If you’ve been watching the news, reading any major paper, or listening in on your neighbors’ conversations in your local supermarket, and you have a student in middle or high school (or, for that matter, kindergarten), then you’re probably aware that the college admissions process is starting earlier and lasting longer than ever before. For many adults who attended college, admissions was more of an afterthought. Perhaps you took the SAT once, late in the fall of senior year; applied to your state university or a couple of private colleges where a family member attended or which a guidance counselor pulled out of a hat; and arrived on campus with little thought about why you had chosen that particular place.

In case you were wondering? Yes, it is different today, and for many reasons. The admissions process at selective public and private colleges and universities is more complicated, unpredictable, competitive, and extended than ever before. Once you get in, paying for school is just as difficult. What’s a family to do? Start earlier, plan carefully, and don’t give up. Here are some key action steps for parents and students to keep in mind during the four years of high school to help organize and make sense of the admissions process.

Freshman Year

The most important factor in college admissions is the quality of a student’s academic program. Thus, freshman year is a time to set out a four-year academic plan. This will change as a student moves through high school and depend on performance, development of new interests, qualifying for various course levels, and scheduling conflicts. Nevertheless, now is the time to:

  • Make sure a student will fill the requirements for selective college admissions;
  • Compare a prospective course plan to the requirements of any particular colleges you are already considering; and,
  • Discuss your son or daughter’s strengths and interests and how best to pursue them through high school.

Colleges like to see that students stretch themselves through high school and take a demanding program. Students who read more and take more demanding classes also tend to do better on standardized tests. Next to performance in high school college prep classes over time, standardized testing is the third most important element in college admissions decisions.

Other freshman year tasks include:

  • Considering extracurricular strengths and interests, and hobbies, and which will make the most sense to pursue in the following years. A student’s passions and innate talents should drive these decisions, not a desire to try to fit what you think colleges want to see.
  • Planning for next summer, by January or February, to use the summer months productively, whether for work, to pursue an academic or extracurricular interest, to volunteer for a cause of interest, or to try something new.
  • Registering for any appropriate SAT Subject Tests for the May or June test dates. Students in honors classes like Biology or World History might be ready to try one of these tests. Some colleges require two or three of them for admission.

Sophomore Year

September: Review tenth grade courses and activities. Are they appropriate? There might be time to make some changes.

October: Take the PSAT as early practice and/or ACT Plan if your school offers them. These are helpful early guideposts on national testing programs.

January through March: Plan for Junior year courses and summer. Again, students don’t need to take every Advanced Placement (AP) course or fill every summer minute with an expensive “program” to qualify for college admissions; however, demanding class choices and productive summer experiences of all kinds should be considered carefully based on a student’s interests, strengths, and goals.

May and June: Consider any appropriate SAT Subject Tests.

Junior Year

Pushed by Early Decision/Action application trends, changes in testing programs, and competition, Junior Year has become more crunch time for college admissions.

August through September: Begin a test preparation plan. Some students will want to start earlier than others. Review courses and activities.

October: Take the PSAT, now the actual National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and a good early baseline indicator of future test performance. Colleges often use the PSAT for marketing purposes, though not for admissions evaluation.

October through December: Prepare for the SAT and/or ACT as early as December, but most likely by January or March (SAT), or February or April (ACT). Plan some early college visits in the fall to test out some different college environments, big or small, urban or rural, public or private, and so on.

January through March: Course and summer planning time again. Consider additional SAT and ACT tests. Get serious about visiting more colleges during days off or vacations in the winter and spring.

May and June: SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests as appropriate.

June and July: Continue visiting colleges and assessing your record from the first three years of high school. How well are you prepared for college? Which colleges are you qualified for? What do you need to do to improve your chances at schools of interest? Interview at colleges that offer on-campus interviews, and begin application writing.

Senior Year

Although you might have thought starting earlier meant finishing earlier, for most students this is not the case. Plan to be in the admissions process through this whole year, and count on the fact that your senior year performance will likely have a strong impact on your admissions chances. If you do get into a college earlier, that will be a big relief.

August and September: Finalize college visits, though you might still see a couple later in the fall as you complete your college list and establish any top choices. File applications under Rolling Admissions plans at public universities of interest. ACT is offered in more places in September these days.

October: Consider the SAT, ACT, or Subject Tests as necessary. Take them again if you think you have a reasonable chance of doing better. We do often see significant score improvements between last spring and senior fall. Make sure you are informing your teachers about any Rolling, Early Action, or Early Decision choices so that recommendation letters are requested and submitted, and counselors send school reports and transcripts. Note many Early deadlines are November 1 or 15, but you should file your applications earlier if possible.

November and December: Finalize your college list. Consider any additional testing needs. File all Regular Decision applications by the second week of December if possible. Focus on your fall grades. They are crucial! Gather your financial information and explore some financial aid calculators for the FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE to see if you might qualify for need-based aid. Apply for private merit scholarships, or merit scholarships offered by colleges (listed on their Web sites) where the deadlines might be in advance of regular admissions deadlines.

January: One more chance on the SAT if you need it. All your applications should be in by now. Sit for alumni interviews when offered. File the FAFSA and PROFILE forms as early as possible.

February: Consider sending an update email or letter to the colleges you applied to, including any that might have deferred you during an earlier application round. Perhaps ask another teacher to write a recommendation for you, and talk with your guidance counselor about calling one or more schools on your behalf.

March: You will hear from most colleges this month. If you are denied, your done. If admitted you have until May 1 to make a decision about where to enroll. If you are wait listed, a growing trend these days, consider whether you want to continue to pursue that college depending on your other choices.

April: Revisit colleges that offered you admission, based on your interest in them. Compare financial aid offers and consider appealing them as appropriate. Revisits and attendance at colleges’ special revisit days are essential in your choosing the best college for you at this point. Make a deposit at one of them by May 1, even if you are still pursuing one or more waiting lists. Write an update letter expressing interest in any wait list schools.

May: You should be holding onto one school by now, and will likely hear about most waiting list offers this month, though some wait lists extend well into the summer.

June: Take any SAT Subject Tests (really!) as appropriate, as these can earn you college course credit or placement. Congratulate yourselves on a job well done. Getting into college is a big accomplishment!

Howard and Matthew Greene are independent educational consultants at Howard Greene & Associates in Westport, CT, and New York City. They are the authors of the Greenes’ Guides to Educational Planning Series and hosts of two national PBS programs on college admissions. You can find them at www.howardgreeneassociates.com.