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How To Stay On Track When Applying For College

These days, many parents start thinking about college planning in middle school, or freshman year of high school. It’s never too early to try to understand the process and use it in your decision making. If you have a High School Sophomore or Junior, it’s time to pay special attention. Here is what you need to know to stay on track throughout the process.

Start Early

Hopefully, you’ve been making decisions for several years that will help you create a compelling story of why any college would be lucky to have you, but by the beginning of senior year, it starts to get real, because that is when you should be solidifying your plan for applying to college. All of the decisions about what classes to take, which clubs to join, sports to be involved in, and volunteer work to do lead up to this season of putting it all down on paper (proverbially speaking) and making a case for what makes you a desirable applicant.

Why now? This is when schools start taking applications. By applying early, you’ll give yourself the most opportunity to apply strategically. You can choose between applying early application, early decision, and regular decision at some schools. There may be reasons to choose one over the other, and now you’ll be able to choose which makes the most sense for you. If you wait too long, you can easily miss the window for one or more options. You also may miss deadlines for certain types of aid by waiting later.

The FAFSA application window opens on October 1st every year as well, which will come along more quickly than you expect after school starts. Applying early for FAFSA, by the end of November, gives you maximum opportunity to take advantage of aid that may otherwise run out or not be available to you if you wait too late.

To make sure you don’t miss out on strategic opportunities or financial aid by starting too late, set multiple reminders on your calendar starting in January of your Junior year. These reminders should mark your progress and make sure you’re getting into the college application frame of mind by documenting:

  • The study window and date for your first SAT/ACT test

  • A window for parents to finalize how much they can contribute toward the cost of college without derailing other financial goals and communicate that with their kid

  • A deadline for coming up with a potential school list

  • School Visits over the summer between Junior and Senior year (if not before)

  • A discussion in August with your parents to narrow down and solidify your school list

  • And finally, the date you plan to begin completing applications

Make a Timeline

An application timeline should take you from the summer of your senior year to the end of senior year at least. You’ll want to set dates for college visits, finalizing your college list, and then the steps for applying to colleges. Each college will have different deadlines, so be sure to look them up for each school on their admissions page.

  • Application deadlines

  • Submission of transcripts

  • Submission of references

  • Financial aid forms (FAFSA and CSS Profile, if applicable)

  • Application deadlines for institutional scholarships

  • Application deadlines for honors colleges or other programs of interest

  • Private scholarship plan

  • When you expect to hear back from schools/scholarship applications

  • Expected receipt of financial aid package

  • Window for appealing offers

  • Deadline to accept your offer of admission

The timeline will help you see the importance of completing steps because one step is generally closely followed by the next.

Use a Calendar

A calendar is crucial and will save you from loads of anxiety. Each step on the timeline, each deadline, each intention and each promised work session should be placed on the calendar. Not only that, but each should have a beginning, middle and end. For example, not only will you be marking the application deadline on the calendar, but you should set a specific date to begin working on the application and a reminder half way through the duration of that project that the due date is coming up.

To get started, have an initial kickoff meeting with your student to decide what type of calendar to use, who is going to enter the reminders in it, how often and when you’ll have check-in meetings and how delinquencies will be handled.

You may choose to have an actual, physical calendar that is visible to all parties in the home, or share a calendar you can access over the internet. Your personal habits and lifestyle will dictate which is better for your situation.

Apply for Scholarships

You may have deadlines to apply for scholarships offered by individual colleges, and you should absolutely apply for those. However, if you have run the numbers and expect any gap in the cost of the school and how much your family can realistically afford to contribute, you’ll want to start applying for private scholarships. You should start as early as possible and continue applying throughout all four years of college if you need to. Think of this as your part-time job.

Not all scholarship offers are worth your time. If it seems too easy, it probably isn’t a viable scholarship offer. The big scholarship websites aren’t always your best option for doing scholarship searches. Instead, try out these tips:

  • Check with your local organizations, churches, and businesses

  • Search for scholarships related to your career choice from professional organizations and non-profits

  • Look for options related to your hobbies, interests, ethnic background, religion, and even physical traits (like the scholarship for tall people!)

  • Check your county and state board of education

  • Your guidance counselor likely keeps a list of options

  • The College Cost And Planning Solution has a database of over 5,000 searchable scholarships we give our clients access to

Once you find a viable option, put its due date on the calendar, back up two or three weeks and put a start date on the calendar, and put a reminder notice in between the two.

Keep a virtual file with all of your academic and personal information, your resume, your test scores, transcripts and essays. Keep updating this file as you go along. It will become so much easier to apply for scholarships when you have everything you need at your fingertips.

Take Care of Financial Aid

The two main financial aid forms are the FAFSA and CSS Profile. All schools use FAFSA and some also ask for the CSS Profile.

FAFSA - This one becomes available on October 1st every year for the next school year. Pay close attention to when each school wants this turned in. It needs to be on file if you are expecting need-based financial aid, but some schools also require it to be filled out by a certain deadline if you are hoping to get merit scholarships. Also, keep in mind that grant money can run out, so try to complete your FAFSA by the November timeframe, regardless.

CSS Profile - A much smaller subset of colleges may require this to be on file before they offer aid. Schools can then use the information to formulate aid offers any way they choose. Make sure to get it in by the deadline as well.

Both forms require you to enter financial information that may be a bit time consuming to put together, so start at least 2 weeks in advance to make sure you have time to hunt down any information you don’t have handy.

Read the instructions carefully to make sure you don’t over report assets and/or income. This is one time when you definitely don’t want to appear better off than you are.

Benefit from School Resources

Every school is different in terms of how much support they have available to assist students with planning. This applies both to the schools you are applying to and your high school. Here are some resources you may find available:

High School

  • Your guidance counselor should be available, at a minimum, to help you with your transcript, your GPA (weighted and unweighted), your test scores and class rank. They also may keep a list of scholarships available, sponsor informational sessions on filling out the FAFSA, help you search for schools that are a good fit, assist you with identifying potential career paths and majors, host college fairs, organize trips to local colleges, etc.


  • The financial aid office is available to answer questions pertaining to the financial aid forms you must complete for that school, tell you how you can appeal a financial aid decision, answer questions about school loans offered by the school, etc.

  • The office of admissions is helpful for just about any other questions you have about the school, the application process, merit scholarships, etc.

  • Schools track your encounters with them, so contacting your admissions counselor with good questions shows interest and may be a good way to stand out among your peers. Contact with the school should be led by the student.

Get Letters of Recommendations Early On

Most school applications are going to ask for recommendations from your guidance counselor and at least one or two teachers. If you do the math, you’ll realize that your teachers are going to be bombarded with recommendation requests in the fall. You can get a jump on this by asking for recommendations as early as possible. You can even give your teacher a heads up in the spring/summer before your senior year, but definitely complete the recommendation section of your applications as early as you can so your teachers aren’t having to rush at the last minute because of your failure to plan. That’s not what you want teachers to be thinking about when they are writing a recommendation about you.

Check Communications Often

This is important and a tough one for high schoolers who aren’t used to checking email very often. Many colleges communicate entirely through emails TO THE STUDENT. That means the kids need to be on top of checking their email daily, or every few days at a minimum. If you are given a portal to use, check it weekly for any notifications or requests. Also, check your spam regularly. You could be getting requests for additional financial information, upload of documents, additional transcript information, etc.

If That’s Not Enough

By following these steps you should be in pretty good shape to stay on track while planning for college. If it still seems overwhelming or you have special circumstances, consider working with a professional.

The College Cost And Planning Solution works with families to make this process easier, less stressful, and less time consuming. Even more importantly, we help you make decisions about college that won’t derail your financial future.

You can always contact me at

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