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As you approach high school and senior year, college can totally feel like the giant elephant in the room. The impending application process might seem too daunting to even think about. From the pressure of decision-making to the time and effort of filling out tons of paperwork, planning for college can sound like an incredibly huge and overwhelming task to tackle.

How do you eat an elephant? The same way you eat a sandwich, of course! One bite at a time.

Verto is here to help you break down the college application process bite by bite. Our timeline for each year of high school will help you prepare your list and get you all ready for when application season comes around.

Follow this guide and by the time you’re ready to click ‘send’ on those applications, the elephant will have practically eaten itself.

Freshman and Sophomore Year

The first couple years of high school are the ideal time to explore your passions, ease into the pre-college mindset, and plan ahead. You should use this time to:

Take a variety of courses and try out new extracurriculars so that you can find the subjects that are most exciting to you. Interested in learning French? Always wanted to give musical theater a try? Now’s your chance!

Identify and narrow down your interests to start committing more seriously to the areas you are most passionate about. This will also be helpful when it’s time to choose where to apply because you can look for schools with great clubs or programs in your favorite subjects.

Meet with your counselor to make sure you're meeting all the standard requirements and choosing sufficiently challenging (but still realistic) classes. Colleges take into consideration whether or not you’re pushing yourself academically so it’s great to keep that in mind as you choose courses.

Junior Year

Junior year is when you’ll want to start the college conversation and explore your options. It can be really helpful to:

Reflect on your high school experience thus far to give you insight into what you’re looking for in a college. Some questions to ask yourself could include:

  • Are you loving learning a bit of everything? Or are you a huge engineering nerd and would way rather spend your days strictly in the robotics lab? (READ: Is a liberal arts college a good fit for you?)
  • Do you prefer lecture based or discussion/project based classes? What is your ideal class size?
  • What clubs are important to you?
  • How has the social atmosphere in high school been for you? Do you like being in a small/big school? What would make it better for you?

Ask friends and family about their college experiences to gain some insight into the potential positive and negative aspects of various colleges.

Visit colleges when it's convenient. Visits can be general (not necessarily to schools you’re even considering) and stress free, just to see what's out there. You should even visit schools you don’t think you would want to go to so you can pinpoint what characteristics appeal to you or turn you off.

This is also an ideal time for visits so that you can see schools while they are in session. (As opposed to over the summer or during breaks when there might not be students around and you’d get a less accurate feeling of life on campus).

Write down a list of characteristics you are looking for in a university. A great tip is to organize the list into “non-negotiables,” “would be cool,” and “don’t-care’s” so that you can assess each university methodically based on what’s most important to you.

  • Consider qualities such as: size, location, sports, extra-curriculars, social life, rural/town vs. city, contained campus vs. sprawling, etc.

Begin researching colleges of interest. A good place to start is by searching for schools which specialize in your areas of interest or have great programs for the majors you’re considering.

Summer Before Senior Year

The summer before senior year is a great time to get some work done since you won’t also have to juggle the burden of classes. To make your life much easier come September, you can:

Brainstorm for your common app essay and build an outline for what you want to say. Ideally you should start working on a draft as well.

Schedule tour visits for any schools you really want to see in person and get started on some visits if you’re available.
When you visit, make sure to take detailed notes of your observations since all the visits will definitely start to blur together.

Consider which of your teachers would write a strong letter of recommendation. These should be teachers from your core classes (math, science, history, English, or world languages) who know you best.

Prepare to ask for recommendations by brainstorming a few bullet points detailing why you chose the teacher and how you believe you demonstrated your strengths in their class.

Seek out internships, summer jobs, or experiences that align with your academic/career interests. The hands-on experience can help you determine if the subject is actually something you might want to pursue in college. As a bonus, the experience will look strong on your application.

Senior Year

Application season is around the bend and it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. This is the time to:

Check that you have fulfilled all requirements and that your transcript and current courses match with your desired colleges’ expectations. Do this ASAP in case you need to squeeze in any classes senior year.

Finish up your common app essay. Make sure it’s strong by having it edited (ideally by a counselor) and get the opinions of a couple of trusted people who know you well.

Make a calendar of important dates to stay organized. Mark the dates for any testing, application deadlines, or financial aid deadlines. Also include events such as interviews, college fairs, tour dates, meet and greets with college reps, etc.

Make sure to demonstrate interest towards the schools you are most excited about. You could reach out to an admissions officer to see if there are any open houses or opportunities to meet with a representative in a city near you. If you go to an event or for a tour on campus, be sure to sign in to formally demonstrate your interest.

Ask for letters of recommendation at least a month prior to the deadline. When you do, provide your recommenders with the bullet points you prepared.

Visit schools to confirm your interest especially if you are considering an early decision or restricted early action school (more on that below!). You’ll want to see the school firsthand to make sure you’re confident in your choice.

While you’re visiting, be sure to check out the campus and city, speak with a professor, and consider scheduling a meeting or interview with an admissions officer. Some schools may even allow you to sit in on a class of interest. If you know anyone who attends the school, it can be great to stay overnight so you can really get a taste for the culture on campus.

Fall break can be a good time to visit schools. Many universities will still be in session so you can get a feel for what a regular day on campus looks like.

Make your final application list by mid-October. Organize your list into three categories:

  • Match: schools whose average test scores and grades match yours and it seems like you would reasonably be accepted.
  • Safety: schools whose average test scores and grades are lower than yours and it seems like you would almost definitely be accepted.
  • Reach: schools whose test scores and grades are above yours and it seems like it would be a reach to be accepted. (But of course, there’s so much more to your application than the numbers and you should still absolutely try!)

Gather all application materials (forms, test scores, essays, recommendations, and transcripts) so they are ready to go. If you are worried about the cost of the application, ask your guidance counselor or college of interest for a fee waiver!

Now that you’re ready to apply, it’s time to figure out WHEN to apply. Check out our helpful breakdown of all the confusing terminology surrounding application deadlines.

At Verto, we want YOU to find the perfect post-high school plans for YOU. We’d love to help you plan for an epic start to college with a Verto semester abroad. Reach out to our team to learn more!

EMAIL US: ADMISSIONS@VERTOEDUCATION.ORG