Senior Year Checklist: How to Start Your College Search

Last updated: Aug 26, 2020

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said in a speech given as president in 1957. That Eisenhower paradox is a collision of facts that guides this thinking: An intelligent planning process explores scenarios and responses to them that shape a plan and make it possible to adapt a new one more quickly if circumstances undermine it. Want to know how to start your college search and make it bear fruit? Craft a high school senior year checklist and use it to continually define your plan.

Your Get-Into-College Checklist Is Your Timeline

You know your goal: Get into college. All you need to do is figure out what that entails and when each “what” must be done. That timeline/checklist is critical because following it means advancing toward your goal. It lets you know when you must be ready to check something off your list. Remember, though, not to stubbornly and futilely cling to a bad idea. Get each task done when expected, or redefine what must be done based on changing goals.

Let’s say that application to your dream school doesn’t need to be completed because the scholarship plan fizzled and you can’t afford the tuition. Just refocus and resume the application process at another school, using a revised checklist.

A student reviews her senior year checklist on her laptop.

Template for Senior Year College Search Checklist

Need a calendar-pegged template you can use to develop your high school senior college checklist? Ours is based on one presented by The Scholarship System. You can tell TSS is thorough because it begins by telling you what you should have done before the start of the senior year:

  • Choose your college team, from counselors to family members to friends and mentors.
  • Begin building a list of colleges you want to target.
  • Start pondering a career path. It’s about finding your passion and identifying majors to help you fulfill it.
  • Start the research process by attending college fairs, reaching out to college reps, and engaging with counselors at your high school and colleges. With COVID-19, picking a school takes even more information.
  • Begin the scholarship hunt.
  • Determine your financial capacity and research your aid options.
  • Reinforce your academic portfolio with credits through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or College Level Examination Program options.
  • Begin vetting top college choices. That means scheduling campus tours and interviews, if available.
  • Lay the groundwork for letters of recommendation. Pick your sources, and be sure the people who agree to give you a reference get plenty of time to write what you need.
  • Prepare to take the SAT/ACT with enough time to get your scores in before the application priority deadlines.

If you’ve waited until the start of your senior year in high school to begin the college process, you’re late to the game but still can be a winner. Here’s what you need on your checklist.

September-October

  • Get involved, from extracurriculars to internships/part-time jobs.
  • When possible, visit target schools.
  • Narrow down your college list to those to which you will apply.
  • Work toward a great finish in high school.
  • Register for, prep for, and take standardized tests.
  • Create a calendar of important dates in the scholarship, financial aid, and college application processes.
  • Give providers final notice (at least two weeks) on when you will need recommendation letters.
  • Reconnect with your guidance counselor(s) to discuss scholarship and admissions options.
  • Prep for ACT/SAT do-overs if there’s room for improvement.
  • Create a Common App account.
  • Write your application essays. Tailor them to the schools you’re targeting.
  • Submit Early Decision or Early Action applications.
  • Apply for financial aid if needed. Regardless of need, do the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork as soon as possible.
  • Keep executing your scholarship search.

A student celebrates completing his senior year checklist and getting accepted to college.

November-February

  • Don’t slack off on academic and community involvement or academics.
  • Finish application forms for target schools before winter break.
  • Follow up on applications, ensuring schools received your forms and all necessary accompanying material, from transcripts to letters of recommendation.
  • Make your decisions on early-decision applications.
  • Submit financial aid forms.
  • Submit midyear grade reports.
  • Finish the standardized testing process.
  • Add fall semester experiences to your list of accomplishments and personal statements.
  • Crunch the financial numbers on target schools, and keep socking away money.
  • Continue the scholarship hunt.

March-May

  • Keep earning, saving, studying, and connecting in school and in the community.
  • Watch for application responses, which begin coming in March or April.
  • Connect with family and application team members on finances, financial aid, and options.
  • Wait-listed? Consider and line up options.
  • Choose your school and do the enrollment paperwork.
  • Compare financial aid offers, and follow through on things such as the FAFSA acknowledgement and Pell Grant applications.
  • Press the scholarship hunt until the clock ticks down to zero, and, just in case, research the student loan process.

A student ticks off items on her senior year checklist

June-August

  • Stay connected and keep earning/socking away money.
  • Yes, there’s still time to press the scholarship hunt. Cue the trombone gobble.
  • Stay on top of communications with and from your college. There are choices to make on housing, meal plans, what to pack, and much more. Schedule (and don’t miss) orientation.
  • Continue discussing and calculating finances. It’s also a great time to hone your budgeting skills, prepare for the move, and hone other life skills you’ll need as an independent college student.

After saying “plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” Eisenhower explained that events and circumstances can undermine plans, rendering them useless.

That doesn’t mean you wasted your time planning, he said, merely that you are prepared to adapt more “intelligently” and create a new plan informed by what the first one taught you.

Your checklist is how you keep track of all the moving parts and keep the process moving, with the help of your college team. That team should include members of admissions staffs at target schools and definitely at the one you choose to attend.

When it comes to application or enrollment issues, the USF Office of Admissions always is ready with advice and answers. Contact us online, or reach us by phone at 813-974-3350.

high school senior year checklist