In one sense, you start your college applications as soon as you begin high school: your grades, activities, and relationships with teachers start counting that first day of ninth grade, so make them as strong as possible.
You will also want to make sure you are fulfilling the course and test requirements for college applications well before the fall of your senior year. For example, many schools are looking for four years of science courses, at least two years of foreign language courses, and so on. Keep this in mind as you choose your high school classes from ninth grade on.
As for standardized tests, you’ll need to take the SAT or ACT with enough time to retest, just in case.
We recommend taking your first SAT or ACT in the winter of your junior year, which means you should start studying for the test the summer before your junior year. Also, most competitive colleges require two or three SAT II subject tests. The best time to take these is right after you’ve taken the class in school (ie, take the physics subject test right after you’ve finished honors or AP physics), so that the material is still fresh in your mind.
You can (and should) also start thinking about your college list early in your junior year.
See our post on how to choose the right school for you in order to narrow down your list, and consider visiting these campuses in the spring or summer of your junior year.
When it comes actual application paperwork, here’s the deal: you can’t start filling out the Common Application (which the majority of US schools use) until its yearly release on August 1st.
However, you can start working on your personal statement and supplemental essays (in a general way) at any time during the year, or even any time during high school. The Common App publishes its personal statement topics well before they open their platforms for applications. Try brainstorming ideas for one or more of these prompts, and get a headstart on your essay writing. See here for our ideas on how to get started.
The supplemental essays—while they vary widely from school to school and year to year—tend to ask about your fit with the school in specific terms, such as “Why is our school a good match for you?” or “What about our school attracts you?” Other questions may ask about the most meaningful book you read in the past year, or how you would introduce yourself to your future roommates. What you can do before these questions are released each admissions season (usually around August 1st) is research your target schools, intended majors, and potential professors to make a list of the exact reasons you feel each school is a match for your personality, interests, and abilities. Keep a journal. Write notes about books you read, movies you see, and experiences you have, and record their impact on you and what you’ve learned through them. Thinking about how you’d introduce yourself to your future roommates will also help you articulate your personality and values in your personal statement, so it’s not a waste to do this now.
Finally, if you are a junior, ask your most trusted teachers and mentors for recommendations as early as possible.
Don’t wait until the fall of your senior year to do so. The new Common App also accepts non-academic recommendations in addition to the two required teacher recommendations, so think about coaches, mentors, religious leaders, and other supervisors, and what important aspects of your story they can highlight for the admissions committees.