College Planning Timeline for High School Students

Student, The High School of Performing and Visual Arts

Whichever grade of high school you are in, chances are you have experienced the typical I-AM-A-(insert grade level)-AND-COLLEGE-IS-IN-(insert number of years until college)-AND-I-AM-NOT-PREPARED-TO-FILL-OUT-APPLICATIONS!-WHAT-IS-MY-GPA?-DO-I-GET-A-GPA?-WHAT’S-MY-NAME?-WHO-AM-I? spurt every once in a while. It happens to the best of us.

Wherever you are in your college search, this guide will show you what you should be doing to help the process go smoothly (and to minimize those moments of pre-college-application horror).

Related: Your College Search, Step by Step

Freshman year

Aww, freshmen. So full of life and joy! Every day is High School Musical to you angelic little munchkins. You have not experienced staying up till 2:00 am for an AP test yet—and you don’t even know what stress is. I’m not talking about “Oh my gosh, I have like five pages of algebra homework” stress; more like “I have three tests tomorrow and one quiz, but that quiz is weighted like a test, so I basically have four tests. I also have that group project, and I’m in charge of the poster...” stress. But since you aren’t traumatized yet, take advantage of your youthful zeal and work on your college search!

Start with your classes

Try to take the most challenging classes you can. Your first year of high school is a time of trial and error, so try on the pre-AP lifestyle for the first few weeks, and if it doesn’t fit, then you can always speak with your counselor and adjust your schedule.

Money, money, money

Talk to your parents about saving money for college (and try to save as much money as you can too). It is never too early to invest in your future!

Join something

Join extracurricular clubs or activities that genuinely interest you. Your want your college résumé to sparkle, so the admission counselors reading it see inside your personality. Your extracurriculars help show it. Most importantly, once you find something you like to do, stick to it!

Related: The Importance of Extracurricular Activities in the Admission Process

Keep a record

Take one weekend afternoon to start a record of your accomplishments so far. Then add to it as you progress in your high school journey. This will make jogging your memory when filling out college and scholarship apps way easier.

Sophomore year

Oh, man. It is getting real now. All of your junior friends are stressing about AP classes and standardized tests, and you already have one year of high school under your belt. Three more years to go—you can do this!

Visit a campus (if you can)

Hey, it’s not too early to get a feel for college! Visit a campus—any campus, really—and get an idea of what the college atmosphere is like over one of the holiday breaks or summer. You can go with your family or even a friend.

Be on the lookout

What do you want in a college and what schools out there have those things? Start a list of your college search wants and needs (it’s okay if you’re unsure; your criteria will probably change anyway!). Also make a list of the colleges you’re interested in—and for what reasons.

Related: Navigating the College Search Process

Start thinking about your future . . . *DUN DUN DUNNN*

It’s scary, but it’s happening. Start thinking about your potential career options and how they might impact your future college major. What interests do you want to pursue? What makes you happy? This will help you in your college search to find schools suited to your career goals.

Meet up with your newest BFF, your guidance counselor

Speak with your counselor and your parents about your high school trajectory. Are you in the right classes for the school(s) you want to go to? What can you improve on academically?

Keeping up with the extracurriculars

Pursue your activities outside of high school—the stuff you love and actually want to commit to. You’ll gain skills and experiences (and probably have a lot of fun) that will help you stand out on your college applications.

Prep for the PSAT

Take a practice PSAT and review your scores. How can you improve for junior year and the real thing? And remember, with the PSAT, you could qualify for National Merit Scholarships, so you want to get as high a score as possible. Don't treat it like a throwaway test! You can put in the work to do better on the "official" SAT (and other standardized tests); just keep pushing yourself.

Related: How to Make Studying for Standardized Tests Fun

Keep saving money

Because college isn’t getting any cheaper.

Junior year

AHHHHHHHHHH! Okay, don’t freak out. You got this! I believe in you! Breathe in, breathe out. And just keep swimming.

Study, study, study

Keep your grades up and prep for the SAT or ACT. So, read, run flashcards, use time management, read some more, take practice tests, did I mention read?

Narrow your college list

Start homing in on several schools you’re interested in applying to. Then learn everything about them. No joke—everything. P.S. Now's the time to bust out your spreadsheet-making skills.

Related: How to Pick Your Safety, Reach, and Match Schools

Don’t give up on your extracurriculars

I’m repeating this, because it’s important! Sticking to your activities and showing commitment is both a good life skill and really valuable to college admission counselors.

Visit campuses for realz

If you possibly can, visit all the colleges you plan to apply to. That shouldn’t be too many schools, but it is a pretty tall order, so if you can’t visit campus in person, you can try to mimic the experience by taking virtual tours and doing lots of research. The point is you want to get to know the school’s personality and what it would be like to actually be a student there.

Scout for scholarships

Be on the lookout for scholarships you can apply for and start looking into college financial aid.

Senior year

No one’s coming down with Senioritis on my watch!

Visit a lil’ more

Still have campuses on your list you haven’t seen? Go to them! Go to them now! You can even visit a second time after you get your acceptances, which could help you make your final college decision.

Hey, counselor

Chat with your counselor about graduation, making sure you have all of your high school graduation and college application requirements.

Don’t just sit for the SAT—take ACTion!

Take your standardized test(s) if you haven’t already. You’ll do great!

Apply yourself

Be on top of your application dates and submit on time. Do not slack off now!

Related: 10 Things to Do Before You Submit Your College Applications

All about that money

Make sure you’ve applied to as many scholarships you are eligible for as possible. Also, make sure you have sent in your applications for student aid. (Including the super-important FAFSA!)

Work hard, work harder

Keep doing your extracurriculars and improving your grades, even after you’ve been accepted into colleges. (You may have your foot in the door, but you’re not in the next room quite yet.)


Deep breath in; deep breath out. Wait for your acceptance. And get excited for the amazing college adventure ahead.

Related: The "What If" Questions You Were Too Afraid to Ask About College

There’s a lot to the college search and application process, so if you have questions about aaanything on this list, you can leave them in the comments and take a look at all the advice on CollegeXpress. (Seriously, if you need college help, we’ve got it.)

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