College Planning Timeline for High School Students

For tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of seniors applying to college this year, the admissions process will be one of the most grueling and stressful experiences they’ve had in their lives.  If you’re a student or a parent of a student who’s just starting high school, however, we’ve got good news: you can avoid nearly all of the stress of the application process by planning for success early on.

In fact, if you stick to our timeline, we guarantee that aiming high over the next four years, and in your college admissions experience will be enjoyable and empowering.

Our H&C Leadership Timeline. places a heavy focus on intellectual and extracurricular leadership development

The reason for this is that great grades and test scores, while enormously important, aren’t going to be enough to get you into the school of your dreams.  At least not on their own. Great colleges want to see that, in addition to being a good student, you are a passionate go-getter.

Leadership can take many forms, but the best way to develop an exceptional leadership activity, or, what we like to call a “capstone project,” is to think about where your unique talents and passions overlap.  We have a student, for instance, who has a long track record of charity work (talent), and happens to love video games (passion). He started an organization to make video games available to kids in local cancer treatment programs.  Another student paired his advanced knowledge of astrophysics and astronomy (talent) with his love of graffiti (passion) to create a curriculum and teach classes at a nearby middle school that was in need of after-school programming.  He taught these younger kids science through art, having them draw planets using a special spray-painting technique.

As you can see, anything is fair game, provided you come up with a creative and personal approach to making an impact.  If you’d like more examples, and further guidance on developing your own capstone project, take a look at this article.

Middle School:

  • Home: One of the easiest ways to prepare students for new intellectual challenges in high school and beyond is to encourage them to read as much as possible.  Help your student explore different genres early on: novels, poems, short stories, magazine articles, newspapers, etc. This will also help students perform well on the reading and writing sections of the SAT/ACT.  
  • Leadership: Students should explore as many extracurricular activities as possible to get a sense of where their passions lie and to determine what kinds of activities they’d like to pursue in high school.


Freshman Year:

  • Home: Keep reading!  This will help students improve their vocabulary and verbal abilities generally.  These skills will come in handy in high school classes, on the SAT, and, of course, beyond.  Students should consider keeping a journal to record thoughts, observations, dreams, and so on.  The simple practice of regular personal writing can give them a head start on college application essays.
  • Academics: Students should take the most challenging workload they can handle this year.  Students and parents often reason that ninth-grade classes don’t matter nearly as much as the courses students take in later years.  While this is true, to an extent, the classes ninth graders take can determine the classes that are available to them in later years.
  • Leadership: Ninth grade is a great time to continue to explore different extracurricular options.  Students should also keep an eye out for clubs and organizations that might be missing at school, and that they might like to start.  Admissions officers love it when students start and grow their own clubs.
  • Capstone: Start brainstorming for a long-term independent extracurricular activity—a capstone project.  We always advise students to focus on one main activity or pursuit throughout high school. Keep in mind that you’ll have several years to work on this, so don’t be afraid to envision an ambitious project, even if it seems daunting at first.  Admissions officers are looking for trailblazing, passionate kids. One or two authentic interests, when developed over three or four years, will be more impressive than a long list of unrelated activities. (If you don’t know where to start, seek help from a college consultant who has helped students with independent leadership projects.)
  • Summer: The first summer of high school is a good time for students to look for an academic program that will allow them to explore a new subject or dig deeper into something they’ve already studied worked on in high school.  This is also a good time for kids to continue thinking about their capstone projects. And, of course, have fun and relax.

Sophomore Year:

  • Home: Now is the time for students to begin visiting colleges during vacations.  Avoid August and its masses of prospective students and families if you want to get a feeling for a certain campus’s atmosphere.  Don’t forget to continue encouraging students to read for fun.
  • Academics: Students should take the PSAT. Students aiming for highly selective colleges should consider SAT Subject Tests.  Students do not need to wait until their junior or senior years to take these content-based exams, but testing timelines should be organized around when certain subjects are taken in high school.  Schedule an SAT Subject Test in US History after a student takes APUSH, for example.
  • Leadership: By the beginning of the sophomore year, students should be getting a clearer sense of what they want to build their capstone projects around.  The second half of the school year or summer vacation is a good time to start the capstone project in earnest. For a non-profit, students can organize a soft launch at high school or at a local recreational center, and contact local journalists who might be interested in covering the event.  Kids can host small focus groups at home with friends and family members if they need feedback before launching. Students hoping to publish stories or poems should begin pitching to local newspapers and regional writing competitions.
  • Summer: This is a good time to look for a non-fancy position at a local business or organization.  Having a job to earn some money demonstrates a sense of responsibility. This is an especially important value and quality for students who come from private schools and upscale neighborhoods.  This is also the time to create a clear roadmap for junior year with precise milestones and goals for the capstone project. 

Junior Year:

  • Home: You guessed it… keep reading.  It’s now time for SAT and ACT prep.  Keep visiting colleges during vacations.  Get started on applications in the early summer. 
  • Academics: This is the busiest and most challenging year of high school.  Students should continue to challenge themselves at school, taking the most difficult (and interesting) classes available.  The classic question goes: “What’s better, a B in an honors class, or an A in a non-honors class.” The answer is that it depends, case to case.  Students should choose their classes based on their authentic interests, and challenge themselves intellectually not because “it’s what colleges want to see” but because they are genuinely curious.  The SAT and ACT should be taken in the early spring. Compare scores, and help your student decide which test s/he should be focusing focus on going forward. Don’t forget about your plan for taking Subject Tests.
  • Leadership: Kids should keep pitching stories to journalists and magazines if they’re serious about writing.  Students who’ve launched non-profit or for-profit organizations should keep contacting local journalists to gain media coverage for their accomplishments.  They should also work on building new partnerships and focus on growing their organizations and focus on creating a real, quantifiable impact that will easily be recognized by admissions officers.
  • Summer: This is a good summer for students to attend competitive academic programs.  If your family can’t afford such a program, and if your student cannot find funding, encourage him/her to get a job, and focus solely on the capstone project.  Keep in mind that admissions officers take economic status into account when they evaluate students’ applications. Students can often locate and attend free events that help them grow their organizations and projects (creative writing workshops, startup incubators, etc).  Now’s the time to build a college list and start working on applications. A good college list includes reach, target, and likely schools, as well as Early Action, and, in some cases, Single Choice Early Action and Early Decision schools. Students should aim to finalize their college application essay by late summer, and then move on to writing supplements for all of their schools.  These supplemental writing prompts are usually released toward the end of the summer.

Senior Year:

  • College applications: For students who have a clear first-choice college, and have performed well on standardized tests, Early Decision, Single Choice Early Action, and, to a lesser extent, Early Action programs are a great way to increase their chances of admissions.  These deadlines are typically November 1 and November 15. It’s important for students to come up with a plan to write all their supplemental essays: often, one essay can be used for many different supplemental essay prompt. Students should maximize their energy and time when it comes to these writing tasks.
  • Academics: Grades still matter!  Colleges will eventually see students’ senior grades, even for the spring term.  Schools can and do rescind offers of admission for applicants who don’t keep up their grades throughout senior year.
  • Leadership: Students should continue to focus on the growth of their capstone project and start planning for next year (moving to another state can require logistical work for organizations, and so forth).  There’s no need to bother starting new activities senior year. Admissions officers have an eye for artificial, non-impactful, last-minute ventures designed solely for the applications process.

Follow this timeline, and your family’s college application process doesn’t have to be stressful.  Students can prepare for college admissions while staying true to their passions and interests—by focusing on the things they love and do best.  This timeline should help your student rise above the competition and increase their chances of getting into a great school.