College Timeline

Navigating high school can be difficult, especially when you are trying to consider all of the different pathways available to you: 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges, vocational/trade school, full-time employment, gap years, the list goes on. At TCAN, we want to make sure we support you through every step of the way, so we have put together a recommended timeline for your high school years. Following this timeline will put you on a good track to pursue postsecondary pathways, but these are just general guidelines! Your high school experience is your own, and we hope to be there for you with whatever you choose to do.

Test Optional

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and movements toward social justice and educational equity, close to 75% of colleges and universities have adopted test-optional or test-free policies, including every major public and private college and university in New Jersey. Some of the policies are permanent, while others may shift in the coming years. Check out the listing of Test Optional institutions on the FairTest website.

9th Grade

  • Meet your guidance counselor - Introduce yourself and talk about your classes and interests
  • Create a 4-year plan - Think about what courses you want to take and learn about what classes your school offers
  • Do extracurriculars - Try out as many as seem interesting since you’ll likely narrow down your interests as you go through high school
  • Pick challenging courses - High school is an opportunity to grow and discover what your interests are, so take advantage of cool classes or great teachers
  • Stay on track with your grades- If you are struggling this semester, figure out what is going on and try to make a plan to solve some of these problems. Your habits now can help you in the future!
  • Explore careers - Attend events and fairs to find out what life is really like in those careers
  • Start talking with your family about college savings - If your family has a plan already, continue adding to it. If not, it’s a great time to start one!
  • Start a resume - Look up some templates to get started! This will help you keep track of your extracurriculars and your classes. Write down what you do for each club, and if you win awards or honors, make sure you take note of that
  • Think about life after school - What jobs might interest you? Figure out what you like to do and what interests you. Remember that this is just the beginning and your likes will evolve continuously. It helps to talk to other people and ask them what they think about their jobs 
  • Pick challenging classes for next year - If there are advanced classes that interest you, see if they have any prerequisites (classes you have to take before them)
  • Have fun! - Some people start working or volunteering to get experience and to help with savings, and other activities like sports, science, or music camps are a great way to spend your time.

10th Grade

  • Start the year off strong - Remember that good study habits and organization can only help you in the future!
  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT or PSAT 10 - These are standardized tests that will give you an idea of your strengths, and you’ll be able to see what other tests may look like in the future. You can also upload your results to Khan Academy to start working on areas that could use development
  • Narrow down your extracurriculars - Figure out which clubs and activities are the best for you, and pick a few to focus on. Colleges like to see continued engagement in one or a few activities rather than some involvement in a lot of activities
  • Continue exploring possibilities after high school - What sounds like the best fit for you: 2-year college, 4-year college, military, trade school, etc.? Consider what life might be like in different pathways
  • Check out the TCAN programs - Many of the College Prep programs begin taking applications in the next year. You’ll get to work with other students your age, as well as adults who can help guide you through the college application process
  • Research careers you might be interested in - Look up what kind of education or training they need as well as different colleges that offer relevant majors
  • Begin learning about college admissions - Google colleges you might be interested in and learn about their admissions processes. This is especially important if you want to attend a military academy, as these application processes start earlier than other postsecondary pathways
  • Work toward leadership positions in your extracurriculars - These are a great way to build your skills in organization, time management, and responsibility
  • Learn about specific colleges - If your guidance counselor has brochures, see if you can talk about options. Attend college fairs and read the brochures that colleges might send you to get an idea of what is out there
  • Consider signing up for AP, honors, or advanced classes, if your school offers them - Check with your guidance counselor to see if you are on track to graduate and ask them about taking more challenging classes. These can help you explore areas you are interested in!
  • If you are interested in pursuing a military pathway, talk to your counselor!
  • Find a summer job or program to participate in - Work skills and responsibility are great tools to have. You can also put the money in a savings plan. Be sure to check out our Summer Programs or Volunteer and Work Opportunities

11th Grade

  • Talk to your counselor and think about your classes - Some questions you can ask are: Will you be able to earn college credit in high school? Are you continuing to be on track to take advanced classes, if you are interested in them?
  • Keep your grades up - If your grades haven’t been as good as you would like them, it’s never too late to start improving. Colleges love to see improvement and an upward trend
  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT - The results of the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship, a prestigious scholarship. If you took this test in 10th grade, you already know what the format looks like!
  • Solidify your education options - Junior year is a good time to decide what kind of pathway you would like to pursue after high school: full-time employment, further education, a military career, or vocational training, are all options available to you. 
    • If you decide to pursue a 4-year college, solidify your list and make sure to include a variety of types of schools. 
    • If you choose to attend a military academy, start your application process with your counselor!
    • If a 2-year college or a vocational/trade school seems like the best fit for you, applications generally don't require essays or fees and are usually accepted on a rolling basis. You also likely don’t need to take standardized tests to enroll
  • Attend college visits and college fairs if they are available - You’ll be able to get a better idea of what each college is like and if it will be a good fit for you. Get some friends together and talk with college representatives. You might be able to narrow your choices or add a college to the list!
  • Make a testing plan - Consider taking the SAT or ACT in the spring or summer. Some people take these tests twice, so it could be a good way to get an idea of where you are at. It is also a good idea to make a long term testing plan if you will take AP exams, the SAT, and/or the ACT. This can be daunting, but having an organized plan can help make the process less stressful! Look up when tests are and when the deadlines to register are because there may be fees for signing up late.
    • If you need a waiver, contact your counselor
  • Make sure you are on track to meet requirements - If you want to play sports in college, the NCAA has certain requirements to meet, so check online or with a coach to see what criteria you’ll have to meet
  • Estimate your financial need - Using an online calculator, start to get an idea of what college might cost for you. Check out our Scholarships and Financial Aid page to start learning about how to pay for college and learn about the Dos and Don'ts!
  • Stay dedicated to your extracurriculars - Keep working towards leadership roles and continued commitment. If you haven’t gotten invested in an activity, now is a great time to start!
  • Begin creating a college list - Look at factors like size, distance from home, what kind of school it is, and the majors that are offered. There are lots of great online tools to help you compare colleges
  • Start studying for standardized tests - If you are going to take a standardized test, start practicing using online resources. There are many free options, so you don’t necessarily need to buy materials
  • Learn about financial aid - Check out our financial aid dictionary to find out what certain terms really mean, and continue exploring what the next few years might look like for you and your family
  • Talk with your family - Sit down together and discuss what you are interested in after high school. It’s important to make sure that you are all on the same page!
  • Continue adding to your resume - Keep track of your classes, extracurriculars, and if you have won any awards. Some college applications include a resume in the application, so you’ll want to keep this updated
  • Talk with your counselor to make sure you are on track for college applications and tests
  • Set up a challenging schedule for senior year - Colleges still look at your senior year classes, so rather than loading up on easy classes, dive deeper into topics you like or try out something new!
  • If you are taking AP tests, register for the exams, which are in May
  • Begin your scholarship search - Use our scholarship tracker template to track your deadlines and which ones you might be interested in
  • Ask for recommendation letters - Asking ahead of time, at the end of the school year, will give your teachers, coaches, or mentors plenty of time to write your letter. It is also a good idea to get letters from multiple people, since some schools may require a letter from a math, English, and/or science teacher. Make sure to thank them with a handwritten note or gift card!
  • Plan college visits if possible - If your family is traveling somewhere, see if there are nearby colleges that you can tour. Be sure to check out if fly-in programs are a good fit for you!
  • Take standardized tests, such as AP tests, the SAT, or the ACT if necessary - Remember that if you aren’t happy with your results, you may be able to retake the tests in the fall
  • If you are interested in sports in college, military academies, or ROTC scholarships, contact your counselor, since these processes may start before the summer
  • Apply for summer internships/jobs/programs - Our Summer Programs might be the perfect fit for you!
  • Visit colleges if possible - See if local colleges are offering tours or if you can walk around campus yourself
  • Get advice from other college students - Ask friends, siblings, or mentors about their college experiences to see what your experience could be like
  • Gather financial aid info - You’ll need certain tax forms for the FAFSA and other types of financial aid. Continue keeping track of scholarship applications!
  • Start working on your college applications - Check out our college tracker sheet to create your college list! You’ll be able to track your progress throughout the whole college process. Pro tip: if you are done with a column, right-click on the top of it and hide it to declutter your workspace.
  • Start your college essays - Begin brainstorming and writing rough drafts of your essays. It can help to take a look at the prompts for all of your applications, since you may be able to use an essay idea for two different applications! Change it up a bit for each one to fit the prompt. Have a family member or teacher read them to get feedback
  • Decide on Early Decision/Early Application - Applying Early Decision can be a big decision, since this is a binding decision, meaning that if you get in, you must attend. Consult with a trusted adult and do your research to see if this is the best move for you. Pro tip: Unless you really love a school and know that you can attend no matter what, Early Decision probably isn’t the right choice for you
  • If you plan to play sports in college, register with the NCAA eligibility center

12th Grade

  • Continue visiting schools - Since schools are in session, it is a great time to visit and get a sense of what college life there is really like. Pro tip: emailing college representatives or admissions offices is a great way to indicate interest. They may also be able to waive application fees, send you college gear, or get you the best information!
  • Finalize your college list - Continue using your college tracker to decide where you want to apply. It is a good idea to settle on a list that includes some safety schools, several fit schools, and a couple reach schools! 
  • Keep up with your grades and extracurriculars - Colleges continue to look at your involvement during senior year, so don’t let senioritis get to you! Stay focused and remember what you’re working towards. This is also a great opportunity to get really involved with extracurriculars that you love, especially if classes feel like they’re dragging on
  • Take standardized tests if applicable - If you decide to take the SAT or ACT again, check what the latest testing date that the colleges you’re applying to will take. This is especially important for EA/ED deadlines, since your test date may be after the deadline
  • Send test scores to colleges - Do this by going to the College Board and/or ACT sites. Keep track of what scores your schools will take, since some may want all your scores, while others may only need the highest or latest test. Ask your counselor for fee waivers, if applicable
  • Ask for recommendation letters if you haven't - It is best to ask as early as possible, but if you are cutting it close, make sure to give whoever is writing your letter at least a week before the deadline. It can also be a good idea to check in with whoever is writing your letters, as they are very busy and may have forgotten
  • Meet with your counselor - Sit down and discuss your college list. Make sure you are on track to graduate and let them know what your ideas for after graduation are
  • Work on your essays and applications - It can be difficult to balance schoolwork, extracurriculars, and applications, so it is especially important to stay on top of deadlines. It can help to talk with friends and set up times to work on applications together to hold each other accountable
  • Submit ED/EA applications - Many early deadlines are at the beginning of November, so if you plan to apply then, finalize your applications at the end of October
  • Fill out the FAFSA - This opens on October 1, and it is important to fill this out sooner rather than later! Check out our Scholarship and Financial Aid page to learn more
  • Complete the CSS Profile if applicable -Some schools use the CSS profile along with the FAFSA to determine your financial aid, so research your colleges to see if this is something you have to do
  • Continue your scholarship search - Scholarship deadlines are spread throughout the year, so if you have free time, it is always a good idea to continue looking for scholarships
  • Stay on top of deadlines - Use a calendar or planner to stay on track, and pencil in deadlines right when you get them
  • Respond to early admissions decisions - If you are admitted ED to a school, withdraw your other applications. If you are admitted EA, you still have until May 1 to decide whether you would like to attend. If you don’t get the decisions that you are hoping for, don’t lose hope, since there are still regular decision deadlines and plenty of other colleges!
  • Check application statuses in your portals and with your counselor - Once you apply, you will likely receive confirmation emails with access to something called a “portal.” This will be where you keep track of your application and may be where you find your admissions decision or financial aid packages. Make sure that your applications are fully complete, including anything that your counselor must submit, like a transcript or mid-year grade reports
  • Finish applications - Many application deadlines are at the beginning of January. Winter break is a great time to finish up applications if you haven’t already. Plus, the earlier you finish, the more time you have to enjoy the time off!
  • Watch out for admissions decisions and financial aid - Regular decision admissions decisions often come out in March or April, and financial aid typically comes out in late April. Keep track of your acceptances, and don’t let rejections or waitlist options get you down!
  • Decide on waitlist options - Remember that getting waitlisted is not the end of the world! Many students get in off of waitlists, so don’t give up hope. But don’t forget to keep an open mind, as a school that you hadn’t seriously considered before might be the perfect fit
  • Stay engaged in classes - It’s all too easy to let the end of senior year get to you, but your grades and involvement are still important to your colleges! But, remember to have fun, and use these months to spend time with friends and family
  • Compare your financial aid packages - Financial aid packages may be confusing and differently formatted, so ask your counselor or a trusted adult to help you compare them. Discuss with your parents what the best options will be
  • Sign up for AP or Subject Tests if applicable 
  • Take AP Exams or SAT Subject Tests
  • Make a college decision by May 1 and submit a deposit - Confirm your acceptance to a school by May 1. Submit your deposit to only one school, and celebrate the next phase of life coming up!
  • Inform schools of rejection - For schools that you have been accepted to but don’t plan to attend, make sure to submit your rejection so that other students may get off of the waitlist
  • Send your final transcript - Have your counselor send your final transcript to the school you will be attending
  • Confirm financial aid - Now that you have picked your school, review your financial aid and discuss with your parents what scholarships or grants you may have received
  • Complete enrollment processes - After you have committed, check your email to complete your enrollment paperwork so that you can be an official student!
  • Have fun, learn about your college, and get ready for your next phase of life!