Winter, spring, summer, and fall – the passing of the seasons of the year sometimes seem to tick by slowly, and other times rush by in the blink of an eye. You’ll find that when it comes to checking off the items on your college prep to-do list, the year will fly by. Now you’re studying for the SAT or ACT and perhaps lining up a summer job; and before you know it, you’ll be shopping for a mini-fridge and pop-up laundry hamper and heading off to your top-choice college.
There’s a lot to do, and getting it all done before the buzzer is going to take focus, hard work, and lots of organization. The timeline in this blog post will help you stay on top of the complicated college admission process, walk you through the various steps of preparation, and show you that applying to college doesn’t need to be a stressful experience.
This post is organized according to season, starting with the winter and bringing you through the spring and summer, up until the fall when you’ll finally sit down and apply. This advice is for pre-applicants – that is, eleventh graders who are still in the initial planning stage of their applications. (High school seniors who are already working on their applications should download School-Specific Tips for Answering Supplemental Essay Questions.)
Now, are you ready? Set? Go!
11th Grade College Planning Timeline
4 New Year’s resolutions for high school juniors
Happy New Year! The New Year inspires all sorts of resolutions and fresh starts. If you are a high school junior, it also marks the time for you to begin your college planning.
Here are five resolutions to get you started:
- Consider what you love to do
Following your passions will help the admissions committee understand you better. In most cases, colleges are attracted to students with depth in addition to breadth, so pursuing extracurricular activities is important. More importantly, pursuing your interests – whether it’s archery or Arabic, debate or drama – will make you happy, and continuing to participate in activities you love won’t just improve your college application profile, but will actually lower your levels of application-induced stress.
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- Create a testing plan, using your PSAT results as a guideline
Although many colleges are going to test optional, submitting a high score on these exams can enhance your overall application. With that in mind, if it is not a hardship for you, go ahead and take the exams and see how you do. National Merit Scholarships are still based on your 11th grade PSAT/NMSQT scores. If you took the PSAT last fall, you should receive your scores from your high school counselor sometime in January, if you have not already. With these results as a guide, plan your SAT and ACT test dates for the next 12 months. Are you planning to take a review course or work with a tutor? Now is also a good time to take a practice ACT. Some students find they score higher on ACT versus the SAT and vice versa. Identify which is better for you and plan accordingly.
- Visit a college, when it becomes possible
College might seem like it is off in the distant future. Begin to envision it now. When it is possible to do so, take a day and visit a college not far from your home. What do you like? What doesn’t appeal to you? Write some notes so you can keep track of what factors/features resonate with you.
- Evaluate your high school’s advising resources and consider whether you will need additional guidance
Many high schools begin college planning in earnest during the second half of junior year. Take some time to understand the resources available to you in your school. If you don’t feel that your school is providing the support you need for your college planning, identify outside resources that can be of help. Independent educational consultants can help you plan your future and expose you to options you might not have considered. You can learn more about working with Accepted.
January: Juggling test dates
Take a look at the calendar. In one year, your college applications will be submitted and you’ll be waiting for admissions committees to pore over your accomplishments and carefully read your essays before rendering a decision.
This month, create a long-range plan for your standardized testing. If you took the PSAT in October, reflect on your scores. Are they at the level you hoped they would be? If not, consider how you are going to improve your scores: a tutor, test prep course, or the old fashioned book and computer program route?
Public schools in some states require students to sit for standardized tests as part of the high school graduation requirements. Register early in order to commit your time to the test and to ensure access to the testing center of your choice.
By this time, you may have allocated three Saturdays in the next six months to your No. 2 pencils and a desk at the local high school. Look ahead to the fall and schedule a time to do it all again. Research has shown that many students increase their test scores with familiarity. You might find that your scores on either the SAT or ACT are substantially higher than the other, and choose to concentrate a second round of testing on only one exam. That’s fine, but give yourself ample opportunity to achieve your best scores prior to the first application deadlines you are trying to meet next fall.
When I talk with parents about their goals for their child’s college application process, I pose to them a series of statements:
College is expensive and:
- We are prepared to cover all costs.
- We are planning to apply for need-based financial aid.
- We are specifically interested in colleges that offer merit scholarships.
- Cost of attendance will be a factor in where our child goes to college.
- We have discussed the role of finances in college choice with our child.
The answers to the first three statements help me to offer suggestions of colleges that might make financial sense to a family. The latter two statements are designed to encourage conversation.
As you undoubtedly know, there are a number of ways to finance a college education, most commonly, grants or scholarships, loans, and self-help (perhaps from working or student work-study programs). At most colleges, the cost of educating a student for a year is substantially more than the amount charged in tuition and fees. And yet, for most families, the comprehensive cost at a private college exceeds an amount that they are able to pay. Fortunately, these other financing tools help to fill some of the gap.
Note to parents: As you compile your tax paperwork this month, consider talking with your child about the financial ramifications to the college search. I don’t recommend eliminating colleges from consideration based solely on cost at this early stage. You don’t want to dash your child’s dreams, but at the same time, an honest discussion during the planning phase is far better than seeing the joy on a child’s face after receiving an acceptance letter, and then dulling it with financial concerns of which he or she was previously unaware.
Winter bonus tip: Interpreting your PSAT results
By now you have received your PSAT/NMSQT results. While some students will anxiously await their scores in hopes of progressing further in the National Merit Scholarship/National Achievement Scholarship competition, many simply glance over the report before relegating it to their growing pile of college related information.
How to learn from your score
Fortunately for test takers at all score levels, the PSAT score report provides a wealth of information to aid you in your SAT and college preparation.
At the most basic level, you can add a zero to PSAT section scores to gain a rough estimate of how you might perform on the SAT. Remember, for many test takers, scores can fluctuate, regardless of preparation, so use this as a guideline, not gospel.
Understanding your percentile
In addition, you will receive a percentile score. Junior year students are compared with all other students in their class year. All younger students are grouped together for percentile purposes. For most students, when they apply to colleges, their test scores support their day-to-day classroom performance, as it is reflected on their transcripts and in course selection. If your test scores are significantly higher or lower than your grades and the rigor of your curriculum, consider the reasons behind this. Should you be applying yourself more in class? Should you put an emphasis on your preparation for the spring SAT and ACT administrations?
The PSAT is one of the few times you will receive your test booklet with your score report (it provides the test questions and answers). For an extra fee, you can order test booklets for your ACT and SAT exams as well. It doesn’t take too long to compare the two and understand your errors. Did you run out of time? Guess when you should have omitted the answer? Do you need to brush up on geometry? Identifying your weaknesses will help you determine what type, if any, of preparation might benefit you the most.
March tip: Selecting your senior year courses: Is a B better than an A?
For many students, spring means time to look forward and select classes for the following fall. Each year, it presents the same question: “Should I take the AP (IB, honors, accelerated) class and chance a B grade, or should I protect my GPA with the easier course?” College admissions officers like to answer that with: “We’d like you to take the toughest course, and earn an A.”
Admittedly, the choice is a difficult one. If you are planning to apply to selective colleges, then it is important that you have taken a number of the most rigorous courses available to you in your high school. Chances are, you are drawn to some subjects more than others, and those areas are a good place to seek the more rigorous classes. Are you interested in math and science? In a year or two, you might find yourself applying to engineering programs. You’ll be well served if your high school curriculum has included as much math (preferably through calculus) as possible. The math background both demonstrates your interest and ability in this subject area, but it will also enhance your preparation for college coursework. If you have a passion for history, or an interest in psychology, again, opt for the most rigorous options. If your high school doesn’t offer advanced courses in topics of interest, consider looking for online or community college courses as options.
Keep the balance
At some high schools, you have many options in multiple subject areas. If four of your five academic courses are at the most rigorous level available, what about the fifth? If you can handle the coursework, go ahead. If making it through accelerated French means hiring a tutor and dropping several of your afterschool activities, perhaps the standard level class is a better fit. There is a balance between the learning that happens in your academic work, and the learning that happens outside of it. Keep the balance.
There isn’t necessarily an easy answer to this question. Take on a rigorous, but enjoyable course load. Balancing achievement in demanding courses with development of your extracurricular passions will help your college application stand out from the crowd.
April: Ask away!
I made a quick college visit a while back. I hadn’t been on this particular campus since my own college tour decades ago. The sun wasn’t shining, the trees hadn’t yet sprouted leaves; the only sign of spring was a few crocuses near the campus rock.
As a group, with parents and prospective students, we shuffled along on our campus tour, our student guides pointing to academic buildings and sharing historical anecdotes.
Parents peppered them with questions about SAT scores. After an hour and a half, I had seen the outsides of some buildings, the inside of the student center, and the door of a classroom. Despite the excellent experiences some of my students have had on this campus, I completed the tour and wasn’t sure that I had a handle on exactly what set this campus apart.
Eventually, I found myself on public transportation, headed away from campus. Across from me sat a current freshman, headed to the art museum for one of her classes. For thirty minutes, she happily answered my questions about her college experience. Yes, her classes are small, the social life is enjoyable, and her professors engaging and forward-thinking. She’s found the academics challenging, and frankly, the students more competitive with one another than she initially thought they would be. When I got off the train, I had a much clearer picture of the college I had just spent the morning visiting.
Don’t forget to break away for a bit
If you are able to visit colleges in person, I can’t stress enough the importance of breaking away from the admissions office and the campus tour. The tour and information session are a thorough introduction to the university, but to get a better sense of the student experience (and of course not every student’s experience is typical), step outside. Find a student in the cafeteria or in line at the coffee shop, or arrange to meet with a student who graduated from your high school who’s currently at your target college. Talk to them and gain greater insight.
May: Make your case
Your high school path suddenly takes a detour. Your grades, which had been steady and consistent, take a nosedive. Perhaps it’s due to illness, personal or family issues, or a learning disability that eventually made itself clear. As you move forward into the summer before your senior year, it is time to consider whether or not this impacts the colleges you plan on applying to.
For most students, the answer is yes. Sometimes, the circumstances change your mind about how far you would like to be from home. In other cases, illness or other family issues have a financial impact that necessitates finding financial safety schools, or looking first to a nearby community college for a period of time. If your challenges impacted your GPA or course selection, then that also may impact the schools you choose to apply to.
Be prepared to discuss your situation
Yes, you will have opportunities to explain your circumstances, and many times, you will be met with a sympathetic reader on the other side of your application. Sympathy, however, does not guarantee admission. Be prepared to discuss your situation. You can do this through your essay, an additional statement, your guidance counselor recommendation, or, in some cases, a personal interview on campus with an admission counselor. In most situations, the admissions staff will be evaluating your response to the challenge. Did you overcome adversity? What did you learn from the situation? Is the college going to be able to meet any future needs you might have?
In most cases, it is to your benefit to discuss any aberrations or weaknesses in your academic performance. The keys are incorporating your challenges into your college search and then finding the appropriate avenue to explain your record.
June: Judge your test scores
At many colleges, an applicant’s SAT or ACT scores are just one piece of the admissions picture. Many times, a student’s test scores nicely correlate with his or her transcript, providing a one-time corroboration of the day-to-day achievement. But what if you are one of the students whose test scores are lower than you think they should be?
I encourage most students to plan to take the SAT or ACT more than once, and to take at least one full scale practice exam for each test prior to the real thing. Unless you score at the very upper echelons of either test, familiarity is likely to result in at least modest score increases. If your first test administrations don’t produce the scores you are seeking, then consider your test prep options.
Take an honest look at your test results
While you are preparing for the tests and planning for subsequent test dates, remain honest with yourself and keep in mind that your scores should influence the final list of colleges to which you apply. Look at the scores range for admitted students. If your scores fall below the middle 50%, your chances for admission are not as high. Nothing’s impossible, but spend time thinking about your strengths and making certain that you have explained them well in your application. If the college has a test optional admissions policy, do not elect to send your scores.
It’s good to note that not all colleges require standardized test scores as part of their assessment for admission. Not all applicants to these colleges are students with test scores below the range for the institution, but if testing is an obstacle for you, it might be worth looking to see if these colleges and universities meet your other criteria (a quick internet search will tell you which schools require standardized tests and which do not).
You are more than just a number
Above all, it is important to remember that you are more than your test scores. Each student can bring tremendous assets to a college community, and leave after an intellectually and socially fulfilling experience. Embrace your strengths and try to find college communities that meet your needs.
July: Begin your college journey
If you are fortunate, you have an accessible and knowledgeable guidance counselor available in your high school. If not, other resources, such as books and websites are plentiful.
Evaluate your competitiveness
Start by evaluating your academic profile, because that’s what colleges will do first. Overall, you should plan to apply to a range of schools, covering a spectrum from “reach” to “likely.” Colleges will evaluate your application in the context of your high school. In general, the more competitive you are within your high school class, the more competitive a college you can apply to. Have you taken the AP, IB, or honors classes that are offered? Have you taken four or five solid academic courses each year? Are your test scores within or above the ranges cited by your target colleges? It might be easier to obtain “A’s” in less rigorous classes, but the most selective colleges will look for demonstrated rigor in a more challenging curriculum.
Your major matters… sometimes
You might have a well-formed idea of your intended major, or you might join the largest freshman major on most campuses: “undecided.” How much of a role should your anticipated area of study play in your college planning? Honestly, it varies. If you have some interest in a specific field, like engineering, it’s important that you include in your search universities that offer such an option. The same holds true for nursing, business, architecture, and a few other select areas. Yes, you might change your major later on – which is why selecting a college based upon an external ranking of a single division, like engineering, can be problematic. But if you have a serious interest, consider the availability an important factor. It is quite difficult to receive an engineering degree from a college that does not have an engineering program.
Summer tip: Getting a jumpstart on standardized testing
As the summer stretches out in front of you, think for a few minutes about your SAT and ACT exams. As a rising senior, you probably have a few tests on your record at this point, and that’s a good start. Are your scores where you’d like them to be? How might your expected college applications benefit if the scores were a bit higher? While your scores might already be at or above the ranges published by your college choices, higher scores may make you a more competitive candidate for merit scholarships or awards.
With planning your testing calendar comes the inevitable question: how should I best prepare? There is truth to the idea that scores on the SAT or ACT are likely (in most cases) to rise when you take the test multiple times. The higher your scores, the less room for dramatic improvement, but familiarity with these exams can be to your benefit.
There are several ways to prepare for standardized tests; which route is best for you?
Consider your strengths. Do you work well in a group setting or do you prefer individual attention? Are you looking for guidance and a sense of accountability or are you able to focus and stick to a routine on your own? You can gain familiarity with the test by working through commercially prepared resources on your own; however, you have to spend the time with the material to make the most of it. Look for an example in your own life. Are you an athlete? If your coach suggests running 3-5 miles several times a week during the off-season, are you out doing it on your own, or are you waiting for the team captain to organize the group that will hold you accountable for being there?
Whether you sit in a classroom or complete practice tests at the kitchen table, familiarity and preparation will likely lead to higher scores in the fall.
Summer bonus tip: Make your way around the world… if you can do so safely.
Almost every college offers study abroad opportunities, and at some schools, the number of students staying on campus is dwarfed by the number who spend at least one semester elsewhere. Living and learning in a foreign country takes the independence a student gains in college to a new level, provides an opportunity for immersion in a new culture, perhaps enhances language acquisition, and broadens a student’s view of the world and himself.
Certain world events may contribute to what feels like ever-growing risk to study abroad, but keep in mind that colleges have strong support networks established which aid their students in traveling, living, studying and transferring credits, and even evacuating, if necessary, around the world.
As you envision your college experience, consider planning to include a study abroad experience in your undergraduate years, assuming your personal circumstances and the global climate permit.
By studying this timeline you’ve taken an important step towards creating a successful application.
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Marie Todd has been involved in college admissions for over twenty years. Marie has both counseled applicants to top colleges and evaluated 5000+ applications for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts; College of Engineering; School of Kinesiology; School of Nursing; and Taubman College of Architecture. Want Marie to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch.