When talking about US college admissions, the focus is usually on how to get in.
What a lot of students don't realise, however, is that a big part of understanding the how is knowing the when.
You can't just throw an application together in a few hours and send it off.
Well, you can, but you definitely won't gain admission... so don't do that!
Crafting a college application takes time, precision, attention to detail and myriad of other aspects, so you definitely can't leave it to the last minute!
If you want to give yourself the best chance of gaining admission into your dream college, you need to be across all the important dates.
This blog runs through an application timeline that would apply to a student looking to study in the US.
And because we're super keen (and we know you are too), the timeline begins early.
Over a year early!
Don't worry if you don't have a year... we're being extra cautious. Just use these dates as a general guide to make sure you leave plenty of time to piece your application together.
After all, you don't want to wind up hitting submit and thinking "I coulda...", "I shoulda..." or "I woulda..."
By the time you hit that submit button you want to feel confident that you've done all you can to gain admission into your dream college.
The year before your application is due:
August to December
1. Begin a list of what you're looking for in a college
This is the perfect place to start.
At the very beginning of your journey you should start by narrowing down what you're looking for in a college.
Consider the size, location, majors, sports, competitiveness – even look into different groups and societies and what social life on campus is like.
All of these aspects will influence how much you enjoy your time at college, so start considering what your prerequisites are for universities.
2. Take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT)
The Preliminary SAT is not just a great way to start your preparations for your college application, it's also an opportunity to get the ball rolling early!
The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is a standardised test that every student applying for college has to complete (or complete an equivalent test).
The SAT tests each student's knowledge in maths, reading, writing and language, and providing each student with a comparative, scaled score.
As the name suggests, the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) is an exam you can take before the real deal.
It's easy to think of the PSAT as just a practice SAT test, but it's so much more than that!
If you perform well on the test, you stand to gain some major benefits.
For one, the highest performers on the PSAT are eligible to earn scholarship money toward their chosen colleges.
YOUR chosen college...
Unfortunately, however, if you're not located in the US, you may have to travel away to sit the PSAT. You can search your local area here and contact the school nearest to you to book in a time.
3. Start considering majors and researching colleges and programs
The more you know about your program before joining, the more likely it is that you'll enjoy it.
Getting into university or college and finding that it's not what you expected can be a real shock to the system.
Sometimes this might work out for the best, but more often than not, it results in disappointment, which leads to a change of majors or the degree itself.
You don't want to get caught unawares and realise you hate the course you're completing after your first month enrolled.
So, how do you avoid this?
Well, for one, take time to consider your majors carefully before applying. Think about what you're interested in? What subjects do you do best in at school? What do you want to do with your future beyond university? Taking time to consider and answer all of these questions will help you select the right course for you.
Ultimately, you're going to do better in a course you love than one you're not engaged with.
Another method to avoid enrolling in the wrong course or at the wrong college is to make sure you know the ones that specialise in your dream field. Find out which universities are ahead of the pack in the field you're interested in.
Some schools are better at some things than others, so make sure you're applying to the right place.
For example, Yale might be one of the best US colleges, but it didn't make the cut in our blog of the top 11 economics schools. Know your universities. Avoid disappointment.
4. Meet with career advisors at your school (if you have any)
Start talking to administrators at your school about US admissions.
The earlier you do this, the better.
Meet with counsellors and get to know them well!
They can be your north star when it comes to college applications, so don't take them for granted.
Additionally, start thinking about which teachers you might want to have write a letter of recommendation for you, as this is a requirement of US college applications.
5. Start getting involved in extracurricular activities (if you're not already)
A huge part of your college application is your extracurricular activities.
Colleges don't just select students based on academic ability, they look for students who they think will mesh well with the culture and communities on campus.
They want to know more about you as a person, and that you're passionate and dedicated, and a great way for them to find this out is by looking at what you do when you're not studying.
Furthermore, your extracurriculars are a great opportunity for you to show college admission officers who YOU truly are.
So don't hold back!
Taking part in activities that you are passionate about and that align with the college of your dreams (and preferably your desired major) are a great way to stand out and separate yourself from the pool of applicants.
Good examples of extracurricular activities include:
Volunteering at a social enterprise or charity organisation: This shows great initiative and that you're passionate about making a difference and changing the world for the better; qualities that US colleges look for in candidates.
Organising a charity event or even starting your own charity initiative: This goes one step further than just volunteering and shows that you're self-motivated, driven, and can follow though with large-scale commitments. US colleges want people who go above and beyond, and showing that you're a self-starter and socially conscious will certainly make your application stand out.
Playing sport: This might seem like an obvious, perhaps mundane, extracurricular, but it shows some great attributes. For example, being a member of the soccer club shows you're a team player, you're driven, competitive, you like to get involved and stay social outside of school.
It goes without saying that sports are a particularly great extracurricular activity if you're hoping to play for any college sports teams!
- Start a business: This goes back to the self-starter point. Obviously this is difficult to do while you're still in high school, but it's one of the most influential extracurricular activities you can have when it comes to gaining admission into your dream college.
You don't have to start the next Uber, but think about your skills and how you might be able to monetise them. If coding is your thing, why not offer classes to kids? Or that banana bread that everyone asks you to make, why not sell it to local cafes?
This shows that you think strategically, you challenge yourself, and that you're not afraid to take risks.
Almost any extracurricular activity – however uninspiring it may seem – can be framed in a way that shows off desirable attributes to admissions officers.
That means if you've been dancing since you were six years old, talk about it! It shows that you're dedicated and can stick to things (and are therefore more likely to hang in there for the full length of your degree).
See what I mean? That wasn't so hard!
Whatever your extracurriculars are, make sure you're sharing a little bit of yourself. Give the admissions officers an honest sneak peek at the person you are and the value you can bring to their institution.
The year of your application:
January to March
1. Tour some schools in the US (if possible)
Once you've considered all the things you're looking for in a college, and possibly even made a shortlist, try to visit them in person!
Visiting colleges is great way to understand what kind of culture the campus has and what a student's day-to-day life might look like.
Sometimes, it just comes down to a 'feeling'.
Understandably, this can be a hard thing to achieve depending on which corner of the globe you're coming from, but it is also the best way to truly get a feel for a college and to know if it's right for you!
Maybe try to convince your parents to pick the US as your next family holiday destination... hint hint.
Wherever possible, visit campuses!
2. Study for the SAT
So you've sat the PSAT, now it's time to start preparing for the real deal!
To be prepared, you need to know what you're dealing with.
Find out the kind of score you'll need to gain admission into your preferred college so you can work out how close to (or far off) the mark you are.
There are many strategies to help you prepare for the SAT, but we recommend the best approach is to sit practice tests, which you can access online.
3. Plan your final year of high school (Year 13 in New Zealand or Year 12 in Australia)
Now that you've got an idea of what and where you want to study, and how much work you need to do to make that a reality, it's time to put the wheels in motion.
Start planning year 12/13 subjects and try to align them with some of your considered course areas.
Also, if there are any prerequisites for entrance into desired colleges or prospective majors, make sure you're ticking them off!
Above all, though, it's important that you're passionate about the subjects you choose to study, because these are the subjects you're more likely to do better in.
Don't go choosing classes to please others or because you think they'll make you look better on paper...
Choose classes that you care about!
4. Compile a list of possible scholarships
At this stage it's a great idea to look at potential scholarships as these will need to be applied for along with your application.
For some ideas about what kind of scholarships are available, check out our list.
March to June
1. Refine your list of colleges
Based on your academic grades, extracurriculars, family assets, and of course, your passions, preferred majors and dream colleges, you can start to narrow down your application pool.
It helps to segregate your prospective schools into three categories:
Back up schools
These are all pretty self-explanatory, but you can read more about what they mean here.
2. Apply for summer enrichment programs at US colleges or internships in your community
Given US colleges base admission on more than your academic prowess, it's a good idea to try to enrich your application and develop your skill sets over the summer break by getting involved in some programs outside of school.
Note: if you're in Australia or New Zealand, this will be during the end of year summer holiday period.
Applying for a part-time job or an internship at a local organisation will position ahead of the chasing peloton of applicants.
Showing that you're willing to give up your holidays to participate in these optional extras can add serious value to your application.
What's more, some colleges offer Summer Enrichment Programs (SEPs) for students hoping to make the transition to college easier.
SEPs are run in a range of subjects and speciailist areas, depending on where you are located.
SEPs are not only a great way to position yourself ahead of the application pool, but they're also an opportunity to get your foot in the door at your dream college.
3. Choose your references and let them know your timeline!
Including a strong reference letter (or letters) in your college application can seriously improve your chances of gaining admission.
Having endorsements from reputable, respectable sources (tip: not your mum) gives you credibility and positions you as a strong applicant.
You aren't just hoping colleges take your word... you actually have proof!
The number of reference letters you want to secure will depend on the quality of your references. A good number to aim for is three, however, two references from quality referees such as a sports coach or a school principal will be just fine.
Put the requests in for letters early and make sure everyone's on the same page. There's nothing worse than pestering someone who is doing you a favour.
Get in early for your benefit and theirs!
4. Prepare for each SAT subject
The SAT consists of three sections – math, reading, writing and language, and you also have the optional extra section – an essay.
Start preparing as early as possible for each of these sections and make sure you study smart!
By this I mean, if you're a maths whiz but you struggle with writing and language, make sure you allow extra time to work on the latter so it doesn't bring your mark down.
Additionally, the earlier you're prepared, the more chances you'll have to resit the test and boost up your score!
Read our other blog about scoring a near perfect SAT score for some tips for preparing for the test.
June to September
1. Visit college campuses (if possible)
Again, this can be hard to do as an international applicant, but we highly recommend you do so where possible.
Now that you've had a bit more time to think about where you'd like to study, we suggest you visit your top choices.
Visiting your dream college can often be the turning point for students, and can give you a huge boost in motivation to ace your application.
Either you know immediately that it's where you want to be or you decide to move on to your next option.
Whether you've managed to visit campuses or not, around this time, you should start to finalise your lists of prospective colleges (remember: dream, realistic and back up).
The sooner you finalise this, the sooner you can start driving hard towards admission into your preferred colleges.
2. Make early decision preparations
Speaking of getting in sooner: around this time, you should also be considering an early application and whether it will suit you.
Applying to a US university early is highly recommended, particularly if you're confident as to where you want to attend.
However, applying early means you're only allowed to apply to a limited amount of colleges.
Keep in mind, though, that while you want to show colleges you're keen to apply, you don't want to submit anything if your application isn't up to snuff.
If you don't think you're quite there yet, it's better to hold off until the final deadline.
3. Volunteer or get a part-time job to bolster your experience profile
As previously mentioned, wherever you can, it's a good idea to work on extracurriculars to separate yourself from the pool of applicants.
Start looking into volunteering or picking up a part-time job to help bolster your chances of admission.
If possible, try and volunteer in an area that aligns with your ideal college major.
This will give the admissions officers an insight into your passion for your desired field and give them more reason to accept you.
4. Begin work on your essays
Another required element of your application is your college essays.
At the very least, you'll be required to write one essay, but the more competitive schools request two.
The two essays are:
Common application personal statement (required by all colleges): a 650-word essay that you will submit to all schools that accept the common application.
The common app personal statement requires you to choose from five 'prompts', which are basically starting points for your essay.
Pick the prompt that appeals most to you and start writing!
This is one of the few chances you have to show your true personality, so emphasise the elements of yourself that make you a unique individual and a strong applicant.
You can do this by crafting a narrative around an anecdote that highlights or best represents who you are, or just simply telling a story in a way that reveals your creative voice.
Supplementary essay (required by more competitive colleges): The extra essay provides colleges with a clearer sense of why you want to go to their school, and why you want to study the major you plan to pursue.
However, there is one major common mistake made by students:
Don't just say "I want to go to _______ because it's the best university and I've always wanted to go there!" They know they're the best, and they don't really care that you've always loved them.
Instead, show off how much you have done your research about the ways in which you and the school are a good fit for each other.
That may mean that you are explaining to Columbia how much you want to study with a particular scholar in its History Department, or indicating to Princeton that you are already considering the ways in which you will embody the "Princeton in the Nation's Service" motto.
To make sure your essays are up to scratch, we recommend getting extra help from an expert – someone who can not only help with editing, but who can give you killer ideas for content and what to include!
1. Request financial aid information
Start reaching out to your chosen schools to request information on financial aid.
The financial aid application process can vary from school to school, so make sure you know what's required and expected of you.
2. Retake the SAT if necessary
If you're not happy with the first SAT score you received, resit the exam and boost your score up!
Obviously this isn't required if you aced your first test.
However, there's no harm in sitting the test again as even increasing your score by one mark improves your application.
To resit the test, you just go through the same process as the first time. Find a location near you and book in for the next round. It's that simple.
For international students, the SAT is held six times between each university application round and there is no limit to how many times you take it. Obviously, however, you want to sit the test as few times as possible.
3. Organise your early applications (if you've chosen to apply early)
At this stage of the year, early application deadline will be fast approaching (due in November), so you should make sure everything is in order.
This will include reviewing your transcripts, organising financial aid forms, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. Remember:
Applying for early decision and early action plans can be beneficial, but only to those who have a clear preference of which college they wish to attend. For this reason, it's important that you've really thought about this and are confident that you've done all you can to get your application up to scratch.
1. Make sure school selection is DONE & DUSTED!
Not a moment too soon!
By this stage, you should have your final list of college selections.
No more to do.
Once finalised, check each college website and write out a list of all application requirements and deadlines.
That way, you can start ticking things off as you go along. We want to avoid surprises here!
2. Confirm letters of recommendation
We've spoken about prepping referees early to avoid forcing them to write letters of recommendation at the last minute.
The last thing you want to do is annoy the people who are meant to be writing nice things about you!
It's time to get those letters FINISHED and ready to go!
Make sure they've been edited and signed before adding them to your application.
Make sure your counsellor (and other referees) have submitted ALL required details along with their letter. double check they've included return address, contact details, their full name and details about their relationship to you.
Getting reference letters organised is hard enough so don't ruin all of your hard work by submitting an incomplete letter.
Twice, thrice and quadruple check all letters are appropriately filled in.
3. Update your CV
After all this hard work throughout the year – volunteering, working part-time jobs, and managing your extracurriculars – it's time to beef up your resume.
Just like any supporting document, make sure someone else reads over your work and has made any final edits and refinements.
A spelling mistake on your CV is not a good look and can distract from all the hard work you've done!
Three words: attention to detail.
1. Early decision deadline
EARLY APPLICATIONS DUE!
If you've thought about it and you're sure about where you want to be, it's time to get everything together and hit that big ol' SUBMIT button!
If you're applying for the regular application round, read on!
2. Complete your common application
Even if you're not applying early, there's no harm in submitting everything ahead of schedule!
By mid-November, you should have filled in all the common application information. Don't forget to send in your best SAT or equivalent college application test scores!
3. Begin preparing for college interviews
Lastly, possibly the hardest aspect of your application is preparing for college interviews.
A good way to prepare for your interviews is to speak to someone 'in the know'. This could be an ex-admissions officer, a current head at a university, or even just someone who has sat an admission interview themselves and was successful.
Chances are, if you look through your connections, you'll be able to find someone who has been involved in the process in one way or another.
By asking and listening to people who have experience on either side of the process, either sitting interviews or conducting interviews, you can get an idea of what to expect.
December (The Home Stretch)
1. Double check everything and submit
Make sure all applications and financial aid information has been checked by you and your support network!
Give yourself some breathing space and try to submit around three weeks before the deadline, because schools look very favourably upon students who get their applications in early.
It shows that the student is driven, organised, and ready for college life! Hitting the submit button may well be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of your life, but you've done all the work, so believe in yourself!
2. Interview prep
The preparation never stops.
Continue talking to the experts you got in touch with earlier and start practising some answers to common questions.
'Tell me about yourself?'
'Why do you want to study at ____ college?'
These questions are innocuous and generic, but they provide you with a great opportunity to differentiate yourself from the college application pool.
So many students would answer in the traditional way: "I went to this school in my hometown and I was really successful academically and popular with my peers... I want to attend this college because it's the best in the world... blah, blah, blah."
Don't blend into the masses.
When answering boring questions like these, be totally honest and show off your true character. Establish yourself as different and talk about what makes you unique and why that uniqueness will be an asset to this college once you're admitted!
Beyond the mundane questions, the interviewers can ask some weird ones, and they can take you by surprise!
'If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?'
'How many McDonalds restaurants are there in the state you live in?'
These types of questions don't have 'correct' answers. What the interviewers are looking for is logic and reasoning.
Instead of staying quiet, talk them though your thought process to help them gain a clear picture about how you work.
3. Make sure to send all final school transcripts + final standardised test scores if you still have some!
Often your school transcripts of test scores will come in after you're ready to submit your application.
Forgetting to submit your scores and transcripts might seem like an obvious oversight, but it's an all too common one!
If this happens to you, all is not lost. Just make sure you send them on immediately.
Before you switch off from application mode, always do one final check to ensure every last detail has been forwarded on to your colleges.
4. Sit back and relax as your friends panic and finish their stuff last minute
Well get out the Crayolas and colour me tickled pink!
You're done... almost.
It's time to sit back, relax, dust your hands off and sit around with a smug grin as your friends frantically piece together their applications at the last minute.
Sure, you could help, but you've earned this breather. Enjoy it!
Actually, nah, you should probably help.
After your submission
January to February
Uh oh, it's finally here, time for your interviews.
If you're lucky and your college application totally knocked the socks off the admissions officers, then you may avoid this final hurdle, but don't bank on it.
By this stage you'll be feeling confident with all the prep you've done, though, so don't stress.
You'll kill it, son!
March to April
1. Results come in
Now you're officially done!
The application has been sent, the interviews are over. The waiting game begins.
The ball's out of your court now, you've done all you can.
But this doesn't change the fact that waiting around for a response is the most excruciating part of the whole process!
Results should start coming through in mid-March, and continue until the end of April.
During the time between submission and receiving your results, try to distract yourself by keeping busy.
See friends and family,continue pursuing your extracurriculars, exercise, play sports, whatever it is you enjoy doing, start doing that.
After all, a watched kettle never boils.
2. If you're waitlisted, write a letter (or letters) to the schools that waitlisted you
Getting waitlisted is disheartening.
But don't sit around and hope you'll come off the waitlist, be proactive, not reactive!
Show them the progress you've made.
Write letters, talk to people, put yourself out there, and hope for the best.
3. "I don't want to open the letter... what if it says no?"
It's time to get your final results!
Start opening letters and emails and find out where you've been accepted (hopefully all of your top choices).
Once you've weighed up all of your options, it's time make your final choice!
"Hmmm... Harvard's good and all, but is it really me?"
Look at financial deposit amounts for the college and make sure you know the deadlines.
And now that the formalities are over...
Take some time to enjoy your last 'summer break' before becoming a fully fledged American college student!
It's a long hard road, but the end result can be worth all the sweat and tears you've put into it.
Of course, the devil is in the details, so the earlier you start preparing, the more time you have to perfect your application.
Enjoy the ride, amigos. Good luck!