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Beginning the College Application Process

When to Begin

A lot of students and families wonder when to begin the college application process. It can take a lot of time and be stressful, so how can you set yourself up to submit your best possible applications? I recommend that most students get started by the second semester of their junior year.

Hopefully, by junior year, students have found extracurricular activities that they enjoy and have gained an understanding of their own academic strengths and weaknesses. During your junior year, it is vital to continue working hard in school and maintain good grades or work to improve grades. Junior year grades stand out to college admissions officers who look to see how students have challenged themselves and how well they have handled those challenges.


Besides maintaining grades and focusing on GPA, students need to make many decisions about testing. Today, students have a lot of options. Are you planning to take the SAT? The ACT? SAT II subject tests? Do you want to focus on test-optional schools so you don’t need to submit any test scores? If you’ve already taken a test, are you happy with your score? Will you take it again, or will you take a different test? I guide my students through all of these questions, helping them put together a personalized plan that best highlights their strengths.

If you’re unsure which test to take between the ACT or SAT, I recommend taking a practice test for each to see which one you are likely to score better on. Then, begin studying for that test. You’ll need to decide if you will study on your own, take a class, or hire a test prep tutor. Regardless, you should have a study plan in place so you have enough time to prepare before the exam date.

Many schools are moving away from requiring SAT II subject test scores. Even if not required, many schools will still accept scores with your application if you have taken any. If you are particularly strong in any of the subjects and a good test taker, I recommend taking the test in that subject. The scores can be a nice addition to your application if you do well. If you’re not strong at test-taking, you can choose to skip them, but know it may limit your options a bit when choosing where to apply. Some schools only require the subject tests for specific majors or programs. If you have specific preferences in schools, look up their SAT II subject test policy before you decide not to take any. This is a decision I often help my students make, and it depends on a lot of factors, including test-taking ability, possible majors, and schools of interest.

College Lists

As you continue to juggle grades and testing, it is important to think about your academic goals and what kind of college environment will help you achieve them. Which majors are you interested in exploring? What kind of school do you want to attend? What attributes of a school are the most important to you? Do you have any specific career aspirations? My students fill out a survey covering several different topics about academics and campus culture that gives me great insight into what kinds of schools will be a good fit. Then, I work closely with my students to figure out which schools are right for them, considering their overall goals, academic strengths, and personality. My favorite resource for school information is the Fiske Guide to Colleges.

Once you have a good idea of the kind of school you are looking for, it is time to put together a list of schools. For many students, this is the most exciting part of the process. Where do you see yourself? Which schools are a good fit both for academics and campus culture? How far from home do you want to be? How much will cost play a role in your decision-making? Which schools do you have a good chance of getting into? When creating a list, all of these are important questions to ask yourself. When I put together a list of schools for my students, I advise on which schools are reaches, targets, and likelies based on academic performance. For a well-balanced list of schools, I recommend that students have at least 3-4 likelies, 5-6 targets, and 3-4 reaches. If you have a list together before the end of the school year, you’ll have the summer break to plan for college visits.

Teacher Recommendations

Many large schools require that students ask for college recommendations before the end of their junior year. Make sure you know your school’s policy, so you can ask your recommenders at the right time. Some schools allow recommenders to say no to students if they are already writing a certain amount, and some teachers require you to answer questions or send a resume or “brag sheet”. You want to be able to plan for these things by asking teachers with plenty of notice. Make sure you ask a teacher that knows you well and has seen you work hard. Sometimes the best teacher to ask is not the teacher who has given you the highest grade. It can be someone who has seen you improve over time, someone who has seen you struggle but work hard to earn your grade, or someone who you feel knows you best and can talk about your strengths.

Beginning all of these things your junior year will put you in a great position by the beginning of your senior year. The next big step of the application process is the writing. I will dedicate a separate blog post to the writing process. If you begin the writing process by the summer before senior year, you will have plenty of time to brainstorm, write, edit, and revise to produce thoughtful and polished essays.

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