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College Application Checklist and Timeline

Applying to college is no small feat. Apart from maintaining high academic and personal performance, you are also expected to manage multiple other components, such as standardized testing and essay-writing. This checklist provides a comprehensive list of action items to be completed throughout your application period and details the various components of the actual application.

Things you need to do:

Prepare for and take standardized tests.

The PSAT (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior), 4-6 weeks moderate studying

  • can be taken during your freshman and sophomore year (G9-10). It is a good practice for the SAT and can help you gauge your performance. Top scorers (top 1% per state) are given recognition as Merit Scholars. This is an extremely valuable qualification that colleges value highly.

The SAT (Sophomore, Junior, Senior), 2-3 months moderate studying

  • can be taken several times. The SATs are held 7 times a year domestically and 5 times a year in most countries. You will not be penalized for taking the test up to 3 times. Colleges usually look at the combined best scores for Verbal and Math. Most students see an increase of about 80 points for the second time they take. You should plan to take the SAT in your junior or senior year (G11-12).

The ACT (Sophomore, Junior, Senior), 2-3 months moderate studying

  • can be taken up to 12 times. Most students take it 2-3 times. Again, schools don’t seem to penalize students for multiple attempts. Students who perform well in school seem to do best on this test. You should plan to take the ACT the first time in your junior, so you have time to study and improve in your senior year (G11-12).

AP exams (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior)

  • are administered once a year in May. You should take a total of at least 5 AP courses during high school but generally, more is better. Colleges tend to place emphasis on these exams because normal high school curriculums are not standardized. AP exams though are standardized nationally. You can retake an AP test each time it’s offered but few students take any exam more than once Not all AP courses are equal though and AP Calc is considered a strong indicator of success in some selective colleges.

Develop a shortlist of colleges to apply to. (6 months, starting at beginning of Junior year)

  • 2-4 weeks should be spent looking at what kind of criteria you want to consider for a school. This requires a lot more than you would think. It is not just about majors but also about outcomes, tuition cost, location, clubs and all other things that would be a great experience to have at college. Don’t just look at the T20 on ranking sites! . (Check out our blog for more tips on this topic). 2-4 weeks should be spent building a large list. Look for multiple sources of information, be wide in your search and don’t get rid of local budget colleges in your list!

  • 1-3 months should be used for other relevant action items. This includes requesting information packages from the schools, speaking with school counselors, looking at social media accounts, reviews and also discussions with family and campus visits.

  • Narrow down the list for 1 month. Be realistic AND optimistic. Will you get into any of your dream schools? You never know. Do not dismiss yourself. At the same time, be realistic about budgets. Student debt can have a major impact on your options for career in later life. Even if you have a high-paying major, you do not want to be stuck without options. There are public schools with great educations and opportunities. There are colleges which specialize in different majors that may not be in the T20.

  • Research.

  • The vast majority of students either start too late, do not have a system or think that the T20 on ranking sites are the only colleges that provide a good education. Be clear on your priorities.

Register for the Common Application or Coalition Application

(Start halfway through Junior year)

  • You also need to decide whether you will apply ED, EA, RD. If you don’t know what these are, you should do some research as it can increase your chances significantly.

Fill out and submit your application. (3-6 months)

We elaborate on the different components of the application below.

  • Write your essays. (1-3 months)

  • Compile a list of extra-curricular commitments, work, and family responsibilities. (1 month)

  • Compile a list of honors, awards, and achievements. (2 weeks)

  • Prepare your resume and portfolio. (1.5 months)

Fill out and submit your financial aid/ scholarship application.

Gather the following materials: (2 months)

  • Income and tax information from parents/ legal guardians (such as the completed tax returns, W-2 forms, and other records of current year income).

  • Records of untaxed income.

  • Records savings, stocks, bonds, and trusts.

  • Records of small businesses and other assets.

  • Bank statements.

Ask for letters of recommendation from 2-3 teachers.

(Give 3-6 months advance notice to teachers, as popular teachers tend to get a lot of requests around deadlines)

  • Give them at least 3 months to write your letters as popular teachers may get bombarded by numerous requests.

  • Remind them 3-5 business days before the deadline if they have not submitted your letters.

Send in your standardized test scores.

We elaborate on the different procedures below.

Work closely with your school counselor

Make sure they, or another designated individual, submit your school report to each school on your shortlist. See below for more information on what this school report is.

Things you need to submit:

Submitted by you

1. The application:

Some colleges, notably the UC system, have their own application form. Most colleges use the Common Application or the Coalition Application—unified undergraduate admissions portals—that allow you to apply to multiple college at the same time and through the same portal. Both the Common App and Coalition App open in August of your application year. Here are the things that colleges ask for in the application.

  1. Personal and family information

  2. Coursework: a list of current or most recent year courses.

  3. Standardized test scores: you will self-report your scores in the application. This is separate from the official test report, which will be sent from respective testing organizations (such as ETS for the TOEFL, College Board for the SAT).

  4. Extra-curriculars: a list of things you have done outside of class and how much time you devoted to it. In addition to tradition extra-curricular activities such as student clubs and organizations, make sure to include any part-time jobs, internships, community service, or other family obligations such as taking care of grandparents/ siblings, mowing your neighbor’s lawn, etc. While you might be tempted to join a host of short-term extra-curriculars, it is better to demonstrate strong, long-term commitment to a handful.

  5. Honors & awards: a list of any honors and awards you have received, along with the context. For what did you receive the award? How many people received the award? Why is this award important or relevant?

  6. Resume (optional but helpful for selective colleges)

  7. Portfolio (optional but helpful for selective colleges)

  8. Disciplinary infractions: information of any suspensions or expulsions.

  9. Application fee: you will need to pay an application fee for every college you apply to. The amount varies by school. Fee waivers are available depending on your eligibility, so if the cost is a barrier, make sure to check in with your school counselor and the college’s admissions office.

2. Standardized test scores:

Schools require you to submit official score reports, which must be sent directly from the testing organization’s online portal. Each school has a specific school code for receiving test scores, which you input in the portal. You can select colleges to receive your scores while you are registering for the tests. Alternatively, you can choose to send it later, after you get your scores back.

  • The two standardized tests are the SAT (through College Board ) and the ACT (through the ACT ). Many schools have adopted a test-optional policy due to the COVID pandemic. You should check each college’s website carefully to determine whether you need to submit the SAT/ACT.

  • Like the SAT, AP test scores can be sent directly by the College Board to colleges for a fee, either before or after the results come out. For the IB, you can request transcripts by contacting your high school’s DP coordinator or placing a direct request on the IB secure website. More information on sending your IB scores here.

  • For international students, you will need to submit one of the following proofs of proficiency: TOEFL (through ETS), IELTS (through British Council IDP), or Duolingo English Test (through Duolingo). You might be able to waive this proficiency requirement if you attend a high school in an English-speaking country or if your high school’s language of instruction is English. You should check each college’s website carefully to determine whether you need to submit your proficiency test scores.

3. Financial aid/ Scholarship applications:

If you are applying for federal loans, make sure to fill out the FAFSA. If you are an international student, make sure to fill out your CSS Profile. Some colleges also have specific merit-based scholarships or need-based financial aid packages that you might be interested in applying.

Submitted by your school counselor

1. Official high school transcript:

The official transcript details each of the classes you have taken in high school, as well as the grades and credits you have earned. This transcript will have the school’s official letterhead and seal and is sent directly to each college by the school counselor. Make sure you keep your school counselor updated of deadlines so they can submit your high school transcript on time.

2. Mid-year and Final-year grade reports:

The initial transcript included in your application only details your classes and grades through the end of the junior year. Colleges typically ask your school counselor to submit an updated transcript half-way through your senior year, and again at the end of the year. Colleges reserve the right to change their admission decision if there is a significant, inexplicable deterioration in your academic performance (meaning: they might reject you even after you have been accepted).

3. School report/ Counselor recommendations:

The report and recommendation allow your school counselor to situate your academic experience in the context of your larger graduating class. They typically provide information about your school and class (how many students, how many AP classes offered, college attendance rate, your academic strength in relation to your class, etc.) If you take a “non-traditional” course at school, this report might also include an information sheet explaining the nature of the course. The counselor will also be able to provide insights into any special circumstances you may have faced in high school, as well as what your contribution to the high school’s academic and social community.

Submitted by your teacher

Letter of recommendation: This letter allows the teacher to speak to your academic performance in class, and secondarily, your extra-curricular presence if they happen to supervise a club or organization you are a part of.

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