written by
Lily Xu

Preparing Your Senior Year Fall Checklist

Community Advisor Tips applications senior year 12 min read
senior year fall checklist written on graph paper with pen by student
Photographer: Glenn Carstens-Peters | Source: UnsplashPhotographer: Glenn Carstens-Peters | Source: Unsplash

In this publication, Admissions Expert Lily gives a thorough senior year checklist for students applying to colleges in the fall. For more guidance on how to prepare for college applications, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Senior Year: Introduction

If you’re starting your senior year, congrats! Senior year can be both an exciting and stressful time. To stay on track, follow this college application checklist and have a great senior year.

Senior Year Checklist Essentials

Let’s start with the essentials. Some parts of your checklist will be time-sensitive, so these are the things you should check for first:

Letters of Recommendation (LORs)

Our LOR Checklist:

  1. College Counselor Letter
  2. STEM Teacher Letter
  3. Humanities Teacher Letter
  4. (Optional) Supplemental Letter

Understanding LORs:

You will typically apply to colleges with 3-4 letters of recommendation. These include a letter from your college counselor, two letters from teachers, and sometimes an optional letter from a coach, supervisor, or other extracurricular leader.

If you’re a current or rising senior, ask for LORs as early as possible! If you’re a current junior, start asking teachers toward the end of your spring semester.

Talk to your college counselor about how teachers submit LORs at your school. Ask them whether they are willing to write you a counselor letter and what information they would like you to prepare to help them write it. If you go to a large school where your college counselor advises many students, it can be extremely helpful to provide information like a resume or brag sheet to help make your letter more personal. Additionally, ask your college counselor if your school has an internal deadline for teachers to submit their LORs and where your teachers should upload their finished letters.

Teacher Recommendations

In addition to your counselor letter, your teacher LORs will have a major impact on your application. Think about which teachers know you best, and choose two to write letters on your behalf - one teacher in STEM (e.i. Science, Math, Computer Science, etc.) and one teacher in the humanities (English, History, Foreign Language, the Arts, etc.). Ask your teacher what further information they might need to help them make your letter as strong as possible. Some teachers may specifically ask for a resume or brag sheet. They might also ask you to fill out a questionnaire to elaborate on your experiences with them. If your school does not have an internal deadline for submitting teacher LORs, encourage your recommenders to submit your letters by mid-October. This will allow you to meet any early (Early Action or Early Decision) deadlines.

Finally, you may opt to include an optional supplemental letter. This letter may come from people affiliated with your school. For example, you may ask an athletic coach, school counselor, etc. Other options include people from activities outside of school: research advisor, internship mentor, employer, etc. Check that your recommender understands the expectations and gauge their interest in writing a letter. Remember, as an optional letter, this addition to your teacher LORs will not likely make or break your application. However, if you choose to include it, make sure it will add depth and dimension to your application. As a quick word of caution, family members should not write this letter!

Recommendation Timeline

The absolute latest that you should ask for letters of recommendation is around four weeks before a given application is due. If you’re applying early (Early Action or Early Decision), your applications will be due at the start of November. This means you should ask no later than October. If you’re applying Regular Decision for all of your schools, your applications will be due at the end of December and start of January, so you should ask no later than November or December. Keep in mind that recommendation letters take time to write, so you should give your letter writers as much time as possible. Additionally, some deadlines may be moved up earlier if you’re planning to apply to scholarships, so you should note these deadlines early and confer them to your letter writers.

If you already asked for your recommendation letters during your junior year—great job getting this done early! As you start your senior year, it can be great to reconnect with your letter writers—let them know how your summer went and what you’re excited about this year. Keeping in touch throughout your senior year can help you continue a positive relationship with them.

Want an in-depth look at the recommendation letter process? We’ve got FAQs from a former Admissions Officer!

Standardized Testing

Our Standardized Testing Checklist:

  1. Decide whether to take the SAT or ACT
  2. Register for the SAT or ACT

Understanding Standardized Testing

With many colleges staying test-optional for the 2021-2022 application cycle, standardized testing may have a lower priority in your checklist compared to previous application years. If you decide to take the SAT or ACT, whether for the first time or as a retake, this may fall on your checklist.

With registration deadlines approaching, you should first decide whether you plan to take standardized tests this fall. This may depend on your time commitments for the fall and how much a test score would add to your application. If you don’t know whether to take a standardized test, think about your fall plans. Would you be able to earn a high score with your other commitments? Will test prep take away from other commitments you have this fall, such as your schoolwork, extracurriculars, and college applications?

Next, if you plan to take the SAT or ACT, you should register for your exams to set a date for your test(s).

Standardized Test Dates

If you’re applying early, your applications will be due at the start of November, so you must take your standardized tests by October. Here are your options:

  • September 11th, 2021 ACT exam
  • Standby deadline: September 3rd, 2021
  • October 2nd, 2021 SAT exam
    • Registration deadline: September 3rd, 2021
    • Late registration deadline: September 21st, 2021

If you’re applying Regular Decision, your applications will be due in late December or early January, so you must take your standardized tests by December. Here are your options:

  • November 6th, 2021 SAT exam
    • Registration deadline: October 8th, 2021
    • Late registration deadline: October 26th, 2021
  • October 23rd, 2021 ACT exam
    • Registration deadline: September 17th, 2021
    • Late registration deadline: October 1st, 2021
    • Standby deadline: October 15th, 2021
  • December 4th, 2021 SAT exam
    • Registration deadline: November 4th, 2021
    • Late registration deadline: November 23rd, 2021
  • December 11th, 2021 ACT exam
    • Registration deadline: November 5th, 2021
    • Late registration deadline: November 19th, 2021
    • Standby deadline: December 3rd, 2021

It’s important to decide whether or not you’ll be applying Early or Regular Decision. Need a little more information on these options? Check out this article.

Senior Year School List

Our School List Checklist:

  1. Start an initial school list
  2. Do school research
  3. Cut your list down to 8-14 schools

Understanding School Lists:

At the start of your fall semester, you should draft an initial school list. This list will change throughout your application process, so don’t worry if it starts out too long or too short! As you continue to delve into the application process, you will learn more about what schools might be the right fit for you.

A finalized school list should have 8-14 schools. These belong to the categories Safety, Match, or Reach:

  • 2-4 Safety Schools
  • 3-5 Match Schools
  • 3-5 Reach schools

These numbers and categories may change based on your personal situation. For instance, if your state school has guaranteed acceptance criteria, you might include fewer safety schools; if you’re applying to pre-professional programs like BS/MD programs, you may have a longer list with more reach schools since these programs may be more competitive.

Building Your School List

As your senior year goes on, you can tweak your list, even while you’re working on your college essays. As you decide to add and remove schools, continue your research. Look for virtual events like open houses, college panels, and virtual college tours that schools may be hosting. You should also read about opportunities and activities that make schools unique and seek out current students who can give you an insider look at the schools you’re considering.

Ideally, you should aim to start your senior fall with an initial college list—this is something that you can start on today! As you finalize your list, consider whether you are interested in early admissions cycles. If you have a clear top choice school, you may choose to apply Early Decision, which is binding. If you’re interested in a large number of schools, you may apply under the non-binding Early Action program.

As your school list comes together, add additional details—deadlines for early applications, deadlines for scholarships, what you like or dislike about the school, and more. This will help you later as you organize your application timeline and write your supplemental essays.

For more help choosing colleges, check out our previous article, “Finding Balance: Picking a Great List of Colleges”

College Essays

Our College Essay Checklist:

  1. Start your personal statement
  2. Preview your supplemental essays

Understanding College Essays:

Going into your fall semester, it’s time to start drafting your college essays. This starts with your CommonApp personal statement!

Opening a blank document to start your personal statement can be a daunting task, so you may choose to start by brainstorming and power writing. To brainstorm what topic to choose for your personal statement, consider the things you enjoy most or the activities, people, places, or things that hold great significance in your life. You might think of things like extracurriculars, family and culture, or key experiences that define your personality.

Next, power write by choosing a topic and setting a timer for 20 minutes. Writing continuously—don’t delete or read what you’ve read. If you struggle to write continuously for the full 20 minutes, then this might not be the best topic for your personal statement. If you feel like you want to keep writing, feel free to continue and see where your draft goes, or go back and see if there are moments that you can turn into an essay. Once you’ve completed these tasks, congrats—you’ve started on your personal statement!

Supplemental Essays

In addition to your personal statement, which will get sent to all schools you apply to with the Common App or Coalition App, you will write several supplemental essays. These will be sent to individual schools on your list. At first glance, this looks like a lot of essays, but don’t fret! If, for example, you apply to 10 schools, each of which has 4 supplemental essays, you won’t be writing 40 individual essays! Instead, as you finalize your school list, compile the supplemental essay prompts that each school asks for and organize the prompts by similarity. Some essays will have similar prompts, allowing you to recycle your essay drafts. If you plan to recycle your essay drafts, it can be helpful to write longer drafts first. You can then cut your draft down to fit each school’s unique word limit.

At the start of your senior fall, focus first on the personal statement. Then, move on to your supplemental essays as you revise your personal statement. While you write, you can check out essay examples to plan what supplemental essay prompts you want to work on next. This can help you start brainstorming for upcoming essays.

Need more tips on writing a great essay? We’ve got “39 Essay Tips from CollegeAdvisor.com’s Admissions Experts!”

Application Portals

Application Portal Checklist:

  1. Make a Common App and/or Coalition App Account
  2. Fill out basic account information (might need help from a family member)

Understanding Application Portals:

Any time after August 1st, 2021, you can create your accounts on all application portals. These could include accounts for the Common App, Coalition App, UC Apply, ApplyTexas, and more.

When you create your account, you don’t need to fill out everything right away. If you’re curious about what information will be needed to complete your application, this is a great time to explore the application portals. For some pages, it will be helpful to have a parent or guardian alongside you to fill out sections about your personal information and family. You can also use your account to add the schools you plan to apply to, previewing supplemental essay prompts as you add schools.

Senior Year Activities List

Activities List Checklist:

  1. Brainstorm up to 10 activities
  2. Brainstorm up to 5 awards/honors

Understanding the Activities List:

After you create your accounts on each application portal, you can preview the exact format of your activities list. For the Common App, you can add a maximum of 10 activities and 5 awards/honors. As you look at the character limits, you can brainstorm what exact activities you want to include in your final list. Remember that you do not necessarily need to fill all 10 spots. Be sure to include all activities and commitments, including work or family responsibilities.

Extracurriculars are an important part of your application. For more resources on how to build and discuss your extracurriculars, check out our existing articles.

Talk to your Family

Family Checklist:

  1. Discuss expectations for the college application process
  2. Discuss your family’s financial situation

Understanding Families and College Admissions:

The college application process can place stress on you and your family. Throughout this process, maintain a clear line of communication. When start thinking about college, consider including your family in a conversation about expectations. How much help do you want from your family members? How often do you want to talk about college applications? Do you want your family members to read your essays?

You should also plan a conversation with your parent or guardian about your family’s financial situation. How much can your parent or guardian contribute to your education? What is your budget for your college tuition? Your unique financial situation may lead you to adjust your school list—perhaps you add additional schools that will offer you in-state tuition, need-based financial aid packages, or merit-based aid. If you are applying for financial aid through the FAFSA or CSS Profile, this is a great time to tell your family about financial aid deadlines. The application portals for financial aid open on October 1st, 2021. Aid is distributed on a rolling first-come, first-serve basis, so your family should fill these out as soon as possible.

Paying for school can be a huge source of stress for families. To help, we’ve de-mystified the process with our financial aid FAQs.

Senior Year Checklist Extras

There are some items that may be optional for your applications. These include:

  1. Resume or Brag Sheet: Your recommendation letter writers may request one to supplement the letter that they will write.
  2. Supplemental Files: If you plan to submit an art portfolio, research supplement, or other supplemental materials, start preparing these early so you have ample time to work on them.
  3. Email Address for College Apps: You may choose to create a new email address to organize your college applications. Consider doing this if you want to separate your college emails from your personal emails.

If you have completed most of these items, you’re in good shape for your senior year! Good luck!


This article on what to include on your checklist for the fall of your senior year was written by Lily Xu, Washington University in St. Louis ‘20. If you want to get help with your college applications from Lily or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

senior year college applications checklist