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A Grade-by-Grade Timeline for Applying to College

A Grade-by-Grade Timeline for Applying to College

These tips will help your teen feel less overwhelmed in planning for higher education.

Helping your child figure out her future education plans can seem like a daunting task, from taking the PSAT, SAT, or ACT to writing essays and going on college tours and interviews. Starting the college planning process early can help your child be better organized, less stressed, make more informed decisions, and even get into a better school. This checklist, broken down by grade level from 10th through 12th grades, is designed to make the college planning and application process smoother—for you and your teen.

College Planning in 10th Grade

Beginning the college prep process as a sophomore will give your teen an idea of what areas he needs to improve in and get him thinking about what he might want to study in college.

  • Make sure your child takes the PSAT in October. His scores will provide valuable feedback about his current academic skills.
  • Have her sign into once her scores are available and link her results to Khan Academy—it will recommend free online lessons to address her academic weak spots.
  • Discuss your child’s possible career interests. Reach out to people in these fields to find out what a typical day on the job is like.
  • Help your child begin a one-page resume to document his accomplishments and skills. He will need this information for his college applications next year. If his resume looks thin, have him consider what extracurricular activities he could pursue going forward to round it out.
  • Compile a list of colleges that you, your child, and his guidance counselor feel are worth considering, along with important information such as the schools’ admission requirements. 
  • Consider having your child take summer pre-college classes at a college, to explore subjects of interest and get a taste of campus life. It will also give her experience competing against a broader range of students, and if she does well it can enhance her college applications.
  • Encourage him to do paid or volunteer work in a field of interest over the summer.

College Planning in 11th Grade

In her junior year, your teen will begin a more serious college applicaiton process, from taking the SAT or ACT to visiting colleges and narrowing down the list of where she will apply.

  • Have your child take the PSAT/NMSQT in October. Even if she’ll ultimately take the ACT, this test will still provide good feedback on her strengths and weaknesses. Link the scores to Khan Academy for recommended lessons.
  • Schedule college visits.
  • Figure out when your child will take his first SAT or ACT and how he plans to prepare for it.
  • Have her plan to spend approximately eight weeks reviewing for each AP exam if she takes AP courses. Typically, your child’s teacher is the best resource to start.
  • Visit colleges. Focus on how your child’s potential career interest relates to the majors available at each school.
  • Consider having your child take summer pre-college classes at a college.
  • Encourage him to finish his college essay, and any supplemental essays, over the summer.

College Planning in 12th Grade

Now in his senior year, your teen will be finalizing college applications, submitting the FAFSA, and waiting anxiously to hear back from colleges.

  • Make sure your child has finished writing her essays.
  • Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in October. Check with the financial aid offices of any schools to which your child will be applying to see if anything else is needed.
  • Schedule 1-on-1 college interviews for your child, on campus whenever possible. Remind him to come prepared with questions, take notes, and send thank-you notes.
  • Make a spreadsheet and schedule appointments for all the important deadlines through the end of the year along with your child.
  • Plan for her applications to be submitted one week early. The first complete applications are more likely to be read first, which is good!
  • Have him follow up by phone or e-mail to verify that each application is complete. Never assume that everything is in order until you confirm it.
  • Breathe! Encourage your child to engage in productive conversations with friends and family and only share what is essential.


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Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D., is the founder of Novella Prep, a tutoring, college planning, and academic advising service for families in Westchester County and Fairfield County, CT. Dr. Di Giacomo has more than 15 years of experience working in admissions, development, teaching, researching, and counseling.

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