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The High Schooler’s Guide to College Applications

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It’s never too early to plan for the future, especially when it comes to your education. College preparation isn’t just for high school seniors; juniors, sophomores, and even freshmen should be actively taking steps in their college conquests.

Here’s a helpful timeline for all high schoolers to get a jump start today.

For freshmen

  • Start looking at colleges that you might like based on your interests. You don’t have to commit to a school or major any time soon, but you should have an idea about what you want to do or where you want to go.
  • Check online for help with exploring college options; websites like bigfuture.collegeboard.org can be useful.
  • Get involved at your high school with activities you enjoy. It could help you decide a field of study or come in handy when you’re writing your college essay. 

For sophomores

  • Attend a few college fairs. Check your guidance office for fairs happening at school or get information about fairs in your area.
  • Take the PSAT (the preliminary SAT) to practice for the real deal.
  • Explore free test prep for the SAT at collegeboard.org. If you’re taking the ACT, visit actstudent.org/testprep.

For juniors

  • Schedule the SAT and/or ACT for the spring.
  • Ask teachers or mentors about writing a letter of recommendation for next year. They might be writing letters for multiple students, so the more time you can give them, the better.
  • Compose a “brag sheet” with all of your high school accomplishments and activities so far.
  • Draft a college essay and ask teachers or guidance counselors to proofread. It’s the most important part of your college application!
  • Visit colleges with your family to get a feel for the campus and meet with the admissions staff. An ideal time for tours is the summer before senior year.

For seniors

  • Take your SAT and/or ACT again in fall to improve scores.
  • Finalize your essay.
  • Secure at least two letters of recommendation.
  • Make a complete list of your colleges and deadlines. Regular admission deadlines vary, but January and February are popular deadline months. Rolling admissions mean you can apply up until the start of classes, but earlier is always better. If you’re applying early decision or early action, deadlines are usually in November; early decision is binding with a require deposit, while early action is non-binding and doesn’t require a deposit.
  • Look into scholarship opportunities through websites like fastweb.com. Check with your guidance office and your state’s financial aid office for advice or tips.
  • Complete and submit all required applications on time or ahead of schedule. As soon as possible after October 1, file the federal government’s FAFSA; you can visit fafsa.ed.gov for your free application.
  • Many schools use the Common Application, which is filed online at commonapp.org.
  • Ask your guidance office to send each high school your transcript.
  • Once you hear back from all of your schools, commit to the college of your choice and pay your deposit. Most schools must know by May 1.
  • Congratulations! Now that you know where you’ll attend, make sure you’ve sent in all of the proper paperwork. Don’t forget to respectfully respond to colleges whose offers you are declining; someone else might be waiting for your spot.

For more information on what you can do to prepare for college, visit bostonmagazine.com/guide-colleges-universities.