The short answer is… as soon as you begin high school.
Now, that does not mean that you would actually be filling out applications at that moment or preparing any of your application essays. But what it does mean is that, as soon as you start high school, you have begun phase 1 of 2 of the college application process.
How so? Let me elaborate.
The Timetable for the College Application Process
The two fundamental phases in the college application process timetable are the exploration phase and the application phase.
Phase 1: Exploration Phase
The exploration phase begins the moment you enter high school and extends all the way to the summer just before grade 12.
It is longer than the second phase and meanders a little. Although you will have to meet some deadlines, they are spaced comfortably. But there are still a lot of important things happening that set the foundation for the next phase.
What exactly takes place during this phase?
Overall – The exploration phase allows you time to find out what kind of student you are. It also gives you time to test your extracurricular interests. This will be a process that sometimes takes you a step forward and sometimes a step back. Be patient and allow yourself to go through the process. While you do not have to figure it all out, you have to at least start.
Grade 9 – Aside from discovering what kind of student you are, you also must be determined to be the best student you can be from the very beginning of 9th grade. That is because all grades, from the first year of high school on, count in a college application.
Opinions do differ regarding the importance of the grades obtained in 9th grade for your college application. Still, I recommend you do not wait until a later grade but start studying the best you can right away.
True, some universities (some of them very well regarded and quite selective) in the United States do not look at your grades from 9th grade. But unless you are only applying to those schools, it would be unwise to not take your first year of high school seriously. In all reality, you really do not know to which colleges you will apply at that early time.
Grade 10 – A new and important part of the exploration phase can tentatively be added in 10th grade—the standardized testing process. There is really no valid reason to start testing any earlier.
I recommend you take a practice SAT or ACT one time, then leave it behind. Do not study for it, but take it cold to see how you will do. This will help you to get used to the idea of what college entrance exams look like.
Grade 11 – The standardized testing timeline begins to be more intense in 11th grade. In fact, I recommend you take most your testing during this year. Start studying in the first part of grade 11, and then take the SAT or ACT in the second half of the grade.
While more intense, this testing process is still part of the exploration phase because seeing the results will help you analyze what types of colleges may be right for you.
For example, maybe you test well because you studied hard or because you have a mind that does well with standardized testing. Or perhaps your test results reveal some difficulties with standardized tests. In either case, the insight you gain can suggest different types of colleges that may be a good fit for you. Not that it means you are less intelligent if you did not do well, but your testing personality may not fit these types of tests, and in turn, certain types of colleges.
By the end of grade 11, the exploration phase ends and you enter phase two.
Phase 2: Application Phase
The application phase typically runs from June before grade 12 all the way to December of your senior year.
When you enter the application phase, your work and your pace begins to look different. You are no longer thinking of what colleges to apply to anymore—you know where you want to apply.
What can you expect during this second phase?
Overall – The lists of tasks you must accomplish is much more lengthy and detailed than in phase one. And meeting deadlines for completing each part of the application process becomes markedly important.
Grade 12 – You will have several long months (about six) in which certain tasks must be done right and on schedule. These tasks generally include big things such as filling out your applications, beginning your essays and working on the multiple drafts that this work requires. It also involves attending to numerous smaller details. These include ordering test scores, having all your letters of recommendations in order with your teachers and counselors at school, and making sure your applications are sent off in time.
When Is It Too Late to Begin College Applications?
If you have not done any work—not filled out any applications, not written any essays, not requested letters of recommendation, not ordered your test scores and transcripts—you will be hard-pressed to get everything done for one application in two weeks, at a bare minimum.
I absolutely do not recommend that. To do things well, you need to allow at least a month for each application.
Aside from putting yourself in a bind, you must also realize that it is not just you who is involved. If you go to your teachers or counselors to ask them for a letter of recommendation two weeks before the application deadline and expect them to scramble to meet requests you should have made a lot earlier, you must have a really strong argument. Otherwise, it probably will not appear reasonable to them to do so with such short notice.
Consider enlisting help to keep everything on schedule. As an Independent Educational Consultant, I have years of experience navigating the intricacies of the college application process. Please, feel free to contact me. I would be happy to assist.