You’re juniors, you’re about to apply to college, and—like most students—you think the process seems incredibly overwhelming. I know; I’ve been there.
One of the biggest challenges for those of us who were non-traditionally educated is the lack of the support structure that most students can rely on: for example, the guidance office. At your local school, those guidance counselors have dealt with hundreds to thousands of students, gone through scholarship season and SAT prep, and helped students find their match, whether it be a local trade school or an Ivy League school across the country. For the most part, we don’t have that expertise at our fingertips.
Just in case you’re feeling overwhelmed with all this, I’m here to reassure you that it will be okay. In fact, here’s a basic timeline you can follow to ensure that you’ve planned and prepared and are ready to get into that school of your choice, regardless of whether you have access to a counselor. It’s hard to plan everything you need to do in a year, but this list will give you the highlights.
Right now, it’s almost May. The seniors are in the process of making their final decisions—but your process is just starting to get rolling. Now is the time to start thinking about what you want from a college, what your goal schools are, what kind of financial aid you’ll need and where you want to be next year. You may have already visited colleges. That’s great! If not, identify a few schools you’re really interested in and look into when might be a good time to visit. You might also have taken the SAT already. Again, if you haven’t, it’s not too late, but you should do so as soon as possible. Sign up for SAT II or CLEP tests if you need them, and consider what your transcript will look like when you graduate.
In June and July, it’s time to deal with a list of colleges you’re interested in. Here’s a tip: this list is probably going to get really big… and then really small. You’ll probably narrow it down to 6-10 schools: at least one safety, a reach or two, and the bulk schools that you’d like to go to and have a good chance of getting admitted to. When you check out schools, take a look at their policies on admitting nontraditional students—some of them require additional testing, for example.
August might mean back to school for you, or maybe you have a non-traditional schedule as well. In any case, this is when it starts to get serious. Narrow down your list, plan your visits and decide how you’re going to handle the actual application process.
September: Transcripts, without a guidance office to compile them for you, are pretty annoying. Ideally, you already have one and have been keeping it updated for the last four years. If not, now is the time. (And if you have, now is the time to update it!) Include all of your classes (it can be surprisingly easy to overlook something!), double-check your GPA calculation and make sure it’s easily understandable. There are plenty of free templates online if you really need help.
October is when things really start to get serious. Now is the time to begin gathering all of the materials you need for your applications. This includes things like essays, SAT score reports, that transcript you perfected back in September and recommendation letters. I actually suggest including more than two letters in your application packet, because admissions counselors will naturally be more curious about a non-traditional student. (If you have doubts about this, you can always call and ask!)
Be aware that you may—and probably will—be asked to provide more information than a student who went to a brick-and-mortar school. It might be wise to prepare things like reading lists and course descriptions ahead of time, rather than to wait until a college asks.
Personally, I kept very detailed records, printed everything out and kept it in folders, and when I sent an application I just grabbed a copy of everything and included it with the paper application. In my experience, it can’t hurt to be as detailed as possible.
December is when the first college applications are due, for the most part. Be prepared and have a timeline of when each application is due so you stay on top of everything. It’s also the last chance to take the SAT in most cases.
In January, many applications will be due. Again, be prepared! This is also when you should make the final decisions about things like graduation—will you have one? Will you participate in another ceremony? Will you receive a diploma, a GED, a certificate of equivalency or nothing at all?
March, at least in my area, is when local scholarship season starts. Again, with no counselor to help you with these applications, prepare to take some initiative and seek out these scholarships. In addition to local scholarships, keep track of national and college-specific scholarship deadlines throughout the year.
The beginning of April is when many colleges inform you of your acceptance, rejection or waitlist status. Most others let you know even earlier or on a rolling basis. Take some time and figure out where you really want to go next year and whether it is feasible. Keep in mind things like class size; as a class of one for the first 12 years of my education, I knew going to a school with lecture classes of 300+ students would not be the best environment for me.
By the time next May rolls around, you’ve decided what to do with the next few years of your life.