Guide to Getting Into College

Updated: Apr 16

As I’m writing this, it’s College Decision Day in the United States. That means that if you are planning to attend a college or university in the US, May 1st is the deadline to let the school of your dreams know (usually by paying a fee and clicking on a link on their website) that you are planning to head there in the Fall.

It’s a very exciting time! But wait, what are all the steps leading up to this fun day? How do you make sure that you or your child gets into their dream school without missing deadlines while getting the most financial aid possible?

That’s where my “Guide to Getting into College” comes in. This guide will walk you through all of the steps whether your student plans to go to a public or private school, plans to apply to 20 schools or only one. With this guide, you won’t miss an important deadline and (I hope) feel less stressed during the application process. That makes the entire process more fun, as it should be!

How do I know about all this stuff? My name is Stefanie Wyres and I am a Professional Organizer in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I also am a mom to two daughters who both applied to college. I am just finishing up with my youngest now and based on how complicated some of the process was (and my love for systems to help people), I decided to write this guide. I hope it helps you! Please write me an email and let me know any comments you have at

I hope that this guide will help light your child’s way to a fantastic college career. For the purposes of this guide, I plan to address you, the reader as the parent of a college hopeful. Some college-bound young people may be reading this, so forgive me.

The first thing I will start with in the guide is a little pep talk. If you don’t need it, skip on down.

As a mom, I worried a little about where my girls would go to school, if they’d be happy, make friends, do well in their studies, get a job afterwards, etc. That’s all normal. Our kids are getting their first taste of independence and freedom and they will do just fine. There will be things they have to figure out, just like you did. There may be times that they call you for help. That’s super nice too. These are all things that we can put to the side for now, because they are still far off. Depending on how far ahead of time you are getting the guide, you may have several years to think about these things. Even if you are in “Senior Year” already, there are still several months to instill all the little things you want them to walk away with before they go to college. I told my daughters that I wanted to spend the summer before they went away to school to go over a small checklist of life skills. Laundry, cooking, cleaning - all of these are things you have likely taught them but they can always develop those skills further. You’ll do fine, mama (or dad)! Now, on to the guide!

Year-by-Year Plan

Freshman Year of High School

Are there things they need to do in Freshman year? You betcha! Now’s the time to focus on grades and also make sure to include some volunteer work. If your student does 15-20 hours of volunteer work during his freshman year, that will be a great trend that colleges love to see. At the end of your child’s Senior year, colleges want to see at least 60 hours total for all four years of high school. Bonus if the volunteer work was done in an area of special interest to the student relative to their degree plan and if they continue volunteering at the same place (or same kind of place) throughout high school. Freshman year is a great time to begin to think about what they are interested in pursuing in life and making a list of colleges they are interested in researching further. It’s never too early to visit a college either! The vibe of a campus either matches your student's personality or it doesn’t. It’s easy to determine that after a campus visit.

Sophomore Year of High School

Continue to do the same things that you did in Freshman year

  • Focus on grades

  • Volunteer work

  • Think about interests and possible career

  • Campus visits

The other thing your student can do if they haven’t yet is to join clubs and get involved in activities during high school. Colleges love this, and they love it even more if an applicant creates a brand new club at their school! In your child’s sophomore year, they may also have the opportunity to take the PSAT. This test gives a super good indication of where your child shines and can help with finding any areas they need to improve. It is not a requirement for sophomores to take it and it is in their Junior year that students are considered for National Merit Scholarship.

Junior Year of High School

Here’s where the rubber meets the road! This year is the first of three years where your student may feel the most intense stress of their lives so far. Junior, Senior and then Freshman year of college are some of the most tumultuous years. My hope is that this guide will help you and your student know what to expect and alleviate some of that stress.

In the Junior year, do the same things as above, however this year add a couple of important items.

  • Take the PSAT

  • Take the SAT and/or the ACT

The main differences between the SAT and the ACT are as follows:

The SAT does not have a Science section, but the ACT does. The ACT gives less time per question than the SAT, so if your child reads more slowly or needs more time for comprehension, then the SAT is probably a better fit for them. I had heard at one point that the ACT was better suited if your child is more artistic than a STEM kid, so my oldest daughter took the ACT and called it good. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It does seem that there are some regional preferences as well. In Texas where we live, kids generally take the SAT. In the Northeast, more kids take the ACT. It probably doesn’t matter that much which one your child takes since colleges take scores from both of them. It may be best to take one and stick with that one. If you choose, your child may take an SAT or ACT test prep or you may use a tutor. These are all very effective and can raise your child’s score significantly. That could be the difference between getting in to their dream school or not. Keep in mind - these are basically college entrance exams. Think of them that way and take the prep seriously. There is a slow movement towards colleges going “test optional”, meaning they don’t need you to report your test scores, but that move is slow and may not be the case at your student’s dream school.

Keep an eye on grades - grades are very important all through high school, but in the junior year, they are super important. The reason for that is that your student is going to apply to college starting in November/December of their Senior year. The only transcripts your child’s school has to send the colleges are all of high school through Junior year. So 9th, 10th and 11th grade are the most important regarding grades. Senior year grades are important also, but for an entirely different reason that I will get into in a moment.

Lastly, begin to apply to schools - juniors in high school are able to apply to the school of their choice during the summer after their junior year, so once you’ve determined the schools of interest, check each college website carefully for the open application dates and take note for when the application closes for each school. This is a good time to get a calendar or use one on your computer to keep track of dates.

Find a way to keep track - my youngest applied to 11 colleges. We kept a spreadsheet with each school, all important dates and placed a date when they were sent paperwork such as transcripts or anything regarding financial aid. Many of those schools were a reach for her, but she wanted to try, so we also color-coded acceptances when we got them in. That spreadsheet was an easy way to check progress on each school and not get them confused. Some high schools may have a guidance counselor or a college counselor who instructs them to use Scoir. Scoir is a sharable online space where the school can update that they’ve sent transcripts and the student can update if they’ve heard back regarding admission or if the college reaches out to say that they need certain paperwork such as teacher recommendations. If your high school uses it, it can be a very helpful aid in communication.

Senior Year

This is it!

Finally, your child is graduating and moving on to an exciting future! During this year, your student will likely decide what they want to major in at college and where they’d like to attend. There’s a lot to cover during this quick year, so be sure to keep track of dates as best you can.

Grades - Keep doing all the things above. Grades become important this year because a college can rescind their offer of admission if a child does poorly their senior year. The college your child chooses to attend will ask for a mid-year and a final transcript for high school. They want students who are serious about their education, not kids who get into their dream school and then lose their mind during senior year.

Majors - If you’ve been talking together and paying attention to not only what they say, but what they don’t say, you will have a good idea what they’d like to major in at college. This is important because some majors are more competitive than others. There’s a cool little tool on where you can input your child’s scores, gpa, school choices, and major and see what their chances of admission are. Of course, this isn’t a fail-proof tool, but it is very interesting to change the major to see how your chances go up or down without changing anything else. Lastly, this is where the college admission gods may smile upon you - if the volunteering that your child has done for the last few years can correlate to their major, that is a win! If they also have a part time job that connects somehow, then that’s double points. I heard a very smart college counselor say that colleges don’t want a well rounded student, they actually want one who’s pretty flat, meaning that they appear to have had the same interest their entire school career. If they always wanted to be a veterinarian, they should work a part time job grooming dogs at the Petsmart and volunteer at the animal shelter. That’s what colleges are looking for - they want a theme, not a well-rounded individual who has tons of interests. Your child CAN have tons of interests, but the college needs to see only the things that serve that application well.


The following is a calendar of things to do for college admission. Please check the college’s website to determine actual dates for things. We've seen schools that accept applications no later than November 15th, and schools that accept them all the way into August. Also, check for dates for testing. The dates below are from last year and will not be the same this next year. Write all dates in your spreadsheet and in your personal calendar.

Spring/Summer of Senior Year

Research colleges at

Make your college list

Study for the SAT and/or ACT

Deadline June 22 - Register for the July ACT

Apply for summer volunteer opportunities

Create Common Application and Coalition Application and any state application that is applicable to your state

Make an appointment to meet with your college advisor

Deadline July 27 - Register for the August SAT


Start filling out applications and writing any required essays

If your application type has recommenders, invite those teachers and counselors ASAP

Deadline Sept 7 - Register for the October SAT (Many selective schools require that you take this SAT date or an earlier date)

Register for the October ACT

Start working on your college resume - save to Google Docs so that it’s easy to find and share

Research your college list, update list

Parents and Students apply for FSAID numbers for the FAFSA

Parents and Students order a previous year tax return transcript

Apply for Scholarships


Check your spreadsheet for any colleges whose apps are due in October

FAFSA and TASFA open on 10-1! Apply early for priority in financial aid!

Male students register for selective service

Deadline October 5 - Register for the November SAT

Begin CSS Profile for schools that require it (school websites will tell you on their financial aid page)

Begin to send test scores to selective schools and schools where they are due -

Apply for Scholarships


Priority app deadline for selective schools 11-1

EA/ED apps due 11-1

November 2 - Register for December SAT

November 3 - Register for December ACT

Submit verification documents for Financial aid when needed

Have someone look over your college resume

Work on Apps due December 1

UC apps due 11-30

Apply for Scholarships


Apps due - December 1 - check your spreadsheet

Keep track of all documents due and dates - check spreadsheet everyday to make sure you are on track

Apply for Scholarships


Register for Feb ACT

Use applicant portals to make sure colleges have everything they need for admission and financial aid

Mid Year reports and transcripts due to colleges

Financial Aid Follow-up

Complete CSS profile for schools that require it (usually private schools)

Apply for Scholarships


Deadline 2-8 - register for the March SAT

Financial Aid Follow-up

Complete CSS Profile - final deadlines are in February!

Register and take TSI (if applicable)

Apply for Scholarships


Deadline March 15 - FAFSA and TASFA - Priority deadline in my state - check your own and put it on your calendar to be sure

Register for the April ACT

Keep track of all acceptances via spreadsheet

Apply for Scholarships


Deadline 4-5 - Register for the May SAT

College Application follow up - check portals and email regularly to ensure that schools have what they need

Financial Aid Follow-up/Submit verification docs

Apply for Scholarships


Choose your school!

Pay deposit and sign up for orientation

Follow up with University of your choice about orientation and housing for the fall.

Get your meningitis shot and/or submit documentation to your college

Apply for Scholarships


Financial Aid

Aid is different depending on whether your chosen school is a public school or a private one. Your college/university website can detail all of this. At a public school, there are scholarships, grants and student loans. At a private school, they tend to give more aid than public schools, which is meant to defray the cost difference between the two. Private schools can be very generous when it comes to tuition and other costs. I will guide you through what that looks like and how to get the most aid you can.

At public colleges/universities, applying for financial aid is pretty straightforward. Head over to each school’s website to apply for financial aid that is unique to that school. Here you will find interest-based aid, as well as aid within your student’s chosen major. Apply to as many of those as fit your situation. Some may require essays. Here is a good reason to write college app essays early rather than late in the process. Your student will likely get burned out on writing essays, even if they enjoy writing. If they begin writing their college application essays as soon as they start Senior year, they won’t be as burnt out. Also, they should apply for financial aid at all of the schools they are applying for, not just the one they want to attend. Many times, the total financial aid picture can help sway a student in an unexpected direction. Lastly, the college/university will usually offer admission and details of your student’s aid package at the same time. This means that once you see that your student has been admitted to XYZ University, you will also know how much it will cost to go there. Your aid letter will include info from the FAFSA and any other aid your student will receive.

If your student is applying to private colleges/universities, the information they need is a bit more involved, but if you have the forms and papers you need, it should be a breeze. In my calendar, I mention the CSS profile. This is the profile you will create for private schools. Each school has different requirements, so pay special attention to that. Generally, they want proof of your most recent tax forms (both parent and student) and any other back up data. The easiest way to get this info to them is to upload scanned docs. You can either use a scanning app on your phone or scan them from a printer. The reason they need these documents is that they are taking a closer look at your financial picture than the FAFSA will. Do you have other students in college? Do you have extended family members living with you? The questions here aren’t meant to get into your business, but they help private schools offer as much money as you are entitled to for financial aid.

There are so many forms of financial aid to attend college, and aid goes unused each year. Check into if your employer provides any grants or scholarships for your student. If your student has been very involved in certain activities or volunteering, or even employment, they may offer financial aid. My daughter works at Starbucks and they offer free college to all of their employees, even part time employees! The college is an on-line university, but if that’s what your student would like to do, it’s available to them!


This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of “things to do” to get into college, however it should get you on the right path when applying. I had never heard of the CSS profile until one of our college websites said they were waiting for that! The purpose of this guide is help you to be ready for anything that a school may ask you for and to keep your household calm during these busy but fun years in high school. Like anything else, it goes so fast and you wonder how everything will get done. I am now less than a month away from my last daughter leaving and going to live at her dorm. At the end of our process, she got to choose between 6 schools. She ended up choosing to go to a school that is only 30 minutes away from home (she was accepted at one that was across the nation, so whew!). I am proud of both of my daughters and their accomplishments. I know you are proud of yours too.

Remember my little pep talk I gave you at the beginning of this guide? Well, keep your eyes focused on that and just know that it’s all gonna be ok. Each of us has our own journey, and your student’s journey will likely look different than yours. Trust them to make good decisions about their future and to come and talk to you when they feel unsure. No matter how things have looked in the last couple of years, they still value your opinion and want you to be proud. Have fun and let me know how this guide has helped you! I’d love to know where your students decided to go to college too. Drop me a line at and let me know your progress!

Cheers friends!