For those of you considering applying to schools in the United States and Canada, I’ve put together an admissions timeline for you. This is the general timeline I have been using with my clients and students for a decade.
My Recommended Undergraduate Admissions Timeline
Freshman year — Summer before Junior Year
- Get involved - Be a “yes” person. If your friends want you to train for a marathon with them, say yes. If your parents want you to help more around the house, say yes. If you want to start a new hobby, say yes (to yourself). Of course there are more direct college prep activities you can and should be doing over your summer (as you’ll see below), but getting involved with your friends, family, and personal well-being will keep you happy. By saying “yes,” you might also stumble into new opportunities and/or have experiences that will turn into an amazing application essay.
- Take an SAT and ACT practice test - Some people perform better on the SAT, while others do better on the ACT. Try them both out and see which one you gravitate toward and score higher on - then begin preparing for that one. You should expect to take your first official test in the spring of your Junior year, but if you take it earlier, that’s great too. It will be very helpful to have the test out of the way by the summer before your Senior year.
- Ditto for TOEFL and IELTS
- Take SAT subject tests - If you are planning to apply to elite schools, there’s a good chance you will need to submit subject tests. Take a subject test or two that align with classes you took during the school year, while the information is still fresh in your mind.
- Add depth to your top activity - Admissions committees like to see “T-shaped applicants” - applicants who have both a breadth and a depth of experience. Select your favorite activity and do more with it over the summer, while you have some free time.
- Start your resume - Make a list of all your extracurricular involvement since Freshman year. In addition to traditional activities, such as sports, clubs, internships, and summer research, remember that anything you do outside of school counts. This includes family responsibilities, test prep, personal projects, and hobbies.
- Read - Reading will help you improve your test scores and essay writing.
Fall of Junior Year
- Continue with the points under “Summer Before Junior Year” as necessary
- Take the most challenging course load you can - Taking (and acing) rigorous classes tells admissions committees that you are capable of succeeding in college-level courses. While you are only evaluated through the courses offered at your high school, it looks great to add AP or college classes to your course load. You may be able to find such classes within your city or online, or you can self-study and test out. Remember, however, that grades are equally important to rigor. If you’re concerned about receiving an A in a challenging class, you will want to determine whether your GPA or rigor is more important to your application before enrolling in the course.
- Keep your grades up - GPA is equally important to class rigor. If you received poor grades as a Freshman or Sophomore, it is particularly important that you raise them now, as admissions committees consider Junior year grades to be the most predictive of college success.
- Get involved with your school or community - Doing so will add to your “T-shaped” profile. But you will need to stick with whatever you choose to do through Senior year so admissions committees don’t see your involvement as a cheap play to add to your activities list and resume.
- Ramp up your standardized test preparation - Again, it is ideal for you to be done with all your tests by the summer of your Junior year so you can focus on other application materials.
Spring of Junior Year
- Take your standardized tests - If you did not take your standardized tests in the winter, you will need to do so in the spring. In the United States, high schools arrange for their students to take the test in April or May, though many students sign up to take the test on their own at earlier times. You should aim to do the same. Taking the test at this point will also leave you room to retest over the summer if you receive poor scores.
- Start your college list - It’s okay if you have tons of schools on your list. As you start to research programs, and you as you start to explore your personal interests and goals, you will filter schools out.
- Start demonstrating interest - Schools want to know that you want them. Show them you’re interested by visiting them (even if it’s just online), sign up for information and information sessions, follow them on social media, and connect with current students and professors. Many schools track applicant interest, so your efforts will (likely) be noticed.
- Start a new email address that is strictly for admissions - First of all, your email needs to be professional rather than your phone number or something you made up when you were 12. Second of all, you will receive A LOT of correspondence from colleges and universities. It will help you keep everything organized if you direct it to one email that is dedicated to your admissions journey. Because colleges and universities track applicant interest, open the emails your receive, even if they’re just junk.
- Ask teachers for letters of recommendation (LORs) - I know it’s uncommon for teachers in China to write LORs for their students, but you should at least try. Letters that come directly from teachers will be more authentic. If your teachers don’t want to write in English, that is fine too; you will simply need to have the LORs professionally translated, then submit both copies. If teachers agree to write LORs on your behalf, help them by giving them a copy of your resume and information on your goals and motivations.
- Think about college fit - It’s common for students to gravitate toward “Name Brand” schools, but there is a lot more to consider:
- Finances - Will you need aid to attend school in the United States? If so, will you qualify? You and your parents need to hold honest discussions about college costs. I’ve seen it happen before - parents tell their children they can apply wherever they want, but when they are accepted into a high-ticket school the family can’t actually afford, the student is forced to withdraw. This is terrible for everyone involved, so talk about financial expectations early.
- Potential Major - If you don’t know what you want to study yet, that’s fine. But if you do, you definitely need to make sure your preferred school(s) not only offer your major but are equipped to offer you amazing opportunities within it.
- Location - Really think about where you want to live for 4 or more years; it will impact your happiness more than you (probably) realize now. Do you want urban or rural? Mountains, beaches, or cornfields? Do you want to stay in an environment that is already familiar to you, or do you want to push your boundaries?
- School size - Think about how you learn best. Do you prefer small classes where you can discuss ideas with your professors and classmates? Or do you prefer lecture halls where you can remain anonymous? Do you want to attend a large state school with many course options and resources, or do you prefer a smaller school that specializes in your preferred area of study?
- School culture - Do you want to attend a large school for the “quintessential college experience” of football, parties, and greek life? Or do you want something more quirky? Or maybe both?
- Grades and test scores - Where do your statistics fit? I advise my clients to be above the 50% mark for match and safety schools.
Summer Before Senior Year
- Complete anything I’ve already listed that isn’t done yet.
- Write like crazy - It’s time to start your application essays. You should begin by free-writing — every. single. day. Write about yourself. Write about your experiences, goals, and personal values. Explore yourself through your writing, and get comfortable with your voice. This will help you down the road when you write your application essays in a more structured way.
- Narrow down your school list to 6-15 options. Make sure at least one of the schools on your list is definite. Don’t take this lightly; it’s the most important school on your list.
- Continue visiting schools and demonstrating interest. This is very important because it not only shows your commitment to the school(s) but will help you write more convincing application essays (in particular, the Why University X essay).
- Take demonstrated interest one step further - IF it’s okay to do so, contact your regional admissions officer. Introduce yourself and ask questions that aren’t readily available on the school website.
- Open a Common App account - Applications don’t officially open until August 1, but you can add the basics to your account early.
- If necessary, send your transcripts to WES for verification.
- Update your resume.
- Begin writing your primary application essay - Also called the Personal Statement (PS), this essay is extremely important. It allows admissions committees to know the applicant on a personal level - as more than a set of grades and test scores. No matter which prompt you choose, the topic is you. Focus on letting the reader in, opening up, and creating a connection. In my opinion, this is best accomplished by showing (not telling) your core value(s). Rather than reiterating facts that are in other parts of your application, use the PS to express yourself.
Fall of Senior Year
- Again, make sure you are on top of the points listed above.
- Make a college spreadsheet - Keep yourself organized by recording the application requirements and due dates for all the schools you plan on applying to. Include chances of admission, notes, and opinions as well.
- Contact recommenders - Share with your due dates with your recommenders, and explain what they can expect with regards to submitting letters on your behalf. Write each recommender a thank you note for their time.
- Complete your essays - Focus on your personal statement, then write each supplemental essay in the order of their due dates. You should also consider whether you need or want to write an Additional Information essay.
- Apply Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) - Whether or not you decide to apply ED is something you will have to consider carefully with your family. Applying EA, on the other hand, is absolutely something you should aim for. Statistically, your chances of admission from EA are higher, so apply early to as many schools as you can.
- Interview - Every school has a different way of approaching interviews. Some universities automatically sign you up for an interview, some require you to sign yourself up, sometimes interviews are optional, and some schools don’t use them at all. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the interview process for each of the schools on your list so you don’t miss this vital opportunity.
- Write a Letter of Continued Interest (LOCI) - If you are deferred from EA or ED
Winter of Senior Year
- Apply Regular Decision (RD) - For all the school applications you were unable to submit early, make sure they are in by the RD due date. There is no leniency for late applications; if you miss the due date, your application will not be reviewed.
- Relax - All you have to do now is wait. You will probably check your email constantly, discuss admissions results on various forums, and, basically, freak yourself out. This is normal but try to avoid it. Until admissions results are fully released, things are out of your control. Instead, pick up those healthy habits you established over the summer and keep yourself happy.
- Write LOCIs for any schools you end up on the waitlist.
Spring of Senior Year
- Make your school Decision by May 1 - Inform all of the schools you were admitted to but don’t wish to enroll in that you will be attending a different institution. This will allow them to start moving waitlisted students into their admit pile (the sooner they can do this, the sooner another stressed-out senior student is going to receive some good news). Put your deposit down for the school you will enter in the fall.
- Prepare your travel documents - Make sure your passport is current, contact your school regarding your I-20, compile your financial statements, and prepare for your visa interview. Don’t worry; it should be easy, but you’ll feel more confident if everything is ready and organized early.
➽➽➽ Every year, my team and I work one-on-one with a select number of applicants. Students and families who work with us find that the application process is easy, successful, and life-changing. If you want assistance with your applications, or even a single requirement, let’s chat.