre-ACT through your school (if offered), you can register for an official PSAT or Pre-ACT through their respective websites, or you can print your own practice tests and take them at home. Here’s where you can find ACT practice tests and here’s where you can find SAT practice tests. 

How Many Times to Take the SAT or ACT

You can take the SAT or ACT as many times as you want, until you’re satisfied with your scores. However, most students take them two or three times and send in their best scores.

When to Take the SAT or ACT

Each test is offered multiple times a year. It’s common for students to take it twice during junior year, and once more in the summer before senior year or in the fall of senior year.

For example, most of my clients taking the SAT will take it in March of junior year, May or June of junior year, and then again in August or October. Many of my clients taking the ACT will take it in April and June of junior year, then again in either July, September or October.

Do I Have to Take the SAT or ACT?

No. Many colleges and universities are test-optional. This means you don’t have to submit test scores as part of your college application. If you don’t believe your test scores will help your application, don’t submit them. However, if you have strong test scores, and you’re applying to a test-optional school, you should submit them.

College Research

Junior year is when students usually begin researching colleges. You can work with your school counselor to start the process, or you can use websites such as Naviance, US News and World Report, or individual college websites. 

I suggest making a simple spreadsheet to keep track of your college research. Add to this spreadsheet each time you learn of a college that’s appealing to you. Key data to collect might include the following: student body size, tuition, location, and SAT/ACT requirements.

It’s okay to change around your college list as many times as you need to, but you will aim to finalize the list in the summer before senior year. (More on that later.)

College Visits

The more college campuses you can visit, the better you’ll be able to hone your sense of what “feels” right. It’s not likely you’ll be able to visit every school on your list, but try to get on as many campuses as possible. I even suggest that you visit schools not on your list, just for the experience.

College Recommendation Letters

Near the end of your junior year, you will want to reach out to two teachers about college recommendation letters. Recommendation letters are an important part of the college application because they provide other people’s insight into your character and skills. 

I have written countless college recommendation letters over the years, and I can tell you first-hand how much effort and time they take. Do I love being asked to be a part of a student’s future? You bet. But each letter takes me a lot of planning, time and thought. 

Why am I telling you how much work college recommendation letters are? Because I want you to be exceptionally grateful when you ask teachers to write your letters. 

If possible, ask for letters of recommendation in person, and provide a copy of your resume so they have material to pull from. If you need to ask them in an email, be grateful in tone and attach your resume to the email. Here is how to ask a teacher for a college recommendation letter.

To be clear: You’re not collecting letters from teachers at this point. You’re simply asking if they will write you a letter in the fall. Teachers often deal with multiple student letter requests and have to turn some down due to time constraints; that’s why I suggest you ask them early.

College Application Tips, Steps and Timelines for Summer Between Junior and Senior Year

The summer between junior and senior year is the optimal time to fill out the Common App, write your college essay, and write any supplemental essays required by the schools you’re applying to. You may also choose to take another SAT or ACT during one of the summer test dates.

The Common App

The Common App is the portal through which you will apply to your colleges of choice. While the Common App technically re-opens each year on August 1st for the next academic year, it is still open before then for you to create an account and begin filling out the various sections (family history, academic history, etc.) of the application. 

Key Points About the Common App

  • Create your account using an email address you have easy access to. I suggest using a personal email address rather than your school address.
  • Do not type your college essay into the Common App before August 1st or it will be deleted on August 1st.
  • Do not answer any supplemental essay questions before August 1st. Colleges often change their supplemental questions each year, and these changes will take place on August 1st.

The College Essay

The college essay is one of the most critical parts of the entire college application process. For many students, it’s the one component that sets them apart from everyone else. It’s your opportunity to reveal who you are, so be sure to avoid writing your essay about what you do.

Key Points About the College Essay

  • Never ever use AI or other forms of plagiarism for your essay. You will be caught.
  • You have 7 possible essay prompts to choose from. One of the prompts allows you to write an essay on a topic of your choice.
  • The Common App releases their essay prompts each year on August 1st, but they haven’t changed their prompts in years. Therefore, you are safe to begin brainstorming and writing your college essay before August 1st.
  • There is a 650-word limit.
  • Your essay should address the question Who Am I? It should feature a characteristic, quality or aspect of yourself that is unique to you and showcases what you believe is the best side of you.
  • I suggest writing your college essay over the summer and finishing it before senior year starts. Once senior year begins, you’ll have academic work to focus on, as well as some supplemental essays — finishing your college essay over the summer will relieve a lot of potential stress.

Supplemental Essays

Many colleges have their own supplemental essays in addition to the primary college essay. In fact, some schools have multiple supplemental essays as part of their individual application. (These are all available through the Common App.)

Key Points about Supplemental Essays:

  • Schools release their supplemental essay questions on August 1st. Do not begin writing these questions until August 1st.
  • Begin writing the supplemental essays for schools you’re certain you want to apply to. For schools you’re not quite certain about yet, hold off on the essays until you know for sure you’ll be applying.
  • Write your supplemental essays in a Google Doc or Word doc, and then copy and paste them into the Common App.

College Application Tips, Steps and Timelines for Senior Year

You have four main college application objectives for the beginning of your senior year: finalize your college list and choose your application deadlines (early action, early decision, regular decision), finish writing your supplemental essays, collect your teacher recommendation letters, and apply to colleges

You may also choose to take the SAT or ACT a final time during the fall of senior year. 

Finalizing Your College List

At some point in the fall of senior year, you’re going to need to finalize your college list. Your list should contain a balance of safety schools, target schools, and reach schools. There is no magic number of schools to apply to, although my clients apply to an average of 7-14 schools.

Writing Your Supplemental Essays

The goal is to begin writing your supplemental essays over the summer, particularly for the schools you’re certain you’ll be applying to. But once you finalize your college list at the beginning of senior year, it’s time to finish your supplemental essays.

A tip about supplemental essays: Many colleges ask the “Why do you want to go to [college name]?” question. While your reasons for applying to each college may be unique (that’s good!), it can be helpful to write one version of your answer to this question, and then customize it for each school that asks it.

Collecting Teacher Recommendation Letters

Earlier in this college application tutorial, I suggested you ask teachers for college recommendations in the spring of junior year. The very beginning of senior year is the time to confirm with teachers that they can still write your letters, and answer any questions they have as they write them.

Teachers submit their letters directly through the Common App or Naviance (depending on your school), which means you will not see the letters they write for you.

Applying to Colleges

Once you take the SAT or ACT, fill out the Common App, write your college essay, write your supplemental essays, confirm teacher recommendation letters, and request your official transcript, you’re finally ready to apply to college. (Easy peasy, right?)

Many colleges have their own application deadlines, but most deadlines are between November and January. You will need to determine if you’re applying early action, early decision or regular decision to any schools because these each have different deadlines. The Common App helps you keep track of each school’s deadline, but it’s also a good idea to add these key dates to your calendar.

What to Do After You’ve Been Accepted to College

Once you receive your college acceptance letter(s) and decide what school you want to commit to, you’re so close to the finish line. There are only a few more things to take care of before you’re officially done with the college application process. Here are 5 tips for What to Do After You’ve Been Accepted to College.

For more details about choosing majors and minors in college, read my tutorial called FAQ College Majors and Minors: Differences and Details.

Also, you need to know these 3 things BEFORE college.

The post College Application Tips, Steps and Timelines for Juniors and Seniors appeared first on SchoolHabits.

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