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When Should a Highschooler Apply to College?

written by: Faith Oh•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 5/26/2010

Senior year can be exciting: prom and the like. You are coming of age, about to leave high school and possibly leave home. But what should you do at each stage of high school so as to get into college? When should high school seniors apply to college to ensure maximum success? Read on to find out.

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    Freshman Year: When it Should Really all Begin

    While your senior year and college applications may be four years down the road, freshman year of high school is really when you set the foundation for your high school career and more often than not, the kind of college(s) you will get accepted into down the road. This is the time to think about and then map out the kind of college applicant you want to present to college admission committees when you eventually apply. Granted, you may not know what career you want to pursue in life or your college major, but that should not be your focus now anyway. You already know the kinds of things that interest you, both in and outside the classroom. Whatever classes you take, make sure your grades are good so you end up with a stellar transcript and GPA. You need to start building a good record now.

    Outside of the classroom, you can also start building a strong extracurricular record, which will eventually help you in demonstrating both your leadership skills as well as serve as a wellspring from which to draw when it comes time to write your college application personal statement. So whether you play a sport, are interested in debate, run or volunteer for a non-profit, play a musical instrument or are interested in student government, your freshman year is the time to start building a record of interests that four years from now will come across as sustained, coherent and authentic.

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    Summer before Senior Year

    This is the time to get organized and have an outline for a general time table for your college application process. This should include when you will take the college admission tests, the list of schools you will apply to, application deadlines and application requirements for the schools, financial aid and scholarship requirements. Make a list of your recommenders. To help you decide which schools will make it to your list, the summer before your senior year is also the time to visit colleges. Contact the colleges that you are interested in to find out about visiting and also check if their recruiters will be in your area. This will provide you an opportunity to get your questions answered one-on-one and see for yourself which colleges are a good fit. Eventually your list should include your first-choice college, other choices with varying levels of difficulty, schools with early and later deadlines and or course, your safe schools – the one or two schools you are most assured of getting accepted into if all else fails.

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    Fall of Senior Year: Tests, Early Decision and Early Action Applications

    One of the key things to remember in your senior year is to stay organized. The fall is when you will need to take college admission tests like SAT. By this time you should be prepared and have taken enough practice tests to consistently reach your target score. However if you are want to leave no room for error, arrange to take the test on a date that allows you to retake the test before your deadline if you need to. For example you can take the October SAT while leaving room to retake the test in November or December if you are applying for early decision or early action. September is the time to request recommendations from trusted people who can attest to your accomplishments and readiness for college. You should also talk to your parents about getting together all the financial information you'll need for the financial aid and scholarship portions of your applications if this applies to you. Also start working on your personal statement early enough so you have a general one that you can adapt for each college depending on the questions asked.

    When should h/s seniors apply to college? By November you should have everything you need to file your college application. It is time to start sending out applications with early or rolling (first come, first served) deadlines. Be sure to make copies of everything you send out. Stay organized and have a file for each school to which you apply. If you are applying to an early-decision school, then you only need to concentrate on this one at this time since you will be obligated to accept the admission offer if you are admitted. Of course, this should be your first-choice school. If you are applying to a number of early action schools, where you get an early admission decision but are under no obligation to attend, then you may be working on several applications at this time. The same applies for schools with rolling deadlines. Again, the key is to stay organized.

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    When should high school seniors apply for college? What should you be doing in the spring semester of your senior year? What if you missed earlier deadlines and need to apply late?
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    Spring of Senior Year: The Big fat Envelopes in the Mail, or Not

    The spring semester is the time you send out all the other applications not filed in November, December or January. Some schools with fixed deadlines could have deadlines as late as March. Also, by now you must have started hearing from the schools with earlier deadlines to which you applied. Some of those responses could be big fat envelopes (acceptances!) or rejection-bearing small ones. Not to worry, if you applied to enough schools and spread them out properly you should be in college in the fall. This is also the time to evaluate where you are in the college application process. If you have been admitted to a number of schools you may need to compare and contrast offers to find what is best for you. It is also the time to decide whether to stop here of if it is necessary to apply to the schools on your list with late deadlines.

    Once you decide which school you will attend, you'll need to send responses to others declining their admission offers or telling them to remove you from any wait lists. You'll also need to send any outstanding documents such as financial documents, your final transcript, housing forms and medical forms.

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    What if you are Late?

    What if for one reason or another you miss the early deadlines? Well there are schools with late deadlines and you can use any college directory to search for those. There are also schools with rolling admission, which means they will accept applications until spots are filled. You may not get scholarships at this stage but there is always need-based financial aid to fall back on if you need it.

    Another strategy to pursue if you are late is to apply to community colleges in your area or a really safe school and plan on transferring after your first or second year to your first-choice college. You'll need to remain focused, making sure you get the grades and leadership credentials to ensure you get admitted.

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    Plan on Success

    Applying to college is a drawn-out process requiring advanced planning and superb organization to ensure you are on top of all the various aspects involved in the application process. While as a high school senior applying to college you may begin sending in applications at the beginning of your senior year, your journey actually begins when you start high school. Don't waste those years, start early and you'll reap the reward.