The ultimate guide to a successful senior year and the college application process crafted by college admissions experts.

Senior year is the final step before you enter your future after high school. There are countless opportunities you could pursue. Although this can feel exciting, there are likely times when this may also feel a bit daunting. If you’re planning to attend college, deciding how and where to spend your next four years may be one of your biggest decisions yet.

College is a place for you to explore your interests, passions, and values in a community that encourages you to do so. This is why it’s important to actively reflect on what you want to get out of higher education. In this article, we will explain all of the necessary steps you need to take in order to apply to college and how to research colleges so that you can find a school that best matches your individual needs.

You may also want to refer to our article on staying organized during the college application process for some helpful tips!

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Coming up with your college list

Building your college list intentionally is the most important step in preparing your college applications. This is why it is important to distinguish between schools that are well-ranked and schools that are a good “fit” for your academic, social, and professional needs. The most prestigious school isn’t necessarily the school where you will find the most success. Learn more about the importance of finding colleges well-suited to your needs by reading our article on Finding the Right University or College For You.

In addition to being a good “fit,” you should also have at least a handful of specific reasons why you’ve placed that school on your list. Never apply to a school just because you’ve heard the name from a friend or saw it on a list of great schools. Rather, you should have a guiding list of criteria of what to look for when researching colleges. During your initial research, you may want to learn more about the differences between colleges and universities to help you get started.

In general, you should shoot for a list of 12-15 schools that you are legitimately interested in, with plans to apply to about 6 and 10. Try to get an even spread of “safety,” “fit,” and “reach” schools. College Board’s Big Future search engine is a good tool to use when researching colleges. You may also want to consider some of the top public universities in the West and liberal arts colleges in the East.

Once you have developed your well-researched college list, you can begin the college application process in earnest!

The importance of being proactive

It’s important to start the college application process as early as possible, especially if you are interested in applying to highly-selective schools. Maximizing your standardized test scores and writing the perfect personal statement requires a lot of time and dedication. Overall, the more proactive you are in preparing your application materials, the more competitive your application will be.

Although junior year is one of the most important years of your high school career, senior year is when you’ll tie everything together with a nice, big bow. Starting the college application process as soon as you are able to will help you remain on track. This will prove to be especially important if you decide to apply through Early Action and Early Decision.

Overall, it’s important to be prepared and keep track of important college admissions dates and deadlines so that you can plan accordingly.

List of college application steps

After you’ve thoroughly researched colleges and have come up with a college list that you are pleased with, it’s time to start physically filling out your applications. In this section, we review some of the next steps you will have to take at this time. So, if you’re wondering where and how to start your college applications, read on for further insights!


Decide on a college application platform

The two most used college application platforms are the Common Application and the Coalition Application. If you’re wondering how to fill out the common app, don’t worry! College application platforms are designed to be straightforward.

Additionally, some colleges and universities utilize their own application platform. Schools that use their own platform include Georgetown University, the University of California school system, and MIT. Whatever platform you’re using, you will have to complete in-depth background sections that include your family, academic history, and work/volunteer history. Once you have your college list, you’ll be able to see which platform(s) each school uses.


Write your personal statement

The personal statement is often one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. Your personal statement is meant to communicate how you came to be, what you’ve done so far, and where you hope to go. Review 4 Winning College Essay Examples from Top Schools to help you get started. After all, reviewing successful essays is a great way to figure out how to write the common app essay.

Personal statement prompts are provided by both the Common App and the Coalition App. Schools that use their own application platform will provide their own prompt(s). You should start as early as possible to leave time for feedback from trusted teachers, mentors, and friends.

Typically, the personal statement prompts for the Common App and Coalition App do not change much from year to year. Past personal statement prompts include:

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.” Common App, 2019-2020


Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.” Coalition App, 2019-2020


Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” Common App, 2019-2020


Write your supplemental essays

Like the personal statement, college supplemental essays are another opportunity for college admissions officers to get to know you and how you think. There is no one right way to answer supplemental essay prompts. What matters most is that you answer the prompt in an engaging, sincere, and interesting way that showcases who you are and what makes your thoughts and perspectives unique. There are also plenty of colleges without supplemental essays, so hopefully, you will only need to prepare a handful of supplemental essays.

Most likely, you will have to prepare a “why this college” essay. This is your opportunity to share some of your college research. For this essay prompt, the more specific you can be, the better. And, like the personal statement, you should always leave time to receive and implement feedback on how to improve your essay. Review our Supplemental Essay Guide for 2022-23 Prompts for further guidance.


Perfecting your SAT and ACT scores

If you’re wondering when to start studying for the SAT, remember you have one final chance to retake the SAT and/or ACT during the fall of your senior year. Refer to the SAT and ACT test dates to plan accordingly. You will want to schedule your final test a minimum of one month prior to your earliest application deadline.

If you decide to take the SAT and/or ACT again during your senior year, refer to our SAT study plan and schedule. This is the best way to know how to prepare for the SAT and ACT. Give yourself plenty of time to study before the retake. Some colleges have a test score policy that requires you to submit all test scores, so take each test seriously and prep beforehand.

If you have tried both tests and want to test again, pick your favorite and focus on studying for that one. Other colleges have a test-optional policy that does not require you to submit standardized test scores as part of your application.

Khan Academy has great SAT prep resources, and the College Board has 10 full sample tests with solutions online. For the ACT, Kaplan has a daily practice question, as well as 20-minute ACT prep workouts.


Take any required SAT subject tests

Take any required SAT subject tests. If you are applying to highly selective schools, they may require or highly recommend that you submit scores from 1-3 SAT subject tests. If some schools on your college list require subject tests, consider taking the tests that correspond to your AP coursework.

For example, if you are currently in AP Calculus AB and AP U.S. History, you might take one or both of the math subject tests and the U.S. History subject test. Practice questions for each of the subject tests can be found here on the College Board website.

List of required college application materials

Next, you will need to gather and/or complete additional application materials. Application requirements can vary greatly across schools. Be sure to keep a detailed checklist of requirements for each of your schools. Your checklist will include some or all of the following:

High school transcripts

Your high school transcript will be sent to each college/university to which you are applying. Additionally, if you are a dual-enrollment student at a local community college or university, you may be required to submit your transcript from there as well.

Your high school GPA will play a crucial role in your college applications, so make sure that you prioritize this step and follow up with each college to make sure they have received your official transcripts.

Letter of recommendation

Depending on the school, you may be required to submit 1-3 letters of recommendation from teachers and/or a letter from your school counselor. Some schools may allow you to submit letters from a volunteer/work supervisor or a coach. Make sure you ask for your letters of recommendation early to minimize any.

College interviews

A college interview may be an optional part of your application process. If you are able to sign up for an interview and/or are offered the chance, take it! Interviews may be conducted in person with an alum of the school, over video chat, or over the phone. You may have to sign up to be offered an interview, so be sure to check the interview policy for each of the schools to which you are applying.

High school resume

A high school resume may be an optional or required component of your college applications. Should you choose to interview with an admissions officer or alum as part of your application process, you’ll want to have a resume ready to bring with you. Review our resume outline for high school students for some pointers. You may also want to read up on the different types of resumes, as well as the best resume templates.

Scholarship applications

Attending college is a huge financial commitment. This is why it’s important to do your research and apply for plenty of scholarships. Applying for scholarships is a great way to remain productive in high school during the holiday season. Review how to write an essay for scholarships before you get started.

What you need to know about financial aid

Complete all financial aid application materials. Financial aid application requirements can vary greatly across schools. Be sure to keep a detailed FAFSA checklist, as well as a checklist of requirements for each of your schools and their deadlines. Your checklist will include some or all of the following:

  • Fill out the FAFSA and add all of the colleges/universities you’re applying to. The FAFSA opens on the 1st of October each year. It is best to complete it as soon as you can and no later than December of your application year. Refer to our article Everything You Should Know About FAFSA for further guidance and FAFSA information.
  • Fill out the CSS Profile for private colleges that request it. The CSS Profile is used by some private schools to determine who receives financial aid from the school itself.
  • Upload required documents to IDOC as high-quality scans. After completing the CSS Profile, some schools will want you to upload select financial documents to IDOC in addition to completing some forms provided through IDOC. Some schools will also have you complete their own financial aid worksheet through IDOC.

Keep up with your grades. It is important that you maintain your grades during senior year and continue to do well in your classes despite your additional commitments and responsibilities. Many of your schools will be looking at your grades from the fall semester before they make their final decision.

Steps to take after submitting your applications

Review your application decisions. You will likely hear back from schools at various times of the year. Once you receive all of your college acceptance letters, you will want to compare the pros and cons of attending each institution extensively, as well as their financial aid offerings.

If you are comparing financial aid packages across a number of institutions and want help understanding and thinking through your options, check out our post on college financial planning! If you are waitlisted at your first-choice institution, you might consider writing a letter of continued interest communicating that you remain interested in attending their school over all others.

Visit your schools when possible. If you are able to visit any of the schools you have been admitted to, take advantage of this! Most schools have admitted students days where you can go to campus, attend informational sessions, and ask all of your questions. Alternatively, view virtual tours on college websites and/or YouTube and ask any questions to admissions officers over the phone or via email.

Make a decision. Once you decide which college or university you will be attending, you will need to formally accept the offer. This acceptance may require a deposit to secure your enrollment. Further steps may include securing housing, signing up for orientation, registering for classes, etc.

Key takeaways and moving forward

Deciding to go to college is a big decision, and so is deciding where to go to college. Getting an early start on the college application process is crucial for giving yourself enough time to thoughtfully plan out this next phase of your life. With a world of opportunities ahead of you, please consider using the college application process checklist below as a guide for your senior year. Download our College Planning Checklist for Seniors to make sure you’re checking things off your list throughout the school year! You may also want to read up on advice for high school seniors.