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When Should High School Students Start the College Search?

Applying to college is a long and complicated process. Students have to juggle standardized exams, college essays, and deadlines. In addition, students have to stay on top of all their typical classwork and extracurriculars. In other words, college-bound students are usually very busy. So, while it’s best practice to start as early as possible, exactly how early should you start looking for colleges?

We’re here to help you answer that question, and walk you through every step of starting your college search. So, let’s start looking!

Questions to consider

Before you start your college search, you should have an idea of what you’re looking for. Basic things to consider include location, major, and on-campus facilities. However, that’s just the beginning of it. To make things easy on you, we have a fuller list of questions to help you dig deeper. The following questions will help figure out whether a college meets your criteria or not:

  • Is my major available?
  • Can I afford it (what’s the cost of attendance)?
  • Do I like the location? (think about weather/climate, proximity to family, is it a big or small city?)
  • What are the on-campus facilities (dorms, gyms, dining halls, on-site services) like?
  • Are there enough student activities? Do they (at least some of them) seem interesting?
  • Do I feel comfortable on campus?

Now that you’ve read through the questions, it’s time for another one: when should you start thinking about these very questions? Good question! Ideally, as early as possible (during high school – so your answers hopefully won’t be too different by the time you’re researching colleges). Just make sure to consider them at some point before you start looking for colleges.

At the latest, on the other hand, you should start thinking about these questions during your junior year, or the summer after your junior year. Knocking these questions out of the way early and having an idea of what you want will make it easier to create a list of possible colleges down the road, especially when you’ll be busy with other assignments (and writing your college essays!).

See Also: When to apply for scholarships

Researching Colleges

Let’s get down to business! As per expert recommendation, we highly recommend that you start researching and making a potential list of colleges during your junior year of high school. Applying to colleges often takes longer than students anticipate. Divvying up time to write essays (and supplemental essays), request letters of recommendation, and take standardized exams takes time. So, better safe than sorry!

We highly recommend starting the college research process during junior year (or earlier) if you’re planning on applying to any colleges through early action (EA) or early decision (ED). As the names imply, applying through EA or ED requires students to submit their applications earlier than students applying through regular decision (RD). The majority of Early Action and Early Decision deadlines fall in November. Regular Decision deadlines, however, typically fall in January. 

Before we get to submitting anything though, there’s a few more steps we should take. So, when should you visit campuses? 

P.S.: If you want a little refresher on EA (early action) vs. ED (early decision) vs. RD (regular decision) and more, or want to know more about college deadlines this school year, check out College Application Deadlines: What You Need to Know!

Visiting campuses

Time for the fun part! If you have the chance, we highly recommend visiting some of the campuses of the schools you’re planning on applying to. This will help you visualize whether or not you could really see yourself at that school. A campus visit is also a great opportunity to ask questions directly to school advisors or staff. 

However, we know that visiting campuses can be expensive, and is not feasible for everybody. If this is the case for you, no need to worry! Many schools have tours posted online by the schools themselves or from students who go there. Feel free to check those out instead. If you can’t find them on your college website, we recommend searching on YouTube.

As for when you should tour colleges, either the spring of your junior year (think spring break) or the summer after your junior year may be ideal. By this time, you’ve hopefully done some research on the universities you’re interested in. Also, you already thought of useful questions to find out more about the school. If you’re not quite sure what to ask on a college tour, we recommend reading Top Questions to Ask on a College Campus Visit.

Ultimately, take note of how each campus makes you feel. Do you see yourself studying, living, and making friends there? Or, do you not? By the end of your college tour or visit (or after some thought), you should ideally know whether or not to keep it on your list. 

Narrowing down your list (and applying!)

On that note, after having chosen some initial colleges and maybe even visiting a few of them, it’s now time to narrow down your list of universities and apply.

Apply to a variety of schools you would be happy at

When considering whether or not to apply to a university, the most important question to consider is whether, if it were the only school that accepted you, would you be happy to go there? Try to be honest when answering this question. If the answer is still “no,” then cross it off your list. By the time you’ve applied and answered this question for every single school on your list, you should ideally have between 6 and 10 colleges left. We recommend that the schools left on your list be a balanced mixture. This includes safety schools (easier to get into considering your stats), match schools (match your stats), and reach schools (harder to get into considering your stats).

Further reading: Safety, Reach, and Match Schools: Everything You Need to Know

Remember those deadlines!

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, we want to stress something: remember your deadlines! So, what’s the best way to do that? We highly recommend making an online spreadsheet where you can list your colleges, applications, and deadlines. Also include relevant information you want to take note of, such as scholarship or financial aid deadlines.

Start the process before senior year!

Remember that this step in the college application process (narrowing down schools) should be completed by the start of your senior year (at the latest!). This way, you will have time to focus on the applications themselves, and make the most out of each one. Ideally, if possible, we highly recommend starting on applications the summer before senior year. 

If you’re looking for more information on college applications (and their fees), these articles may be of help:

And with that, we’re done! From someone who started their applications a little too late, I urge you to get started sooner than later (really). As a reminder, it’s never too early to start applying for scholarships, so make sure that you apply to all that you are eligible for!

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Frequently asked questions about when to start your college search

Do colleges look at 7th grade?

Nope! Colleges will not look at how you performed in 7th grade (or at any point in middle school) when going over your application. Often, in terms of grades, they will focus far more (if not entirely) on those you received during high school, as these are a more recent picture of how you perform as a student. However, this does not mean that you should disregard your middle school grades entirely! Performing well in your middle school classes may allow you to take more advanced Honors classes during high school, which are impressive on college applications (in comparison to regular courses).

Is it ever too early to start looking at colleges?

It depends on the student. For some, freshman year of high school is right, while others choose to look junior year or even early senior year. For particularly mature middle school students who won’t pressure themselves, researching colleges even earlier than freshman year works. After all, many colleges are historic and located in interesting places, making for fun family outings!