Think you can get into a top-10 school? Take our chance-me calculator... if you dare. 🔥


Last updated April 19, 2023

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

How applying to college works, grade by grade

Key Takeaway

The first chapter in our guide to applying to college. We go through each year, one by one, and share longer posts about what you need to know for each grade.

Preparing for college admissions can be tricky. We’re here to simplify it.

A common question families ask us is “are we behind?” The funny thing is we get this question from parents of 9th graders and 12th graders alike. Students and parents often feel a sense of urgency and anxiety in the admissions process.

We created this step-by-step and grade-by-grade guide to give you a roadmap through high school to admissions. The guide is both comprehensive and flexible. You might find you are “ahead” in some areas or “behind” in others (we prefer to see this as an opportunity!). Regardless of where you are, you can use this guide to get you up to speed, keep you on track, and generate ideas for next steps.

To use the guide, click on your grade to see a summary of what should happen in that grade. Follow the links in each section to read the comprehensive grade guide.

Remember, there is no one “right” way to do admissions that works for everyone. The US college admissions experience is a real life “choose your own adventure” journey. There are thousands of colleges out there, and you might be surprised at which ones feel like an authentic fit for you. So, take your time reviewing the guide and revisit it along your journey.

You’ve got this!

Guide to First-Year 

(First-year blog link - long edition)

Welcome to high school! We hope these four years are chock full of both learning and fun. If you’re up for an early start to preparing for college, this guide will get you ahead of the game.

We touch on the topics that are most important for first-year students to understand: course trajectory, extracurricular engagement, and doing well in school. We also sprinkle in some recommendations for what preliminary college research should look like at this stage. No need to go overboard, but early preparation is a good thing!

Sophomore year's up next

(Sophomore year blog link - long edition)

Sophomore year is a great time to begin thinking about the college process. This should be a slow ramp up from 9th or 10th grade through graduation. So, if you’re thinking about this stuff as a sophomore, that’s fantastic! Our guide will keep you on track and help you balance your priorities.

The sophomore year guide shares what our team of former admission officers sees in the most competitive high school sophomores and how you might emulate that.

We discuss extracurricular activities more in depth here–sophomore year is a great time to start to prioritize your main extracurriculars. We touch on standardized tests, summer programs, and meeting with your school counselor.

And, hey, if you need to sharpen your study skills, check out our advice on study skills and organization. Don’t let bad tendencies become long-term bad habits!

Onto the "hard"(er) stuff — Junior Year

(Junior year blog link - long edition)

Junior year is the most important year of your education so far. No pressure, right?

You might know that when you apply to college, your junior year grades will be the most recent grades on your transcript. So, this year really counts for admission!

Remember, though, applying to college isn’t all about grades. Your transcript might get your application a thorough admissions review, but everything you’ve done outside of the classroom–and how you write about it–is what helps you ultimately stand out.

For junior year, we encourage you to get serious about college research. That includes the landscape of colleges and admissions, your educational goals, and what the application process will look like. Now is also the time to deepen your extracurricular engagement and think outside the box about engaging with an interesting project. Oh, and if you haven’t started visiting schools already, there’s no better time!

Check out the junior year guide for step-by-step suggestions and our timeline for how this year might play out.

Almost made it... Senior year, let's go!

(Senior year long blog post)

Alas! Senior year of high school. Get ready for everyone you know to ask you where you want to go to college and what you’re going to major in. Fun, right?

Whether you’ve been planning your college search for the past three years, or finding this guide just in time, we’ve got you covered.

The senior year guide walks you through what we see the most college-savvy high school seniors doing. It’s time to visit colleges, finalize your list of schools, and create your Common App account. We walk you through every step.

Arguably the most important part of applying to college is writing the many college essays. You’ll need to craft a standout personal statement and supplemental essays that show you’re a great fit for the schools on your list. Follow along in the senior year guide, and look for links throughout to some of our best college essay writing guides