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 College Planning Timeline to Keep Students on Track

For parents and students preparing for college can be overwhelming.  It is important to stay on track and to meet all of the necessary requirements.  Listed below are some tips for planning for college and a college planning timeline to help keep you on track.

First, there are two major college entrance examinations administered in the United States today: the SAT and the ACT. These two different standardized tests, used to apply to colleges, are usually taken in your sophomore/junior year or the first semester of your senior year.  They are designed to allow college admissions officers the ability to judge all students by a common measurement.

Until recently, the ACT was traditionally required by colleges in the midwest, while the SAT was the mandatory test in the northeast and on the east and west coasts. Now however, the majority of schools in the United States now accept both SAT and ACT test results.

This increased acceptance of the ACT gives today's students a strategic advantage because the SAT and ACT are significantly different tests. In fact in many ways, they measure different skills. Therefore you may perform much better on one test than the other depending on your strengths and weaknesses. As a result, many students are now considering both the SAT and ACT to determine which test provides a better showcase for their abilities. It is important to know the specifics of the requirements for each school.

The difference between the two is described as the ACT is a content-based test, whereas the SAT tests critical thinking and problem solving.

Here are some of the factors that show the difference between the SAT and ACT:

  • The ACT includes a science reasoning test; the SAT does not.

  • The ACT math section includes trigonometry.

  • The SAT tests vocabulary much more than the ACT.

  • The SAT is not entirely multiple choice.

  • The SAT has a guessing penalty; the ACT does not.

  • The ACT tests English grammar; the SAT does not.

What is the ACT test?

The American College Testing Assessment (ACT) is designed to test your skill levels in English, math, reading, and science reasoning. You will actually receive 12 separate scores on the ACT: 1 composite, 4 subject scores, and 7 subscores. However the composite or scaled score is the most important. It ranges from 1-36. Nearly half of all test takers fall in the 17-23 range.


What are the SAT I and SAT II tests?

There are two types of SAT tests. The first is the SAT Reasoning Test (SAT I) and the second is the SAT Subject Test (SAT II).

The SAT Reasoning Test (SAT I) is required for most universities and colleges and it is the most widely taken college entrance examination. It is designed to test your skill level in math, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. The SAT is scored on scale of 200-800 for both the math and verbal sections. The College Board sets the average for all test takers at 500 for each. A perfect score on the SAT is 1600. However, in recent years, fewer than 20% of all test takers achieve a math score of 600 or better. Fewer than 10% score higher than 600 on the verbal section.

The SAT Subject Test (SAT II)  examines you on individual subjects.  The tests fall into 5 different categories: Mathematics, Sciences, History and Social Sciences, Languages and English.  These are best taken after you've taken an AP course in your school on the same subject. More prestigious universities need at least three SAT II scores.

How Often Can I Take These Tests?

For most high school students, three times is about the maximum between the start of the sophomore year and Christmas of the senior year that you can take these tests.

You may take the SAT/ACT prior to the sophomore year if you wish.  Some eighth and ninth graders just want to see what its like, so they experiment with it. It is recommended however that every sophomore take the SAT/ACT in May or June.  However, when you take it for the first time  depends on the Math classes that you have completed.  The SAT Math section will cover Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2, so it would put you at a disadvantage to take the SAT before you have taken a substantial portion of the Algebra 2 class. So for some they may take it for the first time in May and June of their junior year.  When those scores come in, special note should be taken of the areas of weakness. The diagnostic report that comes with the score report can be helpful in targeting efforts for improvement.

Juniors should keep in mind that they will be taking the PSATs in October. The PSATs is not only a preliminary version of the SATs but also a qualifying exam for National Merit Scholarship competition consideration. Donít consider the PSATs as one of your SATs; itís not an SAT. It is recommended that Juniors take SATs in January and May. June should be reserved for SAT IIs.

Remember, both the SATs and ACTs are important parts of your application, but they are only one of several factors.  Courses and grades, recommendations and your personal statement are all used when colleges consider an applicant.

College Planning Timeline

This college planning timeline should help you to keep track of what you need to do throughout the high school years to make college planning less stressful and a lot easier.




Freshman time to start thinking about what you want your major to be after high school.  Get involved and join a variety of clubs, sports and activities to see what you enjoy.  Take your classes seriously and get good grades.

Sophomores the clubs and activities that you have picked this year you should stick with for the rest of High School.  Colleges like to see that you persist in your activities. Strive to become president of your team or club.  Push yourself hard an get really good grades. Challenge yourself with your curriculum.

Sophomores and Juniors should register to take the October PSATs.  For Sophmores it is a practice run for the SAT and for Juniors it is a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship competition. In addition, you should schedule to take the PLAN, which is a pretest for the ACT.

Seniors who have not taken the SAT or ACT or those who want to take them again should register for the SAT Reasoning Test and/or SAT subject tests, or the ACT.  Students who have not already contacted teachers, or coaches and their guidance counselor for letters of recommendation should do so.  Seniors should register with colleges of interest, via their website, to be put on their mailing list.

Seniors should also make sure they research the college(s) of interest to determine their admissions process. Most schools require SAT or ACT scores, school transcript, letters of recommendation, letter of recommendation from the students counselor, and one or more essays.  A lot of schools will accept the "Common Application" which can be completed one time on line for all schools that accept it.  All other materials, even teacher recommendations, are filed online.  If they do not accept the common application then the application will be on their website.

Seniors should create a spread sheet to keep track of all deadlines for each school and to make sure all pieces of required information have been sent to the school.

Juniors  should consider test preparation programs to help improve their test scores. Consider a program that offers personalized instruction and the use of official SAT and ACT exams.



Sophomores, juniors and seniors that are still undecided on schools, should attend college fairs.  Seniors who need to take or retake the SAT Reasoning and/or subject tests or the ACT should sign up to take them in December.  Seniors should check deadlines for filing for financial aid on the websites of selected colleges.  Most colleges will require preliminary registration by November 1 and then all students should fill out the Free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at This form is a requirement for the majority of schools and should be filled out in early January and then tax returns must be sent to them by April 15. 



Students in need of financial aid should be searching for grants, scholarships and work-study programs.  Sources available to help in this area:  school counselors, National Research Center for College and University Admissions ( and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (  There are many scholarships that are available, and many that go unused each year, so do your research.

Seniors should make sure they send their official test scores to the schools they are considering.


In December, sophomores and juniors will receive the results of the PLAN and the PSAT.  These scores will help you to determine your strong and weak areas and give you the opportunity to strengthen skills prior to taking the ACT or SAT. 

Registration should be done now for those students taking the ACT in February. 

Seniors should make sure they send their official test scores to the schools they are considering if they have not already.



Juniors who have completed the math courses covered on the SAT reasoning test should register to take the test in May or June. 

Students who already completed their Free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) might receive their Student Aid report in February.  Seniors who sent in the FAFSA more then four weeks earlier and haven't received their report should contact the federal student aid information center.



Sophomores should register now for the June SAT subject tests.  Talk to counselors to determine which tests should be taken and when.

Juniors should register now for the May or June SAT Reasoning Test and/or the May/June SAT subject tests.  Sophomores and juniors who want to take the ACT in June should register.




Sophomores and juniors should think of summer activities that will build skills needed for the academic tracks or careers being considered.

Seniors should decide by May 1 which college they want to attend.  It is also necessary to confirm when payments are due for tuition, room and board.



Although some may prefer to visit colleges during the year when school is in full session, summer is a good time also for visits.

Juniors if your school requires community service hours you may want to work on it in the summer.  Just make sure you do all of the proper documentation of your hours.


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