College Timeline: The Key Dates To Keep You On Track

Below is a general guideline of steps you should follow while preparing for college. For a more complete guide to planning for college, please go to

  1. Prepare for college early. Preparing early for your college education will help you position yourself to get into the college you want. We recommend that you start as early as the eighth grade. Even if you are in your junior or senior year, however, you can still choose, apply, and get accepted to the college best for you, if you plan carefully. Regardless of the grade you are in now, there are some general notes to remember and rules to follow:
    1. Pay attention to deadlines and dates.
    2. Your grades are important but the difficulty of your coursework can also be a significant factor in a college’s decision to admit you. In general, most colleges prefer students with average grades in tougher courses than students who opt for an easy A.
      You should also note that most high schools grade Advanced Placement courses on a 5-point scale rather than the 4-point scale used for other classes, essentially giving students a bonus point for tackling the extra difficulty (e.g., a B in an AP course is worth as much as an A in a non-AP course).
    3. College admission officers will pay the closest attention to your GPA, class rank, college credit, AP courses, and standardized test scores.
    4. Participation in extracurricular activities is also a good idea in high school. Activities that require time and effort outside the classroom (such as speech and debate, band, communications, and drama) indicate a willingness to cooperate with others and put forth the effort needed to succeed.
    5. Computer science courses or courses that require students to use computers in research and project preparation can also help aid your future college performance.
  2. Plan a career. Choosing a career and a corresponding major will help you decide which colleges are right for you.
  3. Find the college that’s right for you. Get information online about the school of your choice. Some schools have online admission applications for you to complete.
    High School Seniors should complete the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSASM) on or after January 1st. To learn about ways to Get Money for college go to the Funding Your Education area.
  4. Take the necessary assessment tests.
    Most colleges in the U.S. require that students submit scores from standardized tests as part of their application packages. The most commonly accepted tests are the ACT Tests, SAT Reasoning, and SAT Subject Tests. For information about which you should take, talk to your high school counselor or to the admissions office(s) at the college(s) to which you will apply.
    The ACT Tests. For detailed information about the ACT Tests, registering for these tests, how to prepare for the tests, what to take with you on test day, and understanding your scores, visit
    The SAT Tests. For information on and registering for any of the tests described below, visit
    SAT Reasoning (formerly SAT I). The SAT Reasoning Test is a three-hour test that measures a student’s ability rather than knowledge. It contains three sections: writing, critical reading, and math. Most of the questions are multiple-choice.
    SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II). The SAT Subject Tests measure knowledge in specific subjects within five general categories: English, mathematics, history, science, and languages. The specific subjects range from English literature to biology to Modern Hebrew. SAT Subject Tests are primarily multiple-choice, and each lasts one hour.
    Both the SAT Reasoning and SAT Subject Tests are offered several times a year at locations across the country.
    Other common tests
    For information and registration for any of the tests described below, visit
    The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, commonly known as the PSAT, is usually taken in the student’s junior year. It’s a good way to practice for the SAT tests, and it serves as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s scholarship programs. The PSAT measures skills in verbal reasoning, critical reading, mathematics problem solving, and writing.
    The two- to three-hour Advanced Placement (AP) Program exams are usually taken after the student completes an AP course in the relevant subject. (Speak to your high school counselor about taking AP classes.) A good grade on an AP exam can qualify the student for college credit and/or “advanced placement” in that subject in college. For example, if a student scores well on the AP English Literature exam, he or she might not have to take the college’s required freshman-level English course. Most AP tests are at least partly made up of essay questions; some include multiple-choice questions. The tests are offered each spring; each test is offered once, with a makeup day a few weeks later.
    The College-Level Examination Program® (CLEP) offers students the opportunity to gain college credit by taking an exam. Usually, a student takes the tests at the college where he or she is already enrolled. Not all colleges offer credit based on CLEP tests, and different colleges offer different amounts of credit for the same test, so do your research before committing to an exam. Your best source of information is your college.
  5. Once you have narrowed your selection, arrange to visit the campuses in person. This is an important step in the decision process, so whenever possible, plan a visit to the schools.
  6. Discover your payment options. You should look into scholarships, student loans, and other financial aid options before you apply to a particular college or university. The Federal government has $80 billion available for funding education beyond high school.
    Apply online. If you currently are a high school senior, you should complete the FAFSA as early as you can, but no earlier than January 1.

Grade 8

In addition to your research here, you should ask counselors, teachers, parents, and friends any other questions you have about college.

  • Talk to your guidance counselor (or teachers, if you don’t have access to a guidance counselor) about the following:
    • The importance colleges and universities place on grades, and what year in school grades will start to be considered in the admissions process
    • College preparatory classes you should be taking in high school (grades 9 through 12)
    • Academic enrichment programs (including summer and weekend programs) available through your school or local colleges

Think about pursuing extracurricular activities (such as sports, performing arts, volunteer work, or other activities that interest you).

Grade 9: Freshman Year

  • Talk to your guidance counselor (or teachers) about the following:
    • Attending a four-year college or university
    • Establishing your college preparatory classes; your schedule should consist of at least 4 college preparatory classes per year, including:
      • 4 years of English
      • 3 years of math (through Algebra II or trigonometry)
      • 2 years of foreign language
      • 2 years of natural science
      • 2 years of history/social studies
      • 1 year of art
      • 1 year of electives from the above list
    • Using the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Planner to keep track of your courses and grades
    • Enrolling in algebra or geometry classes and a foreign language for both semesters (most colleges have math and foreign language requirements)
      Remember, you will have more options if you start planning now for college and keep your grades up.
      • Create a file of the following documents and notes:
        • Copies of report cards
        • List of awards and honors
        • List of school and community activities in which you are involved, including both paid and volunteer work, and descriptions of what you do

Grade 10: Sophomore Year

  • Talk to your guidance counselor about the following:
    • Reviewing the high school curriculum needed to satisfy the requirements of the colleges you are interested in attending
    • Finding out about Advanced Placement courses.
  • Continue extracurricular activities
  • Take the PSAT in October. The scores will not count for National Merit Scholar consideration in your sophomore year, but it is valuable practice for when you take the PSAT again in your junior year. You will receive your PSAT results in December.
  • Register, in April, for the SAT II for any subjects you will be completing before June.
  • Take the SAT II in June.

Grade 11: Junior Year


Maintaining your grades during your junior year is especially important. You should be doing at least 2 hours of homework each night and participating in study groups. Using a computer can be a great tool for organizing your activities and achieving the grades you want.

Talk to your guidance counselor (or teachers, if you don’t have access to a guidance counselor) about the following:

  • Availability of and enrollment in Advanced Placement classes
  • Schedules for the PSAT, SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Test, ACT, and AP exams
  • Discuss why you should take these exams and how they could benefit you.
  • Determine which exams to take. (You can always change your mind.)
  • Sign up and prepare for the exams you’ve decided to take.
  • Ask for a preview of your academic record and profile, determine what gaps or weaknesses there are, and get suggestions on how to strengthen your candidacy for the schools in which you are interested.
  • Determine what it takes to gain admission to the college(s) of your choice, in addition to GPA and test score requirements.


  • Obtain schedules and forms for the SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Test, ACT, and AP exams.


  • Register for the PSAT exam offered in October. Remember that when you take the PSAT in your junior year, the scores will count towards the National Achievement Program (and it is good practice for the SAT Reasoning Test).


  • Take the PSAT. Narrow your list of colleges to include a few colleges with requirements at your current GPA, a few with requirements above your current GPA, and at least one with requirements below your GPA Your list should contain approximately 8-12 schools you are seriously considering. Start researching your financial aid options as well.
  • Begin scheduling interviews with admissions counselors. If possible, schedule tours of the school grounds on the same days. You and your parent(s) may want to visit the colleges and universities during spring break and summer vacation, so that you do not have to miss school. Some high schools consider a campus visit an excused absence, however, so if need be, you may be able to schedule interviews and visits during the school year, without incurring any penalties.


  • Review your PSAT results with your counselor.


  • You will receive your scores from the October PSAT. Depending on the results, you may want to consider signing up for an SAT preparatory course. Many high schools offer short-term preparatory classes or seminars on the various exams, which tell the students what to expect and can actually help to boost their scores




  • Take Campus Tours online or in person to further narrow your list of colleges to match your personality, GPA, and test scores.


  • Register for the March SAT and/or the April ACT tests. Find out from each college the deadlines for applying for admission and which tests to take. Make sure your test dates give colleges ample time to receive test scores. It is a good idea to take the SAT and/or ACT in the spring to allow you time to review your results and retake the exams in the fall of your senior year, if necessary.


  • Take the March SAT Reasoning Test.
  • If you are interested in taking any AP exam(s), you should sign up for the exam(s) at this time. If your school does not offer the AP exams, check with your guidance counselor to determine schools in the area that do administer the exam(s), as well as the dates and times that the exam(s) you are taking will be offered. Scoring well on the AP exam can sometimes earn you college credit.


  • Take the April ACT test.
  • Talk to teachers about writing letters of recommendation for you. Think about what you would like included in these letters (how you would like to be presented) and politely ask your teachers if they can accommodate you.


  • Take SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Test and AP exams.


  • Add any new report cards, test scores, honors, or awards to your file. Visit colleges. Call ahead for appointments with the financial aid, admissions, and academic advisors at the college(s) in which you are most interested. During your visits, talk to professors, sit in on classes, spend a night in the dorms, and speak to students about the college(s). Doing these things will allow you to gather the most information about the college and the atmosphere in which you would be living, should you choose to attend. Some colleges have preview programs that allow you to do all of these; find out which of the schools that you will be visiting offer these programs and take advantage of them.
  • Take the SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Test and the ACT tests.
  • If you go on interviews or visits, don’t forget to send thank you notes.
    Summer Between Junior and Senior Years

Practice writing online applications, filling out rough drafts of each application, without submitting them. Focus on the essay portions of these applications, deciding how you would like to present yourself. Don’t forget to mention your activities outside of school.

Review your applications, especially the essays. Ask family, friends, and teachers to review your essays for grammar, punctuation, readability, and content.

Decide if you are going to apply under a particular college’s early decision or early action programs. This requires you to submit your applications early, typically between October and December of your senior year, but offers the benefit of receiving the college’s decision concerning your admission early, usually before January 1. If you choose to apply early, you should do so for the college/university that is your first choice in schools to attend. Many early decision programs are legally binding, requiring you to attend the college you are applying to, should they accept you.

Read your college mail and send reply cards to your schools of interest.

Grade 12: Senior Year



  • Check your transcripts to make sure you have all the credits you need to get into your college(s) of choice. Find out from the colleges to which you are applying whether or not they need official copies of your transcripts (transcripts sent directly from your high school) sent at the time of application.
  • Register for October/November SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Test, and ACT tests.
  • Take another look at your list of colleges, and make sure that they still satisfy your requirements. Add and/or remove colleges as necessary.
  • Make sure you meet the requirements (including any transcript requirements) for all the colleges to which you want to apply. Double-check the deadlines, and Apply.
  • Give any recommendation forms to the appropriate teachers or counselors with stamped, college-addressed, envelopes making certain that your portion of the forms are filled out completely and accurately.
  • Most early decision and early action applications are due between October 1 and November 1. Keep this in mind if you intend to take advantage of these options and remember to request that your high school send your official transcripts to the college to which you are applying.


  • Make a final list of schools that interest you and keep a file of deadlines and required admission items for each school.
  • Take SAT and/or ACT tests. Have the official scores sent by the testing agency to the colleges/universities that have made your final list of schools. Register for December or January SAT Reasoning Test and/or SAT Subject Test, if necessary.
  • Continue thinking about and beginning writing (if you have not already started) any essays to be included with your applications.


  • Submit your college admission applications.
  • Early decision replies usually arrive between December 1st and December 31st.
  • Schedule any remaining required interviews.




  • Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSASM) on or after January 1st. Contact the Financial Aid Office to see if you need to complete additional financial aid forms and check into other financial aid options. In order to be considered for financial aid, you’ll need to submit these forms even if you haven’t yet been notified of your acceptance to the college(s) to which you applied.
  • Go to the FAFSA on the WebSM now to complete the form. Or complete a paper FAFSA.
  • Request that your high school send your official transcripts to the colleges to which you are applying.
  • Make sure your parents have completed their income tax forms in anticipation of the financial aid applications. If they haven’t completed their taxes, providing
    estimated figures is acceptable.
  • Contact the admissions office of the college(s) to which you have applied to make sure that your information has been received, and that they have everything they need from you.


  • If you completed the FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within 2-3 weeks if you applied via paper. If you applied on-line, you can receive results via e-mail by the next business day after electronic submission. If corrections are needed, correct and return it to the FAFSA processor promptly.
  • Complete your scholarship applications.
  • Contact the financial aid office of the college(s) to which you have applied to make sure that your information has been received, and that they have everything they need from you.


  • If you haven’t received an acceptance letter from the college(s) to which you applied, contact the admissions office.
  • Compare your acceptance letters, financial aid and scholarship offers.
  • When you choose a college you have been accepted to, you may be required to pay a nonrefundable deposit for freshman tuition (this should ensure your place in the entering freshman class).


  • Take Advanced Placement (AP) exams for any AP subjects you studied in high school.
  • You should make a decision by May 1st as to which college you will be attending and notify the school by mailing your commitment deposit check. Many schools require that your notification letter be postmarked by this date.
  • If you were placed on a waiting list for a particular college, and have decided to wait for an opening, contact that college and let them know you are still very interested.


  • Have your school send your final transcripts to the college which you will be attending.
  • Contact your college to determine when fees for tuition, room and board are due and how much they will be.


Participate in any summer orientation programs for incoming freshmen.

Now that you know you will be attending college in the fall, it is a good idea to evaluate whether to get student health insurance in case of any unforeseen emergencies or whether your family’s insurance coverage is sufficient.