When Should I Start the College Admissions Process?

By: Caroline Koppelman

The college admissions process is like preparing a five-course meal as a first time chef. It is incredibly daunting. If you prepare your ingredients correctly you’ll be fine, but you absolutely can’t wait until the last minute to figure everything out. The college process is multifaceted and everyone approaches it differently. There is no uniform start or end date. The Common App, the universal application that is accepted by over 400 schools, comes out on August 1 but if you wait until then to start thinking about college you’ll undoubtedly be overwhelmed. It would be like waiting until the day before Thanksgiving to start planning. After helping students who have started at every point possible, from sophomore year of high school to one week before the application is due, here are our key takeaways:


Starting too early can cause more harm than good. It would be like preparing your meal months in advances. You’ll get sick of the idea of it, forget about it, and start to resent it. Parents who start to put pressure on their children during their freshmen and sophomore year often see bad results. It makes for a much more stressful and tumultuous process. This of course doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get an early state, but obsessing over the SAT as freshmen is counterproductive.


We have found that families who start in the first semester of junior year have the most success. Think of junior year as deciding exactly what you want to cook, going grocery shopping, and preparing the ingredients as necessary. Students should plan a disciplined studying schedule and take an SAT/ACT diagnostic. Students who don’t have to retake standardized tests their senior year are less stressed out. Students can start making lists of schools that they’re interested in, and visit those schools they are most passionate about.

Junior year:

    • Decide between ACT and SAT using a diagnostic
    • Take the ACT or SAT at least once
    • Choose two SAT2s and take them
    • Make preliminary list of schools with a wide range of types of schools
    • Visit schools


The summer before senior year is the most vital time in the process. Now, you’re ready to cook the meal. You’ve done all the planning and preparation, and it's time to assemble your dish. Students should begin brainstorming essay topics. We have found that most students work best when they can bounce their ideas off of someone who aren’t parents or friends. By the end of August a student should have a rough draft of the Common App essay and a preliminary list of target, reach, and safety schools. Both of these things may morph tremendously in the coming months, but starting the school year with these stages accomplished will ease stress.


Senior Year:

  • August: fill out the entire common app, write a rough draft of the common app essay, finalize your list of schools, and carefully choose your ED and EA schools
  • September: finalize common app essay, start and finish ED and EA applications, take final ACT tests, start regular decision applications
  • October: take final sat/sat2/act tests if absolutely necessary (this should be avoided), submit ED/EA applications, continue regular decision applications
  • November: continue regular applications. Most of your regular applications should be completed by December 1st
  • December: get ED/EA notifications; send out regular decision applications if necessary


The college process is a lot of work and stress.  Even the most put-together students can find themselves overwhelmed. The best way to alleviate is preparation. UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden famously told his players “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” But as long as you start early and you stay on track, you will be ready. Some students and parents have asked us why we suggest you start regular decision applications in September, when the process may end before that if they’re accepted into the Early Decision dream school. While we want to believe that most of our students will get into their dream schools, rejections and deferrals are frustratingly real. Too often we see students and parents overconfident about the process and fail to plan for the worst-case scenario. We have our students complete roughly 75% of their regular decision applications by December 1st so that, regardless of the ED outcome, they won’t have spend winter break researching, writing, and panicking.


In the end, the more time you have, the better off you will be. Like any good dish you must pour care, effort, and patience into every moment of it. But if you can do this, the rewards will be sweet.