When Should We. . . ? (ACT/SAT, campus visits, essays, and more)
ACT / SAT Testing
Ideally, students will complete all testing prior to their senior years.
I recommend students take the ACT or SAT a couple times junior year. For more details on how to decide which test to take and when: https://www.collegeprepresults.com/how-to-plan-for-junior-year-tests-psat-act-sat/
I don’t recommend students start taking these tests as sophomores. They can use that time to improve reading comprehension, develop a college-bound vocabulary, practice and learn more math, utilize and improve grammar skills, and build critical thinking.
Students could take the ACT / SAT as seniors, but scores must be sent to colleges in time to meet admissions deadlines. Additionally, seniors should be focused on applications; trying to study for admissions tests, work on applications, and keep up with all of the academic and social demands of senior year is challenging. Your life will be easier if you aren’t worrying about the ACT or SAT.
Find the time junior year that works best with your schedule. Consider academic demands (AP exams, end of semester projects), extracurricular schedules (sports season, performances, state/ national tournaments), and any other conflicts. Colleges use a student’s best score, so most take their test of choice two or three times.
Here are the current testing dates
This is the activity on today’s list that you can begin at almost any time and continue through spring of a student’s senior year.
Your initial goal is to identify 4-12 schools to which your student will apply. (Personally, I’d keep the list between 5-10 schools; my own daughter applied to 8.) You want to visit schools to learn about their academic programs and to get a feel for campus life. Schools really do have unique personalities and in-person visits are one of the best ways to determine if a college feels right for you.
Traditionally, families have focused on campus visits in the spring of a student’s junior year through the fall of senior year. You can start this process early. I’ve seen more families of 9th and 10th graders on campus visits (pre-pandemic.)
This past year has made visiting in person a challenge, but we are starting to see more campuses open up for small group tours and information sessions. One good development over the past year is the availability of online information sessions and virtual tours. It is now easier to get to know colleges before you plan trips out of your area.
While it is nice to visit a school before you submit an application, in-person visits are not always possible or practical. This is why the timeline for this activity extends until the spring of a student’s senior year. By April, seniors have heard back from all the colleges to which they applied and it may be time to schedule that out of town visit before making a final selection.
My advice in this area— start visiting campuses early (9th or 10th grade) and take good notes. You will likely revisit top choices and that’s a good thing.
I’m going to provide more dates when I discuss college applications in the next section, but I keep getting questions specifically asking when students should write college essays.
Essays are part of the college application. Not every application will require an essay and some will require multiple essays and/or short answer responses.
I advise my clients to write these essays the summer before senior year. If you start the essays too early, you may fail to include significant recent experiences. Waiting until the week before the essay is due adds unnecessary stress and the risk that your final result may not be your best work.
Here is where the mom side of me didn’t follow my own professional advice. The summer before my daughter’s senior year was busy— two weeks on work trips with our church, a week at a psychology camp at one of the colleges on her list, a family reunion, a week at speech & debate nationals, a week with the family at Disney, some college visits, and she was back to work on summer reading and writing her speeches for her senior year of competition. College essay writing kept getting pushed to “next week.”
I figured “next week” would work. She was a good writer and we had already discussed what she would write in her main essay. I was certain she could produce a quality draft in a week if she just took the time to do it. I was wrong.
Senior year started. She qualified for the state speech tournament before Labor Day. The essays kept getting pushed back. Finally, we insisted she product a first draft. It wasn’t quick. It wasn’t easy. There were tears.
The first essay (about 600 words) was finished and the initial round of applications were sent. But a few schools required additional essays and supplemental short answers. More tears. More stress. The remaining applications slowly went out in November and the final application was sent over winter break. Ugh!
My son is currently in eighth grade. I promise his college essays will be written the summer before his senior year! We are not dragging that stressful process through the fall.
This is where the timeline has changed the most.
Most college applications deadlines range from October 1 to January 1 of a student’s senior year. You will not find any flexibility here, so know your deadlines and have everything ready to send on time. (This is why you strive to complete SAT/ ACT testing and college essays before school starts.)
Most applications do not open to seniors until August 1, so the only way to get an early start on the process is to have your essays, test scores, and other items ready (some schools ask for recommendations or optional interviews).
You may find most early decision and early action deadlines are Oct 15, Nov 1, or Nov 15. Some schools have added priority deadlines for popular majors (engineering at Texas A&M for instance) or scholarship eligibility.
Regular admission deadlines tend to fall between December 1 and January 1, but there are plenty of exceptions. This year the deadline to apply to University of Florida was November 16.
If you wait until senior year starts to think about where to apply, when to take the ACT / SAT, and what to write on applications, you may find you’ve missed a deadline, especially with those October or early November dates. Planning ahead with all the other items on this list should help keep you on track.
If you take time to plan ahead, you can make the college application process much smoother and avoid the panic that comes with trying to rush to make a deadline. You can start researching schools and visiting campuses anytime. Junior year is the time to take the ACT and/or SAT a couple times. The summer before senior year is an ideal time to work on college essays and pulling together application information (updated resumes, etc.). If you start your senior year with a list of 5-10 colleges, you can keep track of deadlines and submit well-written and thoughtful applications.
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