Applying to College:
A High School Student's Timeline

By Faith Walessa

Today, high school; tomorrow, college—it can feel overwhelming! Here are some tips for high school students, year by year, to be ready when application time comes.

When you’re young, you reach a certain point in life where everything starts to feel like a transition stage. As you go through middle school, you’re flooded with high school advice. When you get to high school, you hope that you’ve finally arrived … then you find out just how much transitioning is left. It seems that everything–extracurriculars, volunteering, work experience–is designed to prepare you for what at first is only a concept: college. It begins as a misty, far-off place, but gets a little bit clearer with every year in high school as your plans, goals, and dream schools begin to grow into sketches, outlines, and eventually full-color pictures.

Trying to figure out everything you should and shouldn’t do to have a successful high school experience and prepare for college can feel overwhelming. Read on to discover a helpful timeline offering you the best steps to take each year of high school so you can confidently approach the college application process!

For Freshmen

At this point, you’re still getting used to high school life, and college is a secondary priority. As a freshman, you should begin researching colleges and trying to make a list of your tentative top 5-10 schools. Begin to think about what types of careers you want to pursue and what majors those would require. With this in mind, try to plan out your future high school course list by semester so you can be sure of meeting requirements to be admitted into these programs.

At the same time, remember you don’t have to hone in on a future major yet! Now is the time to explore a variety of interests. Many of CLT’s Partner Colleges follow a liberal arts model that sets aside the first one to two years for a general curriculum, giving students more time to decide on a major.

Next, start looking into costs of different schools and having discussions with your parents, guardians, or guidance counselor.

Finally, create a spreadsheet on which to record your extracurriculars, work, and volunteer experience. Keep track of specific roles you played, examples of leadership, and the amount of time you were part of each activity. Continually update this list; it will be invaluable when you have to put together a resumé to apply to colleges your senior year.

In omnibus requiem quæsivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.
By every means I have sought rest, and have never yet found it except in a corner with a book.

For Sophomores

By sophomore year, you’ll hopefully have more clarity of your ideas of future careers. You can start taking more specialized classes that should help you discover or rule out more specific interests. Remember to continue updating your list of extracurriculars and experience, and try to join activities that will highlight your interests (for example, prospective English majors could join a school newspaper or writer’s club, while an hopeful engineer could participate in a robotics club or coding competition).

Use these experiences to narrow down the list you made the year before of your colleges of interest. Specifically search for universities or colleges that are well-known for your areas of interest and that you think will help you to succeed.

I found it helpful to make a list of non-negotiable requirements that a college I hoped to attend had to meet. These requirements could take the form of a certain approach to education (classical, liberal arts, etc.), a certain religion, a certain program offered, or even a certain student body size. However, I would recommend not limiting yourself by either location or price. Try to be equally open to the idea of living either at home or in residence, and remember that scholarships can have a massive effect on the tuition you end up paying. At this point in the process, you should also begin thinking about which schools interest you enough to warrant a visit day where you can attend classes, meet students, and gain valuable specifics about the atmosphere and life on campus.

For Juniors

Try to form a “top three” list and book your college visits accordingly. If a visit is impossible, make sure to at least attend lots of webinars, get in touch with your admissions counselor, or even book a personal information session. If you feel ready, most colleges will also allow you to have your official admissions interview in junior year. During school, continue to take difficult courses, sign up for extracurriculars (keep that list up to date!), and look into job and volunteer experience that will benefit you as an applicant and help you stand out.

For Seniors

It’s time for all your hard work to pay off! Apply first semester to at least those top three colleges, and consider applying as an Early Decision student with your number one choice school for extra scholarship consideration. About a month before application deadlines, talk to the teachers that you feel would represent you best as a student and ask them to write your reference letters. Consult that list of extracurriculars and experience that you’ve been updating faithfully since ninth grade and put together a strong, concise activity resumé that puts your most valuable skills towards the top. Finally, remember to continue keeping up your grades so they won’t affect a conditional acceptance.

Best of luck to all of you!


Faith Walessa is a rising senior from Ontario, Canada. She hopes to study English at Hillsdale College, write books, and someday travel to England. She loves fanciful poetry, theater, reading by flashlight, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

If you enjoyed this piece and would like to see more of Miss Walessa’s work, you can find other posts of hers on college prep, interviews she has conducted for CLT, and even a short story contributed to the Journal here. You might also enjoy our series profiling the great minds of the CLT Author Bank, from ancients like the Epic of Gilgamesh and St. Athanasius, through writers of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment such as Avicenna, Christine de Pizan, and René Descartes, to moderns like Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 7th November, 2023.

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