12th Grade Timeline: A Guide to Applying for College

Senior year is full of excitement. You are the big fish in the big pond on campus, the leader, the future. Your workload may feel a bit lighter but your schedule is packed. From parties to football games and prom to graduation, this is your year to truly shine.

Amidst all of the fun also comes the reality that you will be spreading your wings and leaving your parents’ nest soon. College is right around the corner, and the prep work starts now. With the help of Maria Guthrie of The College Map, a college planning center for middle and high school students in College Park, we’ve put a timeline on the college application process.

Touring Towns

Summer before senior year: Tour college campuses

When it comes to picking a college, there’s so much more to consider beyond status and prestige. Of course you want to ensure your desired program is offered and that you will receive a top-notch education, but you also want to be in an environment that allows you to truly blossom.

“We strongly recommend families officially tour as many colleges as they can make time for throughout high school,” Guthrie says. “This way you are receiving credit for being there and documenting demonstrated interest in the school.”

An official tour is one where a student or family member would go online and formally schedule a visit. Documentation of this kind is becoming increasingly important to prospective colleges.

As you discover who you are and what you’re passionate, you will be influenced by the city you live in, the friends you make and the school you attend. So visit some of your top-choice schools and even a few of your maybes during this stage. You never know which atmosphere and campus culture you’re going to fall in love with.

Testing Limits

Spring junior year through fall senior year: Take college entrance exams

Test scores are important to colleges, along with GPA, rigor of coursework and more, according to Guthrie. She says that students will ideally lock in their best score by the end of their junior year, particularly here in Florida, where many students are applying to southeast schools with deadlines that are a bit earlier.

While you likely took your SAT or ACT exams prior to senior year, there’s still some time if you haven’t or if you want to improve your score. Because you will need test scores to apply to schools, you want to get these out of the way soon. Register early to secure your spot, as seats can fill quickly.

Don’t forget to prep either. Spend  eight to 12 weeks before your test date studying and understanding the test formats so you’re not missing questions or hurting your score for silly reasons.

All About Applications

October through January: Submit college applications

Starting your applications early is paramount. “Students should look at a deadline and back that up six to eight weeks,” Guthrie says. “This will allow time to submit a quality application with thoughtful essays and plenty of time to get additional materials submitted before the deadlines.” 

While each school will have its own application deadline, most fall around the same time. You must first decide the type of application process you want to enter into: early decision, early action, single choice early action or regular decision.

Early applications generally need to be submitted by Nov. 1 or Nov. 15. These applications are binding, so if you apply and are accepted, you’re committed to attending. This is the ideal scenario for your first choice school, but understand you will be committed regardless of financial assistance or scholarship status.

Alternatively, early action simply means applying to the school and receiving a decision sooner than the regular decision process. Opting for single choice early application, though, bars you from applying to any other schools during the early decision process. You are only able to apply elsewhere when you receive an acceptance or rejection from the college.

Regular decision gives you much more leniency, with application deadlines falling between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1. Write your essays and communicate with those who will write your recommendations in November so you’re not scrambling during, or right after, the holidays. Don’t get lazy with your studies, because first semester grades will likely be considered.

Financial Aid

Before Jan. 1: File for financial assistance

College expenses are no small hurdle. One of the first steps is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you’re seeking any form of need-based financial aid, this application is essential to determine your eligibility. Private institutions may have an additional form for you to fill out, so touch base with your prospective schools to understand their process.

Merit-based scholarships are dependent on your academic performance and extracurricular activities. These can be distributed by universities as incentives to accept or you can look up private-fund applications. Oftentimes, merit-based scholarships will come with stipulations that require you to maintain a certain GPA. Pay close attention to these so you don’t lose them haphazardly.

Decisions, Decisions

February through May: Commit to a school

As your application responses come rolling in, it’s time to commit to a college. If you know you don’t want to attend a certain school, give a decision as early as possible to make room for other candidates. If you’re on the fence or want to ensure you have a ‘yes,’ wait for your other letters before closing any doors or making a firm commitment.

Once a school sends you an acceptance packet, they will likely give you a commitment date. You will need to respond by that date in order to attend. Keep track of each of these deadlines as they might vary from school to school.

Your senior year of high school is one that you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s also the year when you make one of your first big life decisions, so don’t let the college application process get away from you during all of the fun.


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Written by Nikki Stephens

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