A College Planning Timeline from Freshman Year to Graduation
March 8, 2022
by Bryan Wendell
Nearly 900 graduates launched the next phase of their lives at Bucknell's 169th Commencement Ceremony.
Applying to college may seem like one big step toward your future, but you'll be more successful — and less stressed — if you instead see that journey as dozens of smaller steps.
True, the actual application window won't open until the fall of your senior year, but the best-prepared students build the foundation for their application beginning in their freshman or sophomore year.
By planning your college journey as early as possible, each milestone along the way will be easier to reach — and you'll actually improve your chances of getting into your top-choice schools.
Before 9th Grade
Many top schools, including Bucknell, have specific undergraduate admission requirements. So plan ahead by mapping out your four years of high school before your freshman year even starts. You don't want to learn at the end of your freshman year that a college on your list requires four years of a specific subject. If you need guidance as you register for freshman classes, ask your counselor.
9th Grade — Fall
One of your best resources throughout your college search works inside your school. Stop by your counselor's office — or the teacher or administrator who helps students prepare for college — to get advice on class selection, extracurriculars and college prep. Many students will wait until their junior or senior year to meet with their counselor, so you'll be ahead of the game and impress your counselor with your preparedness.
Colleges want to see more than someone who can get good grades. Look for clubs, sports and other after-school groups that seem interesting to you. It's OK to try a lot of different activities at this stage, but as a general rule, colleges want quality over quantity when it comes to extracurriculars.
You know that saying "do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life"? It exists because there are plenty of people doing work that doesn't bring them happiness. To prevent that for yourself, start thinking about what careers you'd be good at and enjoy. Then work with your counselor or research online to design a plan to get there.
The PSAT 8/9 is a test for 8th and 9th graders. Schools can choose whether — and when — to offer it, with available dates ranging from September through April of each school year. The PSAT 8/9 is offered during the school day and is a great way to see how prepared you are for college and a career. Oh, and don't worry: Your results aren't shared with colleges.
9th Grade — Winter
In pro football, coaches like to say that a win in September counts just as much as a win in December. Similarly, the grades you earn during your freshman year will impact your GPA just as much as the grades you get in your junior year (right before apply season). Yes, schools like Bucknell will look at the journey of your transcript — considering, for example, whether your grades improved each year. But everything counts.
Take a moment to talk with your family about the cost of college and what your family's budget and financial aid options might be. Doing this early will help you frame your search.
9th Grade — Spring
The highlights of your high school journey will fill your camera roll for four years. But don't forget to capture those achievements in another way. Start a document where you can record all of your academic, athletic and extracurricular achievements. This will make compiling your application (or even a resume) much easier. You might even write down some possible anecdotes for your application essay.
Begin putting together a list of schools that might interest you. You probably already have a few on your radar screen, so start with those and add others that might match your needs and academic interests. This isn't the time to be picky. If a school catches your eye, add it to the list along with a few words about what initially piqued your interest. You can narrow this down to a "short list" later.
Summer Between 9th and 10th Grade
Odds are you have at least one college within a few hours of where you live. Even if that's a school you'd never see yourself attending, it won't hurt to walk around the campus to get a feel for college life. Check out the dining areas, library and student union to build a baseline of what a college can feel like.
Active summers can impress college admissions officers. That could mean working a job to help support your family, completing an internship, doing volunteer work or taking college-level classes.
10th Grade — Fall
More and more schools have joined Bucknell in becoming test-optional, meaning you decide whether to include test scores when applying. But standardized tests like the PSAT remain a way to differentiate yourself, receive scholarships and get on a school's "search" list, meaning they'll start sending brochures and other information your way.
Many students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year, but you can take it as a sophomore, too. It's offered in October, but you don't register for the PSAT through College Board (like you would the SAT). Instead, your school and school district will choose whether and when to offer it.
Your sophomore fall is a great time to check in on your academic and extracurricular progress — especially as you learn of your GPA and PSAT scores. Are you happy with your grades? Are there subject areas that need improvement? Do your extracurricular activities fulfill you personally or are you stretching yourself too thin?
Keep adding to your list of schools that have caught your eye. Many colleges and universities offer visit programs designed specifically for sophomores, so you'll want to consider registering for those.
10th Grade — Spring
If you didn't take the PSAT in the fall, you have the option of taking the PSAT 10, which is a newer practice test for sophomores only. Your school chooses whether (and when) to offer the PSAT 10, with available test dates ranging from February to April.
No matter the major you pick and no matter the college you choose, reading and writing skills are essential. Read books, online newspapers and articles to broaden your mind. Write in a journal — physical or digital — to practice capturing your thoughts in the written word. If you need writing guidance, ask a teacher or adult whose writing style you like.
As the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, spring is an ideal time to attend college fairs and visit college campuses. While summer may be more convenient for your family to schedule visits, remember that fall and spring will give you the chance to see the most accurate picture of a school because all of its students will be there.
Now's a good time to talk about demonstrated interest. That's what some schools call the tool they used to predict how likely it is that a student they admit will enroll at their college. By requesting to join a school's mailing list, contacting admissions counselors and making visits, you're showing that school that you're truly interested. Even if that college doesn't make your final cut, it's important to establish these touchpoints with any school that might make your application list.
Summer Between 10th and 11th Grade
The summer is a great time to connect with older friends who have already graduated high school and started college. What's college really like? How prepared did they feel? And what do they wish they had known during their college search and application process?
When planning your summer, think how your activities would sound when boiled down to a 15-second "elevator pitch." Whether you worked a job to support your family, attended camps or enjoyed an internship, you'll want something that shows prospective colleges and employers that you're serious about whatever your passion might be.
With no school assignments to get in the way, summer can be an ideal time to refine your "long list" of colleges. If you're the spreadsheet-building type, start adding columns based on what attributes your ideal school would have. Then browse college websites and start filling in those columns and rows.
11th Grade — Fall
You're officially past the halfway point of your high school career. How's it going? Meet with your counselor and go over your class rank, GPA and transcript. Are you fulfilling your goals? Are you completing the prerequisites for the colleges on your list?
It's time to take that "long list" of colleges you've been creating and rank or group them. If a full ranking (1 to 20, for example) seems unproductive, try grouping the schools into three tiers: definitely going to apply, might apply, might not apply. Think about the type of school, its size and location, cost and scholarship availability, majors, extracurriculars and whatever else matters to you.
Tour the schools at the top of your list, if at all possible. If you're unable to travel to every school, that's fine. Many schools (Bucknell included) offer virtual tours to help you get a sense of the place. And don't forget to ask your counselor whether any schools on your list are planning to visit your high school.
Even if you don't plan to take the SAT and/or expect to apply to college as a test-optional applicant, it's a good idea to take the PSAT. The PSAT, also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, doesn't affect your chances of getting into college but does make you eligible for certain scholarships. There's also one more benefit: You get on the radar of colleges that will want to start recruiting you. Unless you opt out of this service, taking the PSAT puts your name on the mailing list for colleges who see promise in your skills and want to start sending you brochures, event invites and other important information.
Mark your calendar for the SAT and/or ACT, if you plan to take them. In addition to paying your registration fee to secure a spot, you'll want to start creating a study plan to ensure you get the best score you can. The SAT and ACT are offered throughout the fall and spring, and registration usually closes about a month before the test date. (Please note that the College Board has announced changes to the SAT that will debut in the United States in 2024. Follow these updates closely if you plan to take the test in 2024 or later.)
11th Grade — Spring
With the application window opening in just a few months, this is a good time to start narrowing down your list of schools to a set of "finalists." The number will vary by student — some will eventually apply to just a handful of schools, while others might apply to dozens. Review your spreadsheet of schools and refine your rankings.
The one thing your spreadsheet can't tell you is "a feeling." You'll need to experience the school in person to get a total sense of whether you'll like it there. (That said, it's totally possible to choose a college without visiting.)
Many students choose to take the SAT and ACT in the spring of their junior year, giving them time to prepare while still allowing them a chance to retake the test in the fall of their senior year, if they need or want. If you will apply to schools that require standardized tests, or are considering sending scores to test-optional schools like Bucknell, now is a good time to take these tests.
You'll apply for the need- and merit-based scholarships offered by a college when you apply for admission. But deadlines for scholarships that aren't affiliated with a school will vary widely. Start identifying these scholarships now so you'll be ready to apply during your senior year. The best mentality: Every dollar counts. A $500 scholarship here and a $1,000 scholarship there will add up fast.
Which teachers, coaches or mentors know you best? Begin lining up the people who will write your letters of recommendation. These people will be busy during the application season, so by asking now, you'll give them extra time to prepare before the deluge arrives.
The summer between junior and senior year is the final summer before you apply to college. Make it count.
Summer Between 11th and 12th Grade
This is it. The moment you've been preparing for. Continue trimming your list down to those schools to which you're likely to apply. You'll see recommendations online to make a "final five," but the best number is the one that feels right. Just like there's no sense adding a fifth school if there are just four that truly interest you, there's no point in eliminating a sixth, seventh or 12th school just because an article says to.
Visit the top schools on your list in person. To try to eliminate recency bias (favoring the last school you visit because it's freshest in your mind), take good notes that will help you remember the feeling you got while there.
The application window opens Aug. 1, which is before most high schools begin their fall semester. That means you could begin working on all the parts of your application during the summer — when you're likely to have more free time anyway. Starting early is especially wise if you're planning to apply Early Action or Early Decision because those deadlines will arrive quickly. (The Bucknell Early Decision I deadline is Nov. 15.)
Enhance your transcript, earn college credit and prove to colleges that you're a high-caliber student by taking summer classes through a local community college.
Find some type of meaningful activity to fill your final summer as a high school student. If you can't find a job or internship, look for job-shadowing opportunities by contacting a local business doing work that aligns with your career goals.
12th Grade — Fall
Colleges will ask for your final transcript even after they've admitted you. So don't stop now! Stay focused on making good grades and staying active in your extracurriculars.
If there's any chance you'll want federal loans, federal grants or federal work-study opportunities, you'll need to fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA form is available on Oct. 1 for the next school year. It's a good idea to fill it out as soon as possible on or after Oct. 1.
Some colleges and universities use the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile to calculate financial aid that is awarded from the institution itself, known as non-federal financial aid. If the schools you're applying to require the CSS Profile for non-federal financial aid consideration, you'll want to fill it out via the College Board website. The CSS Profile goes live on Oct. 1 for the next school year. The deadline to submit your profile is the same as the application deadlines for the schools you're applying to.
Bucknell requires the CSS Profile for US and Canadian citizens, as well as permanent residents, who are interested in institutional need-based aid. Bucknell's deadlines for submitting the CSS Profile are:
Nov. 15 for Early Decision I applicants
Jan. 15 for Early Decision II and Regular Decision applicants
Fall is an ideal time to check out the schools on your list. The leaves are changing, classes are in session and excitement is bubbling on every corner of campus as students rekindle old friendships and make new ones.
If you've been a master of multitasking in high school, you've probably figured out the best calendar solution to keep track of everything. Now's a good time to add college application dates to that calendar. Look for visit opportunities, webinars, application deadlines, test dates, scholarship deadlines and more.
Take (or retake) the SAT or ACT if you're planning to apply to a school that requires test scores or if you'd like to submit them to a test-optional school, like Bucknell.
Show colleges the real you through your application essay. It's a great chance to stand out from the crowd. Find one or two people you trust to review the essay before you hit "submit."
Complete the Common App or Coalition App by the school's deadline, which could be as late as the spring of your senior year or as early as Oct. 1 for Early Decision or Early Action.
12th Grade — Spring
If you haven't yet filled out the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile for the schools that require it, you'll want to do so now. Some colleges and universities use the CSS to calculate financial aid that is awarded from the institution itself, known as non-federal financial aid. You can complete your profile via the College Board website. The deadline to submit your profile is the same as the application deadlines for the schools you're applying to.
Bucknell requires the CSS Profile for US and Canadian citizens, as well as permanent residents, who are interested in institutional need-based aid. For Early Decision II and Regular Decision applicants, Bucknell's deadline to submit the CSS profile is Jan. 15.
If you applied Regular Decision, you should expect to hear back in March or April. Most schools (including Bucknell) will post a decision in an online application portal in addition to sending you a decision by mail. If you're admitted, your financial aid award letter will either be included with your decision or be sent shortly after. As your decisions come in, keep track of financial aid offers for the schools to which you were admitted so that you can accurately compare them.
Many schools (including Bucknell) will offer special visit opportunities exclusively for admitted students. Seeing the school in person after you know you've been admitted will help you make an educated final decision.
The power is in your hands! Make your final decision (and deposit) by May 1, and be proud in the knowledge that you made the right choice. You'll also want to send a letter or email informing schools that accepted you that you won't be attending. This is an act of kindness, letting the school know it can open up that spot for someone else.
Bucknell (like other schools) awards credit to high school students who score highly in Advanced Placement exams. These exams are typically offered during the first two weeks in May.
Once you've committed to a school, watch your email for a series of action items from the school. You'll register for classes, sign up for housing and a meal plan, learn about orientation, and complete a number of important forms. Each of these steps will have a strict deadline, so don't miss out.
Summer Before Your First Year of College
You didn't take this four-year journey alone. Send a written thank you to anyone who helped you along the way — family members, friends, teachers, counselors, employers, etc. Not only is this a nice gesture, it also will keep them "on your side" in the future if you ever need to ask for another letter of recommendation or even a job.
By now you probably have that coveted ".edu" email from your school. Check it often, because that's how the school will let you know about action items that must be completed before you arrive in the fall.
Not only have you made it through four years of high school — you also made it through a multiyear college search journey! Don't forget to celebrate what you've accomplished and spend time with the people you care about. You did it!