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College Planning Timeline for High Schoolers

We at Magoosh are excited to provide this comprehensive guide to college planning.
The guide below contain key action steps for applying to college, broken down by each season of the four years of high school.
We've also included a visual map to assist with planning across all four years of school. 

A Complete Timeline

The precise timing and details of these important hurdles may be personalized for each student with the help of guidance counselors, teachers, and parents. A student who studies abroad, for instance, will need to adjust the timing of some of these steps. It is important to note that we have laid out a thorough map of suggested actions, not requirements.  For instance, not every college-bound student participates in the AP Program or applies for scholarships.   

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Because some of the advice provided here might be relevant to a given student at an earlier time than we suggest, it is best to scan this guide in its entirety before implementing the plan. 

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Freshman Year

Summer Before Freshman Year

Choose an organizer and study schedule  

One of the best investments a student can make in the months leading up to 9th grade is putting time and thought into how they will track assignment deadlines and other important events.  Unlike middle school, where assignments are often due a day or two ahead of time and teachers frequently allott class time to work on homework, high school teachers are more inclined to assign activities that require multiple days of self-directed study outside of class, and so students cannot expect to rely on memory alone to stay on top of obligations.   

The ideal tracking system has a way to visualize upcoming assignments and also zoom in on a given day or week; the most popular daytimers allow the user to flip between a monthly view and weekly view, or between a weekly view and daily view.  Another key feature of an ideal tracker is a hearty notes section to jot down tasks and errands related to schoolwork or life in general. Students should be advised that the “notes” section of daytimers shouldn’t be used for lecture notes. If a student wants to blend their daytimer with class notes, they might want to try adding calendar pages a ringed binder.  Most students find tangible planners to be more useful than apps because they are more flexible and not all teachers allow electronics in the classroom.  However, online organizers and apps are becoming more user friendly all the time and they might become more popular than tangible systems in a few years.

The most important thing a student can do is experiment and find something that works for them.  If the first system is a flop, that doesn’t mean the student is inherently disorganized or unable to track assignments or manage their time; it probably means they haven’t found a system that works for them.  At the same time, a student shouldn’t discard a system too early. It’s best to commit to a given system for a full month before switching to another modality.

Meet with guidance counselor 

Another great thing for freshmen to do before classes begin is meet their assigned guidance counselor, assuming the student already knows whom they are assigned to.  Many students resist doing this because they aren’t sure what to say or ask. That is okay because the core purpose of these early visits is to establish a face-to-face relationship.  Before meeting, a student should make a list of their key interests, both academic and recreational, and generate at least three questions pertaining to high school or college.  By making a positive impression on the guidance counselor, the student is more likely to be notified when the counselor hears about key opportunities, such as scholarships.  Furthermore, counselors are more likely to advocate for students they know well.   

Fall of Freshman Year

Sample a range of extracurricular activities

There is a lot going on freshman year and several adjustments to make as students become accustomed to more homework with tests that are more difficult to study for.  Extracurricular activities can serve as a welcome counterbalance to hard mental work. By making time for physical, creative, and social activities, students set the foundations for a well-balanced life and increased self-esteem.  Needless to say, things like sports, music, drama, and student government are also viewed favorably by college admissions and scholarship panels. Eventually, it will be a good idea for students to narrow in on one or two primary activities so they don’t spread themselves too thin,  but freshman year can be regarded as the time to sample a range of on-campus clubs and organizations. Students who aren’t interested in sports or music should look into activities such as debate or drama. If a student samples 4-6 different activities in ninth grade, they’ll have a solid sense of what to pursue as sophomores and beyond. 

Start two living documents: a resume and list of scholarships 

This is the perfect time to set up two very important electronic documents: a resume and a list of potential scholarships with deadlines.  The resume should be organized with the following sections: education, employment, extracurricular activities, skills, conferences (including science fairs), hobbies, and references.  Students should get in the habit of updating their resume regularly, ideally twice per semester and once over the summer.  The scholarship document can be set up with a “brainstorm” section where the student can track personal strengths and unique lifestyle circumstances, as well as a master list of scholarships organized by the month they are due.  Once students begin applying for scholarships, they should create separate folders for each scholarship. Some scholarship applications require two or more essays, and each of these should be saved as its own document with names that are easy to remember and search for.

Winter of Freshman Year

Assess executive functioning and consider tutoring

When the first semester winds down, freshmen should sit down with a parent, older sibling, counselor, or tutor to assess their study habits and time management.  Students and their support systems should reflect on organizational strengths and weaknesses. Were they able to keep papers organized? Did they finish assignments on time?  Did they give themselves enough time to write papers and study for tests? At what times of day did they typically complete homework, and how might this be adjusted to prevent late night cramming?  This reflection period is a good time for the student to assess and possibly making changes to the time management system they chose in August.  

Time management and organization skills are components of executive functioning, and they can take several years to master.  Students who need help getting in the habit of tracking assignments and working toward deadlines might benefit from one-on-one tutoring.  When choosing a tutor, students and their parents should look for an individual who has shining recommendations and a personality that complement the student. 

Sign up for 1-4 AP or honors courses for next year

When setting up a schedule of courses for the following year, students should scan their school’s honors and AP courses and consider taking a few.  One strategy is to choose AP courses that build from classes the student enjoyed in middle school, such as Biology, World History, Human Geography, or Spanish Literature and Culture. They should also look at the list of AP courses available to juniors and seniors to become aware of any prerequisites they might need.  If a student isn’t currently on the advanced track in a given subject and believes they should be, this is the time to talk with guidance counselors and faculty about the possibility of switching tracks, which could mean taking or retaking a placement exam.   

To learn more about the AP Program, refer to the “Fall of Junior Year” section of this guide or browse these resources.     

Examine foreign language trajectory

Many high schools require two or three years of a foreign language, so if a student isn’t enjoying the language they studied in ninth grade, this is the plan the switch for next fall.  Not all school districts require a foreign language to graduate, but there are numerous other reasons to take these courses  

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Spring of Freshman Year

Career exploration

Most students will find that their lives have changed drastically over the course of their freshman year as a result of being exposed to new courses, activities, and peer groups.  This makes spring a fertile time for open-ended explorations of core values and interests with an eye toward eventual career directions. These books on life planning and achieving goals offer exercises to help teens get clear who they are, who they want to be, and take necessary action.  

Shadow, volunteer, or intern

Spring of freshman year is the ideal time for students to contact individuals and organizations who are connected to fields of study or service industries that interest the student. Whether the target field is medicine, law, architecture, advertising, or something in the entertainment industry, students have a high likelihood of finding someone to serve as a guide or mentor.  High schoolers can learn so much about careers and work settings by observing the day-to-day realities of one or more role models, and this experience is likely to make a lasting impression on the teenager.  To begin, it’s best to only ask the professional for a few hours of their time each month.  That will also allow plenty of time for any part-time jobs, volunteer work, internships, or vacations students have planned.  


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Sophomore Year

Summer before Sophomore Year

Learn about the SAT and ACT 

Students may take the college admissions exams sophomore year or even earlier, but many won’t yet have enough experience with advanced math to do their best.  Those who aren’t quite ready to take these exams can instead use 10th grade to learn about the structure of the ACT and SAT, hone test-taking skills, and spend time answering practice questions.  Students might choose to invest in test prep books, an online course, or flashcards for the ACT or SAT. 

Spend four full days researching scholarships

Most scholarships won’t be available until the 11th and 12th grades, but students can start searching and even applying now.  It is best for the student to begin by reflecting on all of the characteristics that distinguish them from their peers, such as family background, artistic talents, health conditions, and specialized interests and hobbies.  Refer to the “Summer before Junior Year” section of this guide to read more about budgeting time when searching and applying for scholarships.  

Fall of Sophomore Year 

Commit to 1-2 extracurricular activities      

In September, students will want to think carefully about the upcoming year and set realistic expectations for how many extracurricular activities they can juggle while keeping grades up and staying balanced.  Whereas freshman year is a time for sampling options, sophomores should have a fairly good sense of the one or two extracurricular activities they want to deepen their skills in through the remainder of high school.    

Consider taking the PSAT

The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) is administered October each year.  Most students take the PSAT as juniors because 11th grade is the only time students’ scores can be accepted for the National Merit Scholarship Program.  There are solid arguments for taking the exam both as a sophomore and the following year because it serves as valuable practice, comes with a detailed score report that communicates strengths and weaknesses, and it shorter in duration and less expensive than the ACT and SAT.  

Research study abroad options

Studying abroad is invaluable but also raises a fair amount of fears.  If the prospect of studying abroad for an entire semester or year is too daunting, students might look into programs that are scheduled for shorter durations, possible during winter or summer breaks.  Most high school students underestimate the degree to which college admissions boards value the skills and insights gained through international travel. Students who are excited to study in another country should be meticulous about mapping course requirements for graduation and will want to meet with a guidance counselor early in the process because they might need to take certain courses in earlier or later semesters than their peers.

Winter of Sophomore Year 

Map out next year’s AP courses and test dates

At most high schools, students choose their upcoming courses the preceding spring or even winter.  It is extremely important to thoroughly plan for Junior year because it typically includes rigorous courses and multiple test dates, making for quite a juggling act.   Students will want to mark a calendar with all relevant test dates; seeing all the dates laid out at once will also help them prioritize and eliminate obligations. 

Sign up for 1-4 AP courses for next year

Advanced Placement (AP) is a national program that allows high school students to earn college credits if they earn a passing score on one or more designated exams, which are administered in May. Students typically enroll in one or more AP courses at their high schools and then take the exams in May, although it is possible to take an AP exam independent of its corresponding high school course.  

Sophomores should consider registering for 1-4 AP courses the following year, including one or two classes linked to exams that have been historically difficult, like World or US History, and one or two courses with exams that have high pass rates, such as AP Research or Microeconomics.  Sometimes the honors or even elective classes at a high school are even more rigorous and interesting than AP offerings, so students shouldn’t pack their schedules with AP courses if it means missing out on a wonderful course.  

Spring of Sophomore Year

Start researching colleges

It is never too early to begin comprising a list of potential colleges.  A good way to get the ball rolling is to take virtual tours of colleges students have heard positive things about or are located in geographic regions of interest: Many students are surprised to learn that getting a degree outside of the U.S. is sometimes more affordable than studying in the states.  At this stage, there is no reason to eliminate schools that seem academically out of reach.    

A student might also ask their guidance counselors to suggest colleges that offer academic programs or living environments well suited to the student’s goals and personality.   The nonprofit Education Trust has created an online tool to help students search for colleges and compare attributes.

Set up a financial plan

Students can begin financial planning by taking advantage of free resources put out by organizations such as the College Board, which provides helpful 2-year financial planning checklists for parents and students, and the High School Financial Planning Program (HSFPP) which is funded through the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE).  Students, parents, and instructors will want to visit the HSFPP resources section and select “College Prep” from the “resource type” dropdown menu to gain access to college planning advice.   

High schoolers and their parents need to be clear about how much money is available for college and how to fill in the gaps.  Students who work part-time or expect to receive money from relatives over the subsequent years should decide what percentage they will save toward college.  

Instead of keeping the money in a savings account, students and their families will want to explore options with higher interest rates.  Online banks often have interest rates that are multiple times higher than in-person branches, and these rates are higher still if the customer purchases a certificate of deposit (CD) that matures anywhere from 6 months to 10 years into the future.  Purchasing CDs is a useful self-discipline strategy because there is often a financial penalty for withdrawing money prior to maturation date. The student might want to add one small 5-year CD every 6 months they are in high school so that the funds will be available at regular intervals during college.    

Junior Year

Summer before Junior Year

Study for and take an SAT subject exam

The SAT subject tests are typically given six times per year, and students can take up to three subject exams on any one day; students should know that the SAT subject tests cannot be taken on the same day as the regular SAT exam.  Even if a student’s target college doesn’t require the SAT Subject Tests, scoring highly on 1-3 of these exams will contribute to a standout application. Not all of the subjects are offered on each testing date, but the late August exam includes all of the math, science, history, literature, and most foreign language exams. Students often require 10 or fewer hours to study for each of these exams, although it certainly varies.

Before choosing an SAT subject test, students should think about the AP exams they have previously taken or will take the following May.  There is overlapping material between some of these exams (for example, US History appears in both domains) that can be capitalized on; this is a great strategy for students who need SAT Subject exams for college admissions.  Students taking the SAT subject exams to make their applications stand out might consider the opposite strategy and intentionally choose SAT subject tests that do not overlap with AP exams.  Clearly, this requires additional studying but is a way of highlighting academic breadth as well as mastery to admissions panels.   

Study for the ACT or SAT

There is no better time to focus on studying for the ACT or SAT than the summer before junior year.  This is by no means a student’s “only shot,” and a number of students don’t begin the process until the summer before their senior year.  By beginning the process early, students gain more exposure standardized tests and are shielded from much of the stress and panic that grips seniors who are in the throes of studying for standardized exams while simultaneously applying to colleges.  There is a testing advantage of studying from a relaxed state of mind. An additional benefit of beginning test prep early is that students will be introduced to reading techniques, grammar rules, and math concepts that they might not yet have encountered in regular courses, giving them a preview of course concepts and an added level of familiarity with materials.

Within the first week or two of test prep, students should take one full-length practice exam, ideally one from the official test makers at ACT or College Board.  After scoring the exams, it is extremely beneficial to review each and every wrong answer and understand why the right answer is indeed correct. Students can make substantial progress toward their test score goals using test prep books or online courses. One-on-one tutoring can also be helpful.  

Visit college campuses

If a student will be vacationing at all the summer before 11th grade, they should try to visit any major colleges in the vicinity.  Even if a student isn’t interested in those particular colleges or geographical areas, it is always a good idea to get exposure to a diverse sample of colleges and their environments.  Personnel at the registrar’s office or orientation department can often show students residence halls and even sample dorm rooms, either as part of a campus tour or something less structured. If students won’t be traveling, they should try to take a few day trips to colleges within driving distance of home.  

Dedicate eight days to scholarships 

During the academic year, it is difficult to carve away adequate time for researching scholarships, filling out applications, requesting letters of recommendation and transcripts, and writing essays.  By setting aside eight days in summer (six hours per day), a student should have enough time to collect information on 5-10 scholarships and finish applications for 1-2 of them. A timeline might look something like this: one day researching opportunities, one day downloading applications and requesting letters of recommendation and transcripts, one day filling out applications, two days writing essays, one day asking for feedback on essays and polishing application forms, and two days editing the essays.   

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Fall of Junior Year

Commit to keeping grades up

Eleventh grade is notorious for its challenging courses and the need to juggle studying with preparing adequately for the ACT or SAT as well as AP exams.  Students with the highest GPAs understand that the first half of the semester is crucial because motivation tends to be higher and there are often opportunities to get a jump start by reading ahead in textbooks and outlining papers that won’t be due for several weeks.  Teenagers and adults often hold the perception that they work best under pressure, but several research studies conducted on “cramming” have come to the opposite conclusion: cramming is a poor productivity strategy.    

Students should set up a reminder system to ensure they review their grades at least once a week and might incentivize themselves with gifts or favorite activities each time they earn a high score on a major assignment or test.    

Register for AP exams 

Students in the AP Program will register for the exams directly through their high schools in fall.  If they won’t be taking an AP course until spring semester, the school will direct students on when and how to register.  

It is important to know that not all colleges grant credit for AP exams and that among the schools that do, each has its own policy on how many AP credits they will apply toward graduation and in what subject areas.  Browse articles on AP exams here. 

Take the PSAT 

The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is a multiple choice exam designed to prepare students for the SAT. Students have 165 minutes to answer 138 questions split into 4 sections with short breaks between.  Like the SAT, the PSAT has a math and verbal component, but unlike the SAT, there is no essay. This exam is offered every October and can only be taken once per year. The PSAT is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, one of the more prestigious scholarships in the United States. Some high schools cover the registration  fee for the exam, and other students may be eligible for a PSAT fee waiver.  

Continue studying for the ACT or SAT and take at least three more practice exams 

Using this guide, students have approximately four full months to study for the ACT or SAT.  This is longer than the average student studies, and it gives students the luxury of taking several practice tests.  We recommend taking at least four full-length practice exams over the course of studies. Practice exams are much more doable on weekends than during the school week, and by spreading these out over the course of four months, there are plenty of opportunities to fit these in.   

Dedicate four days to scholarships

Students who set themselves up for scholarship searches over the summer should be able to complete one scholarship this season by setting aside four full days to write essays and solicit feedback from letter writers and proofreaders. 

Winter of Junior Year

Take the ACT or SAT

Winter isn’t the most popular time to take the ACT or SAT, but taking the exam in December (ACT and SAT) or February (ACT) makes strategic use of holiday breaks for studying.  Registration deadlines are approximately five weeks before the test date, and scores are released 2-3 weeks afterwards. These ACT and SAT guides explain how students can organize themselves the day before and of test day.    

Approach one or more teachers about writing letters of recommendation 

Few juniors give thought to whom they will ask to write their college letters of recommendation the following year, and that’s a shame because 11th grade is typically the year when students take their most challenging courses and are therefore in close contact with teachers ideally suited to attest to their college readiness.  Additional benefits of asking instructors so early in the game are that doing so gives students early practice with a skill they will repeat multiple times in adulthood (requesting recommendations) and it puts the student on the teacher’s radar as someone who is a serious, organized student, potentially leading the teacher to ask them to be a classroom assistant in next year’s classes.   Students should provide instructions to the teachers the following fall.   

Dedicate four days to scholarships

As in the fall, students will want to carve out four days to work on scholarships with the goal of submitting one complete application over that duration. 

Spring of Junior Year 

Study for and take one or more AP exams

AP exams are administered in May.  It is best to begin studying in early March and continue mastering the materials in April and May. 

Look into CLEP exams

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) consists of more than thirty exams in five subject areas, and—as with AP exams—a passing score on an exam replaces a semester-long course at select colleges, generally equating to 5-7 credits.  These tests are slightly less expensive and shorter in duration than AP exams, and they have been gaining wider acceptance in recent years with over 2,000 colleges now honoring them. Students should know that just because a college accepts CLEP credits, they might not do so for all 33 of the exams, so it is best to check with schools before registering.  Similarly, each school has it own policy on how many combined AP and CLEP credits they will grant students. A huge advantage of CLEP exams is that they are offered throughout the year at designated test centers.   

Narrow in on 10-15 colleges

If students have been keeping their college list in a visible location, they have been—at least subconsciously—thinking about their interest in attending those schools.  In May and June, juniors will take note of and hopefully be inspired by the college announcements of current seniors. This makes spring a fitting time to begin narrowing in on a smaller set of colleges to apply for in the fall.  

Dedicate four days to scholarships

Schedule 4 days this season to work on scholarship applications.  If possible, choose weekend days when there won’t be as many competing demands.  A common temptation is to spend all of one’s time researching applications rather than applying, so make sure that at least 3 of these days are spent on the actual applications.  


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Senior Year 

Summer before Senior Year

Study for and take an SAT subject exam(s)

The summer before senior year is a great time to take 1-3 SAT Subject Tests.  Refer to the “Summer before Junior Year” section of this guide to read more about the SAT Subject Tests.  

If needed, study again for ACT or SAT

It is common to take the ACT or SAT exam more than once, and doing so is generally not viewed unfavorably by college admissions panels.  If a student in their senior year believes they can earn a higher score by retaking one of these tests, they should register for a September exam and set aside at least 30 hours of total study time.  As mentioned in the “Summer before Junior Year” section of this document, students can make good progress using test prep books or online courses. One-on-one tutoring can also be helpful.   

Create master timeline, set up applications

Students can get a jump start on applications by setting up an application timeline tracker and ordering official transcripts the summer before their senior year.  Also, although many teachers aren’t available by email over the summer, it is a good idea to contact them in July or August and then follow up again if they don’t respond by the time school begins.

The Common Application allows students to submit electronic applications and transcripts to a number of colleges using a single form.  They will still need to provide school-specific essays and complementary materials, but this system cuts down substantially on the overall time investment of the process.  There is a separate fee to apply for each school, so students will need to be selective about the colleges they choose. Application fee waivers are granted to thousands of students each year through the NACAC and College Board and one waiver can typically be used for up to four schools.   Learn more about college application fees here.  By registering for a Common Application account in the summer, students have plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the platform.   

Dedicate eight days to scholarships

Refer to the “Summer before Junior Year” section of this document to read more about getting started on scholarship searches and applications.  Students who have already set themselves up for scholarship searches their sophomore or junior year should be able to complete two scholarships the summer before senior year by setting aside eight full days to write essays and ask for help from letter writers and proofreaders.  

Fall of Senior Year

If needed, retake the ACT or SAT

A student who takes a September exam will get scores back in October.  If the student still isn’t pleased with their performance, they have one more shot: taking an exam in mid-October will keep them on schedule to submit college applications by November, which is before most college deadlines.  

Register for AP exams

Advanced Placement exams are administered in May, and registration is administered through high schools with deadlines in the fall.  Refer to the “Winter of Junior Year” section of this guide for more details. 

Write essays

The essay component of a college application is arguably the most underestimated factor in admissions, and if there is one area to splurge on tutoring or private academic counseling, it is here.  A few hours with a tutor can make a world of difference because they will be able to help the student compose targeted, specific outlines and package their skills in a way that comes across well to reviewers.  Individual tutors are often—although certainly not always—more familiar with academic values and writing conventions than a student’s parents or high school guidance counselors because these individuals are more likely to be undergraduate or graduate students currently immersed in that environment. As a student chooses topics to write on, they should continuously ask themselves:  How would I be an asset to this college? How can I contribute? This requires a shift in mindset from writing a resume, which is the more appropriate place to brag about achievements. The essays should reflect maturity, passion, and an attitude of wanting to make a positive impact at that school and in society at large. By linking unique experiences (leadership positions, travel, volunteer experiences, personal hardships) with a global conscience, students will strike the exact tone that will resonate with college admissions panels.

Ask for birthday and holiday gifts that will support college

A number of gift-giving occasions are approaching: holidays, 18th birthdays, and, of course, the big one: high school graduation.  Students who are thinking ahead can request that friends and family members help them out by choosing gifts for college life, such as items for a dorm room, portable electronics, or money.  Some relatives don’t want to write a check because they think it’s impersonal. They might instead be willing to purchase a gift card for a cafe or all-purpose store. Some stores even have college registry lists

Prep for interviews

This piece of advice won’t be relevant to all students because the majority of colleges don’t include an interview as part of the admissions process.  Schools that do have interviews tend to be very selective, and they begin scheduling in-person, phone, or Skype interviews early in the admissions process.  Too many students believe there is no way to prepare for these interviews. What they don’t realize is that most interview questions fall into one or more of these categories: What are your passions and interests?  How have earlier experiences prepared you for the college of interest? What are you looking for in a college?  How do you view society? How do you manage stress and organize time and responsibilities?  Students should practice for interviews several days or weeks in advance, which means having a variety of topics prepared and learning how to speak while breathing deeply and minimizing fidgeting.    

Proofread and submit applications 

Some portions of college applications are very straightforward, such as providing a birth date, home mailing address, and GPA, so students should answer these questions first to build momentum.  Letter writers should be given at least five weeks advance notice, so students will want to forward instructions to them as soon as the school year begins. Applications need to be heavily edited and scrupulously proofread for typos, and the best way to do this is to print the applications at least once before submitting them; this extra step provides a fresh perspective and makes it easier to detect errors.   Applications will be far more polished if teachers, guidance counselors, friends, or family members provide feedback.

Dedicate four days to scholarships

Refer to the “Summer before Junior Year” section of this document to read more about getting started on scholarship searches and applications.  Students should strive to submit one scholarship application this season by setting aside four full days to write essays and request help from letter writers and proofreaders. Some scholarships will require more time than this, so choose a lower-effort option when planning Fall of senior year. 

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Winter of Senior Year

FAFSA 

January is the best time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because parents will have received tax documents from the previous year.  High school guidance counselors are typically able to provide the forms and offer a helping hand as can students navigate the FAFSA. Students from financially privileged families should still submit the FAFSA because several forms of financial assistance, such as subsidized loans and work-study opportunities, are available to families representing a large range of income levels.  

Arrange college visits and email current students 

Students should plan to visit 3-5 college campuses in person over spring break.  It might not be possible to schedule all the visits in a single week which means some visits will need to happen over 3-day weekends.  If students aren't able to visit all the schools on their list, a good idea is to email the school's orientation program and ask to be connected with a current undergraduate to whom they can email questions about student life in that school.   

Update financial plan

January and February are good months for families to review assets and see if they are still on track to finance college according to the plans they set up a few years ago.  A lot can change during this time, such as parental incomes, tuition fees, student loan interest rates, and students’ academic skills and priorities. If students aren’t already managing much of their own money, they should begin taking ownership by budgeting food and transportation costs on a weekly basis.  Practicing these skills now will make it easier to manage expenses the first year of college.   

Dedicate eight days to scholarships 

Most students have fewer obligations over winter break, so they should aim to submit two scholarship applications from December through February by carving out eight full days to work on essays.   

Spring of Senior Year

Send deposit to college of choice 

Most schools require students to make an enrollment decision by May 1st, making April a month of excitement and, for some, distraction.  Students might need to schedule a family meeting to talk about school options and make sure that every option on the table is financially viable and aligned with the student’s goals.   Having these conversations will bring clarity and facilitate the ultimate decision.

Keep grades up

After selecting a college for the following year, students might be tempted to stop keeping up with high school classes. It is crucial to keep grades up because some colleges require End of Year Reports which include grades from spring semester; college can and do revoke acceptance offers, and scholarship awards can be similarly nullified. Friends, family, and teachers can support students by acknowledging the reality of senioritis and reminding them of how much they have accomplished and how close the finish line truly is.  

Take one or more AP exams

While spring of junior year is the most common time to take AP exams, many students will be taking one or more Advanced Placement exams May of their senior year.  The pressure might not be as intense as it want junior year because seniors’ AP exams won’t factor into college admissions decisions, but passing scores on these exams still do translate into college credit at many schools, so they should be taken seriously. 

Think carefully about student loans

Students are graduating college with more student loan debt than ever before, which creates a burden later in life and delays important milestones such as starting a family or putting a down payment on a home.  One rule of thumb is to keep total student loan debt less than the student’s projected first year of salaried employment. Keep in mind that many college graduates won’t earn a steady salary until well into their twenties or even thirties, which means student loans might accrue capitalized interest for a few years after the standard grace period, translating into a larger total debt load than the student had on their college graduation day.  Therefore, students should be conservative when taking out student loans. Students and their families need to think of ways to be frugal with living expenses in college, reflecting on each major expense category: food, transportation, health, phone service, clothes, and entertainment. There are several strong reasons for living on campus the first year of college, but students might save money by renting an apartment with friends beginning their second or third year.   

If students don’t take out the total amount of student loans they are offered fall of their freshman year, they might be able to make up the difference later in that academic year and thus feel confident with the strategy of withdrawing a small loan in August and increasing the amount in January if needed.  Students should not assume their school will allow them to do this unless they receive confirmation from the financial aid department.

Celebrate

The final weeks of high school are excitable and memorable for most students and their families, with senior ditch days and all-nighters, school assemblies, and graduation itself.  All students should congratulate themselves on reaching this major milestone and give thanks to the friends, family members, and teachers who helped them along the way.  

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