A comprehensive college admissions timeline

college admissions strategy

This is not your average college admissions timeline. Rather, this is an outline of a thoughtful and purposeful college process, one that begins your freshman year because it's a journey of discovery, reflection, and articulation. Read on to see Cambridge Coaching's suggestions for how to structure your high school career with respect to your college application. 

9th Grade: foundations

Your freshman year should be about discovering what matters most to you and who you can rely on for mentorship and guidance. With that in mind, your objectives this year can include:

  • Building a strong foundation in academic courses
  • Bringing teachers onto your “team”
  • Exploring activities (in school and outside of school) that speak to your passions and interests
  • Thinking about summer -- what allows for more space to explore and learn about who you are? 

10th Grade: build on your foundations and add in test prep

Your sophomore year is a great opportunity to go further with the discoveries from freshman year that spoke to you the most. In addition, you can start gently incorporating some nuts and bolts of the college process so that your to-do list junior year is a bit lighter. Consider the following objectives:

  • Continue on foundation building in academic courses; the “rigor” of a transcript matters just as much or even more than the grades 
  • Continue to build strong relationships with teachers and other trusted adults in the school community
  • Take the PSAT and, if possible, a practice ACT 
  • With PSAT and ACT scores in hand, develop a sensible and structured “testing plan” that includes time for preparation and at least two sittings of the “primary” test. For more on the PSAT, check out this post, and for more on the differences between the SAT and ACT, check out this post.
  • Think about summer -- this summer is a wonderful time for you to explore an academic interest that might spark projects and important thinking during your junior year.

11th Grade: tip towards the college process

In your junior year, the balance begins to tip towards the college process. The work you do this year will pay dividends your senior year - the more you're able to stay on top of things this year, the less stress you'll have next year!

September - December

  • Start to execute on the testing plan developed last year
  • Start strong in academic courses, continue to build good relationships with teachers who will likely write letters of recommendation

January - March

  • Plan on taking a few college tours, virtual or otherwise. These schools should be schools that represent different types of schools, especially if you can take advantage of virtual tours. If you're visiting in person, pick one school not too far from home and use that as a base to see a variety of different schools.
  • Finish testing if possible.


  • Start thinking about teacher recommendations. Make appointments to discuss letters with the teachers you're considering as your recommenders.
  • Start to use your high school's own college application management system (Naviance, SCOIR, Maia Learning, etc). This will help you create your school list based on all sorts of parameters.
  • Discuss college expectations and hopes with your family. It is important for your family to get on the same page early in the process so there are fewer surprises.


  • Take tours and attend virtual Information Sessions at schools of interest.
  • Using the tours/info sessions as well as the Naviance research, start building a school list.


  • Read books/blogs regularly over the summer! Many supplement essays will ask about reading (outside of class). It is also a super common alumni interview question. 
  • Bucket the schools on your brainstorm list into Likely, Target, Reach, and Unlikely.


  • Work on Common App writing requirements. This includes your primary essay or personal statement.
  • Keep in mind: your college application tells a full and complete story of who you are. As such, there is no “gaming the system.” There is only being authentically yourself.


  • The Common App goes “live” on August 1. Establish an account, add colleges to the Dashboard, and start organizing the supplement essay questions/topics that have been published.
  • Make an application plan regarding early decision, early action, regular decision, etc.

12th Grade: application time

It's go time for the college process! While it can be overwhelming, following this timeline will help keep you on track and keep your tasks manageable:


  • Tackle the Common App comprehensively. This means getting every section in shape, including the Family section and Activities section.
  • Loop back around to your teacher recommenders.
  • Keep writing! By September, you should have a solid-to-almost complete draft of your Common App essay, as well as a good start on all your supplement essays.


  • On October 1, your family can establish an FSA ID, which allows you to start the process of applying for financial aid.
  • File your college application plan with your Guidance/College Counseling Office. Many schools require 2 weeks notice to release a transcript, so be sure that you are following the proper policies and paperwork.
  • Official Test Scores: if you are sharing their SAT or ACT scores with your applications, you need to send “official test scores” to the schools on your EA/ED list.


  • First Quarter Grades: November is often a time that many high schools release unofficial “first quarter” (or sometimes first trimester) grades. For the most part, these are shared from the high school to the admissions office of all schools on your EA/ED list. Sometimes schools will ask you to self-report these grades into their application portal. 
  • Continue working on your RD school materials.
  • Alumni Interviews: you may start to get interview requests, especially if you applied ED to a school! Take the time to prepare for these interviews, and don't forget to send thank you emails.
  • Common App updates: if you have new testing to report or a finalized spring semester schedule, you need to remember to update your Common App before submitting for RD/ED2 the next month.


  • Complete all supplements for RD and ED2 schools. If you are hoping to get feedback on this writing from an English teacher or Guidance/College Counselor, you need to request this feedback well in advance of the winter school holiday.
  • Complete the Common Application “Additional Information” section (writing). Only use this space if you have something to say, not to write words for the sake of writing words.

I've submitted. Now what?

After December, the college process moves from your hands into the admissions offices. Still, there are a few things that might come up after all applications have been submitted:

  • Deposits: May 1 is deposit day. You can only send a deposit to one school. Some financial aid packages will waive the deposit fee, but not all.
  • Waitlists: As yield becomes less predictable, more and more selective schools are using the waitlist to protect their class size. Waitlist movement is typically early May to late June.
  • Financial Aid Appeals: You and your family should absolutely compare the Expected Family Contributions (EFC) you are given by different colleges. If there is a “gap” between the EFC + the FA package and the total cost of tuition + room + board + fees, then you can request a “re-assessment” with an “appeal” of the process.


The college admissions process is long. But with the right mindset and level of investment, it can be an incredibly rewarding journey of self-discovery.

Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.


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