Managing Your College Planning Timeline from Freshman to Senior Year

Have you found yourself asking, “What is the timeline for applying to college?” While you will actually send your college applications off during senior year, there’s no better time than the present to get prepared. Even if your application deadline is a ways off, planning ahead is the best way to make sure you stay on top of things and don’t miss any important deadlines. We understand that managing your college planning timeline might seem overwhelming, but rest assured—we’ll guide you through the process, all the way from freshman to senior year.

When Should You Start Planning For College?

Freshman year is the ideal time to start planning for college. This might seem extreme, but there’s a lot you need to do before applying to college. You want to get a head start so you can plan the academic courses, extracurriculars, testing schedule, and real-world experiences you hope to accomplish through high school.

If you’re already in your junior year, you should have already taken many of these steps to prepare for college. If you haven’t, try to see what you can fit into your timeline before senior year.

Your College Preparation Timeline at a Glance

We’ve put together an in-depth college planning timeline with a handy checklist of must-do tasks and a step-by-step guide for every grade level, from freshman to senior year. In this timeline, you’ll find dates that include financial aid, college applications, extracurricular activities, and so much more.

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Your College Admissions Journey, Mapped Out!

Introducing our college planning timeline with a handy checklist of essential tasks, a step-by-step guide for every grade level, from freshman to senior year, AND financial aid, college applications, extracurricular activities, and more.

Freshman Year


  • Meet with Your Guidance Counselor: One of the first things we recommend is meeting with your guidance counselor. Doing so will save you a lot of time and stress in the long-run. While you can certainly schedule your classes and research schools and academic requirements yourself, a guidance counselor is an expert at scheduling high school classes and planning for college. Get to know them in your freshman year, and keep checking in periodically to make sure you’re on track.
  • Look Into Extracurricular Activities: Try out a few different extracurricular activities at your new school. Doing so will help you figure out your passions and give you the chance to fill your schedule with different activities that will look great on your college application. You could join sports teams, debate clubs, perform community service, or even take up an instrument. Try out a bunch of extracurriculars to find an activity that you truly enjoy.


  • Assess Academic Performance: After freshman year, see how you’ve done academically. Are the courses you chose the right fit, and will you need tutors or extra help next year? You want to make sure your GPA stays consistently high throughout your academic career. Consider all of this as you plan your sophomore schedule.
  • Think About Summer Activities: Consider enrolling in summer programs, volunteering, or gaining work experience.

Sophomore Year


  • Sign Up for Advanced Classes: You can sign up for AP classes and other advanced classes as soon as freshman year. We recommend starting one or two AP classes during your sophomore year. Then, junior year, consider taking up to four as you prepare for AP tests. Taking these advanced classes can be a real challenge, but they will boost your college application and give you an edge over other students.
  • Start Thinking About the SAT/ACT: The SAT and ACT are important parts of the college planning process. Most people take these exams during their junior year. But, we recommend learning about the structure of these tests and studying for them as soon as your sophomore year. There are tons of online classes, prep books, and other materials that can help prepare you for either exam.


  • Research Scholarships: Begin exploring scholarship opportunities and note any requirements that you’ll need to meet. Academic scholarships will help you fund your college dreams, but you definitely need to do some research to see which scholarships you qualify for (or what requirements you need to meet if you hope to qualify in the future). Most scholarships don’t become available till your junior or senior year, but it’s still important to do research ahead of time—we’re talking sophomore year.
  • Consider Taking the PSAT: Taking the PSAT isn’t necessary, but if you want a little practice before the actual SAT or ACT, the PSAT is a great place to get it. You can take this exam during your sophomore and junior year. We even recommend taking it multiple times to prepare yourself for the actual SATs. Additionally, the PSAT can help you qualify for valuable National Merit Scholarships.

Junior Year


  • Take the PSAT: Take the PSAT for a bit of additional practice and to compete for National Merit Scholarships.
  • Intensify Your SAT/ACT Prep: Enroll in test prep classes, use SAT prep books, and take practice tests as often as possible. Plan to go to prep classes, read books, create flashcards, and do other preparation as you study.
  • Visit A Few Colleges: Start visiting college campuses to get a feel for different schools and narrow down your choices. This is the perfect time to ask questions, see what campus life is like, and figure out which school will be the best academic and social fit!


  • Take the SAT/ACT: Register and take your SAT or ACT exams. Plan to take the SAT during your junior year.
  • Build a Preliminary College List: Now is the time to put together a list of roughly 15-20 schools that you would consider attending. From there, do some digging to find out more about the cost, acceptance rate, admission requirements, etc.
  • Maintain Grades and Extracurriculars: Keep your GPA high and stay involved in extracurricular activities. Don’t forget to maintain your grades. Colleges will consider your test scores and your GPA when you apply, so you don’t want your grades to start slipping—especially junior and senior years.
  • Ask for Letters of Recommendation: Begin asking teachers and mentors for letters of recommendation. Cultivate strong relationships with your teachers and other leaders at school and in your community.


  • Start Working on Those College Essays: Draft your personal statements and college essays.
  • Research and Narrow Down Colleges: Finalize the list of colleges you plan to apply to.

Senior Year


  • Complete College Applications: Filling out your college application is one of the final steps of the college planning process. Students should start doing this in their senior year. Doing so requires students to write personal statements or college application essays, gather important documents like transcripts, and prepare for college interviews. This can be one of the most stressful parts of high school, but it’s important to carefully fill out any forms and applications.
  • Fill Out the FAFSA: Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to apply for financial aid.

Finally… Choose Your College!

Now, it’s time to weigh your options! Once you hear back from the schools you’ve applied to, you’re ready to take the next big step toward a college career. Take a look at the financial aid offers you’ve received and evaluate the options. Be sure to factor in your academic goals, social needs, and other preferences before making a final decision. Don’t forget to submit those final transcripts, either!

For additional detailed information on the College Planning Timeline download our College Planning Timeline PDF or the College Application Timeline Checklist.

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Kevin Krebs

Kevin Krebs is the founder and managing director of HelloCollege, the Midwest's largest college planning company. With 25 years of experience, a Northwestern University education, and an Emmy-winning journalism career, Kevin helps students craft standout college applications. He has delivered over 500 workshops, provided thousands of consultations, and assisted over 40,000 families worldwide in navigating the college admissions process. Kevin and his team focus on helping students find their best-fit colleges, graduate on time, and secure their dream jobs without overwhelming debt.
Kevin Krebs - Founder of HelloCollege

About Our Founder

Kevin Krebs

Inspired by his parents, Kevin’s journey from a first-gen, diverse, low-income background to Northwestern University shaped him. After experiencing challenges, including student loan debt, he founded HelloCollege and has spent the last 25 years helping students successfully navigate college admissions.

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