College timeline

The college admissions and financial aid process is riddled with confusing deadlines. Forget just one and you could miss out on significant free college cash. To make sure you submit all the paperwork on time, use this college timeline and keep your college financial-aid ducks in a row.

Note that the college application process really starts much earlier than senior year in high school. Bankrate’s story, “College checklist for high school students,” describes what sophomores and juniors should do to enhance their chances for acceptance at their school of choice with a handsome aid package. The earlier you prepare, the better. After all, the most aid goes to the students who target schools most likely to hand them a generous award package.

To maximize your financial aid eligibility and minimize college debt, spend your pre-senior years maintaining high grades, taking the PSATs to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, getting involved with extracurricular activities and researching in- and out-of-state institutions that hand out robust financial aid packages. A good place to start is at the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator website where you can investigate the average net price students in your family’s income bracket pay.

Below is a timeline for students to follow beginning in the summer months before their senior year of high school.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

July - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college
July – August

Take advantage of your free time during summer. Once school begins, you’ll be swamped with tests, sports and senior activities. Pick out what colleges you’ll apply to now, collect the application paperwork, write the first drafts of your admissions essays and investigate local and national scholarship opportunities. If you haven’t had a frank discussion with your family about what they can contribute to your education, now is the time. Get a firm understanding of how much college funding you already have, so you have a ballpark idea of how much financial aid you’ll need.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

College timelineJuly - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college

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September – November

Test time. Take the SATs and/or ACTs as early as you can (so you have time to retake them later if necessary) and prep any early decision or early admissions applications you have as well as applications to schools with rolling admissions policies. Because most early admissions applications are due between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15, it’s crucial to get your teacher recommendations and complete the paperwork now. Before slipping your newly completed applications in the mail or submitting them online, call each school you’re applying to and see what scholarships are offered and if they require financial aid paperwork along with your application.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

College timelineJuly - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college

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December – January

It’s crunch time. These are the months when all of your regular deadline applications are due and so are the majority of your scholarship and financial aid applications. And don’t forget about your midterm exams. Get your applications submitted on time and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as close to Jan. 1 as possible. The FAFSA will qualify you for government grants and loans as well as some school-sponsored awards.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

College timelineJuly - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college

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February – March

Keep filling out those scholarship applications, maintain good grades and register for any Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests you’ll need to take in May. Keep an eye out for scholarships with unusually late deadlines. While most scholarships have deadlines around or before February, a few have late deadlines and tend to fly under the radar of most students who believe that financial aid season is over.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

College timelineJuly - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college

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April – May

It’s decision time! You’re almost there. By mid-April you should receive your financial aid award letters, letting you know exactly how much you’ll pay for each school. Review each one carefully, and submit your final decision by May 1. Get ahead of the game by taking Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or College Level Examination Program tests to accumulate college credits before entering college.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

College timelineJuly - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college

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Before college begins

If you need to borrow funds, now is the time to comparison shop for loans. Always max out your federal Stafford loan options first; then price private loans, home equity loans and federal parent PLUS loans to see which offers the best deal. Don’t forget that the terms of private loans can change at any time, based on your credit score. This makes them potentially hazardous to your financial health.

Click on the dates in the timeline for full details on what to do during that time period.

College timelineJuly - AugustSeptember - NovemberDecember - JanuaryFebruary - MarchApril - MaySummer before college

« Back to College timeline for high school seniors.

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