Your Path to College: A Timeline for High Schoolers

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When you’re first starting out in high school, graduation may seem like a distant dream. But believe it or not, time flies faster than you can imagine, and before you know it, it will be time to start deciding where you’ll be going to college. To help you stay ahead of the game, we’ve put together a timeline outlining the essential steps you should follow during each year of your high school journey to set yourself up for a successful college application process.

9th Grade:

  • Year-Round
    • Start high school off with good academic habits. You can lay a strong foundation for your future by prioritizing your studies. Freshman year is the perfect time to develop helpful study habits and aim for excellent grades. Remember, your GPA will be an important factor in college admissions.
    • Explore extracurricular activities and clubs to discover your interests and passions. Participate in those that genuinely excite you and demonstrate commitment over time. Quality over quantity is key—admissions officers look for students who show long-term commitment to the activities they choose, rather than brief participation in many activities.
    • Build relationships with your teachers and counselors. They will become invaluable sources of support during high school, and will be able to write glowing recommendation letters when it comes time to apply to college.

10th Grade:

  • Year-Round
    • Keep up your academic progress: Continue to excel in your studies, taking more challenging courses if possible. Many colleges look for an upward trend in academic performance.
    • Engage in meaningful community service and volunteer opportunities. Contributing to your community not only benefits others but also showcases your commitment to making a positive impact.
    • Begin keeping track of any awards and accomplishments you receive in academics, athletics, or any other extracurricular.
  • Spring
    • Practice standardized testing. Take the PSAT to get a feel for the standardized tests that most schools require for admission. This will help you identify areas that may need improvement, allowing you ample time to prepare for official exams later. 

11th Grade:

  • Fall
    • Start researching potential colleges and universities. Consider factors like location, size, majors offered, campus culture, and financial aid opportunities. Create a list of schools that align with your interests and goals.
    • Seek leadership roles in your extracurricular activities. Taking on responsibilities demonstrates your ability to lead and make a difference.
    • Take the PSAT again. Taking the test during your junior year allows you to qualify for scholarships such as the National Merit Scholarship Program based on your score.
  • Winter
    • Take practice SAT and ACT tests to prepare for the real test, which you can take during the spring.
  • Spring
    • Take the SAT and/or ACT for the first time. You can take these tests as many times as you’d like, but it is a good idea to take them at least twice—once in the spring of junior year and once in the fall of senior year. You can choose to send your highest score to the colleges where you are applying.
    • If you’re able, make visits to the schools you’re most interested in—make sure to arrange a tour and arrive prepared with questions to ask. Current students are a great resource for determining how a certain school fits your goals and preferences.
  • Summer
    • Get involved in meaningful summer work, such as internships

12th Grade:

  • Fall
    • Find a college application coach who can start mapping out the application process for you. 
    • Narrow down your list of schools, making sure to include a mix of reach, match, and safety schools. Apply to a diverse range of institutions that fit your interests and abilities.
    • Start your college applications early in the fall. Stay organized and pay attention to deadlines. Seek feedback on your essays from teachers, counselors, coaches, or mentors. 
    • Decide on whether you plan to apply to any colleges early decision or early action. These deadlines occur earlier than typical deadlines, so make sure you are aware of all important dates.
    • Explore scholarship opportunities and begin applying for financial aid early. If applying for federal financial aid, you can begin your FAFSA on or after October 1.
    • Continue making visits to schools you are seriously considering.
  • Winter
    • If applying for federal financial aid, submit your FAFSA by early February.
  • Spring
    • Once acceptance letters arrive, compare offers and make an informed decision. Notify the college you choose to attend and send in your enrollment deposit by the specified deadline.
    • If you plan to live on campus, research your college’s housing deadline and complete the application—often, this deadline coincides with the enrollment deadline.
  • Summer
    • If taking out a loan, complete your Master Promissory Note. Search your school’s financial aid website for instructions on how to complete this. 
    • Attend your college’s orientation.
    • Register for classes.
    • Complete any summer reading or other assignments, if applicable.


Remember, the journey to college is more than just a checklist. Embrace each experience, learn from challenges, and grow as an individual. Your unique story and journey will make you stand out during the application process. Stay focused, remain true to yourself, and the right college will be waiting for you with open arms!

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