Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

When to Start the College Application Process

“Learn to cultivate your own garden.” – Voltaire.

guidancecounselorYour high school guidance department probably does not officially start the college application process until January of junior year. That timing is partially driven by staffing, since during the fall of your teen’s junior year, the guidance department is focused on seniors in the thick of actually applying to college.  January of junior year is generally best for the student as well, when he or she has two critical pieces of data: (a) predictive test scores and (b) an aggregate of high school grades. An 11th Grade January kickoff gives the student enough time to develop a thoughtful college list and visit realistic schools, while not creating application “hype” that stresses out the student prematurely. That said, every individual adolescent is different, and some academic situations require considering college search activities earlier than January of junior year. Below are three exceptions to the rule:

basketballscout1. Athletes. Serious high school athletes aspiring to play college sports must start the planning process early. With the guidance of the high school athletic director, varsity coach, and club coach, your son or daughter should do sports camps starting freshman year, to: (a) improve skills, (b) evaluate one’s own competitiveness, and (c) showcase one’s talents for college scouts who attend these camps. One of many athletic recruiting consultancies,, offers a helpful general timeline.

2. Students considering programs outside the liberal arts. Such programs  involve a complicated decision process that include summer exploratory programs, so it makes sense to begin spring of sophomore year. The two most obvious examples are detailed below.

asian engineerEngineering. If your son or daughter has proclivities in STEM and is wondering whether to pursue engineering or math/science, 10th Grade is the best time to begin the college dialogue. Within a university, engineering is typically housed in its own separate school, while math and science are in the school of arts and science. When applying to college, your student is not committed to a major, but is committing to a specific school within a university. Engineering is a tough field with a comprehensive curriculum and GPA deflation, so the choice between an engineering school and an arts and science school must not taken lightly. Incidentally, it is more difficult to get into an engineering program than an arts and science school within the same university.

roboticsYour student can explore engineering through summer programs, such as: the six-week residential Cornell Engineering Experience; Rensselaer’s one-week residential Engineering Exploration Program; or Summer at Brown‘s two-week online Exploring Engineering, one-week residential Introduction to Engineering and Design, or any of twenty-plus other engineering or robotics exploratory programs. National Student Leadership Conference also offers STEM-related programs, including engineering. Of course, your student should take advanced math (through calculus) and science courses (AP level), engineering or robotics electives offered by the high school, and take SAT II exams in math and science.

maleengineerIf your student decides to pursue engineering, the college search must include a review of undergraduate engineering program rankings from U.S. News & World Report (Premium). If the student is still not sure, many liberal arts colleges offer “3-2 programs,” dual degree programs with a partner engineering school. The student completes a bachelor’s degree (in science or math) from the liberal arts school in three years, applying to a partner engineering school junior year.  The student then completes the junior/senior level engineering curriculum at the engineering school. In five years, the student will have earned a liberal arts BA or BS, as well as a BS in engineering.

seriousprofessionalBusiness Administration. Students with an interest in business have a dilemma similar to the engineering choice, albeit not as clear-cut. Often the business school is separate from the school of arts and science within the same university, but some liberal arts schools offer limited business programs or certificates. Economics is a social science, usually housed in the school of arts and science of a university and always offered by a liberal arts college. It is more difficult to gain admission to the business school than the school of arts and science within a university straight from high school, but most business administration programs are under four years (with general education requirements filling the rest of the undergraduate experience) and highly qualified students can transfer in.

Group of happy young boys and girls sitting together with notesYour student can explore business through summer programs, such as Babson‘s four-week program featuring its unique Entrepreneurial Development ExperienceSummer at Brown‘s thirty-plus economics or business exploratory programs; Wharton’s pre-college business programs; or the National Student Leadership Conference‘s business-oriented programs. Your student should take advanced math (through calculus), economics and statistics (AP level), any marketing, computer or accounting electives, and focus on math in SAT/ACT exams and SAT II. If your teen pursues business, the search process should include a review of undergraduate business program rankings from U.S. News.

Other interest areas that require earlier research and exploration include: performing arts conservatory programs, fine arts studio programs, healthcare programs including nursing and rehabilitative sciences, and applying to colleges abroad.

tutorwithboy3. Special Needs Applicants. Special needs students have, well, special needs, so more time is required to prepare these teenagers for their more complicated college application process. First, it is essential to make sure that your son or daughter is diagnosed early on in high school, to obtain necessary treatment (educational, psychological, or medical) and get accommodations to help the student thrive inside and outside the classroom. Second, work with the guidance counselor and/or a learning consultant to ensure timely documentation of learning disabilities (LD) or ADD for SAT or ACT testing accommodations. Third, the college search requires identifying schools that offer the individual support your student needs. Higher education options might include: test-optional colleges; small and nurturing colleges such as the “Loren Pope” schools; colleges that offer structured LD/ADD programs; and other options such as community or junior colleges and gap year programs. The family also needs to consider distance from home and proximity to medical care (as applicable).

momlistensWhy Shouldn’t Everybody Start Sophomore Year? As mentioned upfront, it is not “one size fits all.” Generally, sophomores do not have enough semesters of grades and standardized test results to project an accurate estimate of which schools are realistic targets, although discussion of the planning horizon can be helpful for them (or even a wake-up call). Visiting colleges too early carries the following risks: getting one’s heart set on an elite institution before it is even known whether that school is realistic; the student may not remember the school by the time he or she applies; interests may substantially change (“plan early, plan twice” principle); the student may not “own” the visit process because his or her peers are not yet doing it; or the student may become prematurely anxious about the college process. This is why I am a believer in beginning January of junior year, with the exception of the situations discussed in this post.