When to Apply for College (and How to Get Started)

Ryan Crawley Published on October 9, 2019

when to apply for college

You have worked hard (mostly) for four years in high school and have finally picked out your dream college. If you are like most high school seniors, you have spent quite a few hours researching colleges until you found the one that fit you best. Now it’s time to let them know who you are — it’s certainly not the time to miss out on getting accepted simply because you missed your college application deadlines. Follow these steps right now to ensure you meet all the deadlines for when to apply for college, and you won’t be left with the unpleasantness of having to attend a less exciting choice due to procrastination.

College Prep Begins Earlier than You Might Have Thought

If you have waited until your senior year to get all of your ducks in a row, then you just might have waited too long. Once your junior year in high school begins, you should be doing a bit of planning and strategizing so that you are not figuring out when college applications are due at the last minute. The saying “the early bird gets the worm” definitely applies for college application deadlines.

College Application Timeline

September, Junior Year

Colleges depend on ACT or SAT scores as one way to determine if you have the general knowledge needed to attend their school. Every college will have their own criteria relating to the ACT or SAT standardized exam that the student must meet. If you fall below the score that they want, it could be tough to be accepted even with the best grades. Ask your guidance counselor for information and dates for when these exams are offered. By getting a head start on taking the test, if you fail to do well the first time, you will have a few other times you can take it before you graduate to make up for it. 

November, Junior Year

Now is the time to start narrowing down your college choices. You do not need to whittle it down to just one school, but narrowing your list to three or four favorites would be ideal. Read through the brochures, talk to others who have attended these colleges, and do a bit of research online. You should also note when college applications are due for each school. You can even visit a college fair that has representatives from many universities. If you are really on top of things, you can (and should) set up college visits so you have a chance to check out the campus in person.

Summer Before Senior Year

There are thousands of scholarships out there that can help pay for part of or all of your college costs. If you are lucky enough to nab one, it is like winning the lotto (especially with college costs being as high as they are now). The secret to getting these scholarships is applying early and applying to as many as you can. Quite a few scholarships are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis and have less applicants than you might imagine. For many scholarships, the deadline is in October or November, so don’t wait too long — otherwise your bank account will be awfully mad at you.

September, Senior Year

Have you heard of the FAFSA? It could become a huge money saver for you. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) lets you supply your family’s financial information (or your own if you are considered an independent adult) in hopes of being awarded federal financial aid. The financial aid might provide money that you don’t have to pay back, such as federal Pell Grants. In addition, it will allow you to take out federal student loans (if you need them) that have low interest rates and great repayment options. The government generally starts accepting these applications on October 1st, so get this completed early. Application deadlines vary by state and school, so check the FAFSA website and with your school to make sure you aren’t late. Again, some of this aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so the sooner you apply, the better.

October, Senior Year

Most colleges and universities require an essay to be submitted along with your application. This essay gives them a chance to get to know the real you, not just the person on the report card. Start writing your essay now and then you will have a couple of months to make it perfect before having to submit it.

December, Senior Year

The colleges of your choice may require a teacher recommendation or two. This involves one of your teachers writing a few paragraphs detailing why those colleges would be lucky to have you attend their school. There is a bit of strategy involved when asking a teacher for a recommendation in December. Do it right before winter break and they will usually be in a great mood. Many students will be asking for recommendations closer to the end of their senior year. Don’t wait this long otherwise you may get lost in the shuffle.

December, Senior Year

Now is the time, if you haven’t already done so, to apply to all the colleges that are on your list. By this point, you will have everything you need. Once those teacher recommendations are in hand, get those applications out in the mail. Remember that college application timelines vary, so you should check their websites or contact them to figure out when are college applications due. It usually takes about six to eight weeks to receive notice if you have been accepted or not. If accepted, there is a very good chance you will also receive a financial package notification as well at this time.

March, Senior Year

By mid-March, you should know which colleges would like to have you as a student during the upcoming school year. Now is the time to make your final decision. If you need to, visit the schools that are in the running. Be sure to consider the financial package each school has to offer. Paying for college is expensive, and if there is a school offering you a great financial deal, it could be too good to pass up.

April, Senior Year

Once you have your choice nailed down and have discussed everything with your parents, it is time to figure out how to pay for any school expenses that are not covered. Your parents will probably play a role in this, so communication is key. Once you tally up your scholarships, grants, family contributions (if any), and federal loans, you may find you need a little extra to be able to go to school — this is where private student loans usually become an option to consider.

Don’t Let the Stress Get to You!

It is easy to become overwhelmed with college prep, but if you just take it month by month, you should be able to survive perfectly fine. The key is planning ahead, and getting your timeline set up for when to apply for college, so you don’t miss any college application deadlines. It may be hard to fathom, but in a few short years, you will be viewed as an adult and will be entering a career of your own. These years will be some of the most exciting of your life, so take them in and enjoy them the best you can!