when to start planning for college how toListen up, Class of 2019 and parents! It’s time to start thinking about college. Some of the most common questions I get from parents and students I work with start with “When should I…?”. When should I take the ACT? When should I visit campuses? When should I finalize my list of colleges?

I’ve designed this College Planning Roadmap for high school students graduating in 2019 and planning to begin college that fall. Here you’ll find all the key dates and deadlines you’ll need between now and when you walk across the stage on Graduation Day. Click here for a copy of the timeline that you can print and tuck into your college planning folder or binder.

Start college planning early.

As you can see from the junior year overview above, it’s important to start early for stress-free (or at least low-stress) college planning. Most students and families who work with me for college planning services (including college search, test prep, campus visit guidance and college applications guidance) begin the fall of their junior year.

While college still feels like a long way off at this point, most high school juniors have full course loads and a schedule full of extra curricular activities, as well. Junior year is your “heavy-lifting year” in terms of college planning. It’s when you’ll lock down the ACT score you’re happy with and get serious about researching schools, visiting campuses and refining your list of prospective colleges. Fitting all that into a busy high school schedule without a melt-down is easier when you start the fall of your junior year instead of waiting until spring, or even later.

Take your first ACT exam the fall of your junior year.

Yes, I said “first” ACT exam. According to ACT.org, about 45% of students take the ACT more than once, and that number has risen in recent years. The reasons are clear. A better ACT score improves both your chance of acceptance at your top-choice schools and your chances for merit aid at those schools. Even students not interested in “selective” schools take the ACT multiple times to pursue merit aid opportunities. Simply put, a better ACT score can pay big dividends.

While many states have a state-mandated ACT exam for all public high school juniors in the spring, I urge juniors to prepare for and take their first ACT exam before holiday break of junior year. For more on why this is important, check out my recent blog post on this very topic.

The remaining ACT test dates offered this fall are October 28 and December 9. (There was also a test on September 9.) Registration deadlines are about five weeks prior to the test date. Registering is easy; you can (and should) do it yourself and not wait for the school’s prompting or help. Simply visit the ACT’s website.

Define your University of You and research colleges that might fit.

Your secondary focus the fall of your junior year is defining your University of You and finding prospective colleges that fit your unique criteria for the ideal college experience. What is a “University of You?” This is a process I’ve developed for identifying what you want, need, don’t want and don’t need in a college experience, and then matching prospective schools to your unique criteria — your “University of You.” Students and families I’ve worked with on College Search tell me they discovered answers to questions they would never have thought to ask, and that the process was actually fun! Most importantly, the result is a thorough, well-researched, thoughtful decision making process and a list of prospective colleges both students and families feel great about.

My College Search students typically go through the University of You process at some point during their junior year. I recommend fall. First and foremost, starting in the fall gives you more time to visit campuses as part of your research process, and gives you more time to work in college research around your busy schedule. Secondly, as you’re researching schools, you can gather data about things like GPA and ACT scores for students who are accepted to schools you’re interested in, so you know what you’re shooting for. So if you earn a decent score on your first ACT attempt and learn it’s the score you need for the schools you’re interested in, you can check that box and be done.

Spring of your junior year you’ll finalize your ACT score and your “shopping cart” of colleges.

In Wisconsin, all public high school students take the late-February ACT. (Unlike all other test dates, registration for the state-mandated exam is handled by the schools.) You’ll use this as your second attempt or just the “icing on the cake” if you already have a score you’re happy with. That takes the pressure off. You’ll also continue to visit campuses and refine your “shopping cart” of colleges that could be good fits for you. As you head into the summer before your senior year, you will want to be done with both the ACT and the heavy-lifting on college search. That leaves the summer before your senior year to visit more campuses and begin to secure letters of recommendation for college applications in the fall.

Fall of senior year is college application time.

As you’ll note from the Senior Year Roadmap overview above, you’ll prepare for applications the summer before and the early fall of your senior year. This includes crafting college essays, securing letters of recommendation, gathering the transcripts and records you’ll need for applications. It’s also a good idea well before November to map out timelines and key applications deadlines for the schools to which you’ll apply. Seeing all tasks and timelines in one place is helpful for time (and stress) management.

At the start of senior year, I’m frequently working with seniors on essay development and applications guidance. Another area where families frequently need some direction is on completing the FAFSA. Timing for filling out the FAFSA form starts October 1, and it’s a key element of your applications, even if you think you won’t qualify for financial aid. In most cases, you’ll be required to fill out the FAFSA in order to qualify for merit aid awards. Don’t skip this step. If you have questions, I can help.

The seasons of submitting and hearing back on college applications occurs throughout late fall into early spring of your senior year.

Some schools notify you right away upon submitting your application about whether or not you’re accepted. But generally speaking, you’ll submit applications by November 1 for early action or early decision, as well as “rolling admissions” deadlines. The deadline to submit applications for regular decision is January 1 in most cases. To verify the exact deadline for the schools to which you’re applying, visit each school’s website. Exceptions do occur and confirming the timeline for each school to which you’ll apply is part of your planning and prep process.

Spring of senior year is the season of waiting and making big decisions.

Between January 1 and March 31, schools notify students who’ve applied about their acceptance status. By March and April, financial aid award letters are sent out. And by this time, you will also know what merit aid you’ve qualified for at each school to which you’ve applied. So in March and April, you’ll have some big decisions to make.

And by May 1 of your senior year, you’re required to make your college decision. It’s called National Decision Day for this reason. Many families I speak with are surprised to learn that the required date for a final decision is this late. And students are sure to feel the pressure to make a decision much sooner based on questions from friends and family, and decisions made by their peers. I advise students and families to “delay the decision”. It’s a big one, and in most cases, there’s no benefit in rushing. Give yourself time to make a thoughtful, intentional college choice.

If all of this sounds a bit daunting and you still have questions, email me. Or schedule a Free Consult to get your key questions answered. You’ll be glad you did.