The College Research Timeline and Paid Search

For a high school student, choosing where they want to attend college is likely the most difficult and important decision of their lives to date. Between location, size, cost, available aid, and programs offered, there are many factors that need to be considered before a decision is made. For many, this process begins years before the student steps foot on campus on move-in day. Therefore, marketers for undergraduate colleges and universities need to be cognizant of this fact and be able to tailor their paid search efforts based on the time of year. Let’s take a look at what milestones you should be aware of throughout the year and how your paid search program should adjust accordingly.

Timeline Milestones

While each student’s process and each college’s deadlines are different, most follow similar patterns. I have developed a baseline off which a paid search program can be developed.

Junior Year

  • Fall
    • Begin researching schools
    • Plan for/begin to schedule ACT/SAT exams
  • Spring
    • Take SAT/ACT
    • Continue research including beginning college campus visits

Senior Year

  • Summer
    • Plan for the application process; students should have a good idea of what schools that they want to apply to including their deadlines as well as what is needed for the application
  • Typical Deadlines
    • The Common App (used by over 500 universities nationwide) goes live August 1st for the following years’ enrollment
    • Schools that offer early action/early decision have application deadlines usually between November 1st-November 15th
    • “Regular” admission deadlines are typically between January 1st-February 1st
    • Rolling admission deadlines are usually by May 1st but most schools with this type of admission recommend getting applications in by March 1st
  • Spring
    • Students review the acceptances they have received to work towards making a decision
    • Students work to secure financial aid

Many universities require enrollment (not just application) by May 1st

What Needs to Be Adjusted?


Having messaging revolving around where students are in their research process is crucial to their user experience. This applies to your ad copy, calls to action, as well as the content of your landing pages. While your pages may have all of the pertinent information a student needs to make a decision, not directing them toward the ideal part of that information may be confusing or overwhelming. For example, try creating a content feature around your school’s financial aid opportunities in February.           

Budget and Goals

Consider applying your heaviest search spending between August and December when the most research and applying is being done by seniors. Display efforts, however, are good for branding year round. They will likely be very impactful in the spring when the audience for college research is juniors just beginning their research process. Having a clear understanding of your goals for each part of the research life cycle will allow you to plan your budget effectively.

Paying attention to the college research timeline is your first step toward effective paid search spending and lead acquisition. What techniques do you use?

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