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When to Apply to College

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When Are You Supposed to Apply to College?

College brings an incredible range of life experiences. Classrooms and lecture halls provide you with the personnel and instruction to support your ongoing education. At the same time, campus life allows you to expand your social circles and learn more about your passions and interests. However, reaching that point does require an extensive process of applying.

While getting transcripts, recommendation letters, SAT scores, and other materials while figuring out how to choose your major comes with stress, knowing the “right time” to apply for college dictates when you should get started. Learn more about when to apply for college below.

When Do College Applications Open?

One of the factors that make applying for college confusing is that application dates and admissions procedures can vary from school to school. The broader timelines are thankfully the same because most colleges open their applications around the same period. The exact application dates, an application fee, the methods for sending application materials, and final application deadlines can keep you guessing.

Some colleges have implemented systems to allow for an easier, more uniform application process. The Common Application essentially provides one easy application system for nearly 900 different schools throughout the country. For all Common App schools, applications open on August 1st.

Schools within the University of California system use their own shared college admission platform. The University of California Application opens on August 1st, but prospective students can only file applications from November 1st to November 30th. This means that you can access and adjust your application at your leisure for three months, if you want to change one of your ideal areas of study for example, but you can only apply in November.

Similarly, most public universities in Texas use the ApplyTexas application platform. These applications open July 1st, which is sooner than most other application systems.

On top of these, you may also encounter other application platforms, like the Universal College Application and the Coalition Application. With the latter, colleges choose their own application opening dates. In general, you can expect applications to open some time from late summer to fall.

Application Deadlines

As mentioned, an application deadline can vary based on the school and its most popular majors. While submission periods usually open around August, deadlines to apply are generally in the winter. These deadlines can get even more tricky when you factor in the early decision and early action deadlines. Early decision and early action essentially allow you to apply early and receive notifications of acceptance earlier than regular decision dates. Early decision programs are a single choice and usually require a commitment, meaning that if you receive an acceptance, you are required to agree to attend that school. Early action programs, on the other hand, are not binding. 

Early decision is usually broken up into ED-I and ED-II. ED-I programs have earlier deadlines than ED-II programs. The deadline for ED-I programs is generally  in early November, while ED-II deadlines are typically in late December. Regular decision application deadlines are typically in January.

This does not apply to all schools or application platforms. For example, the University of California Application program does not offer early decision or early action programs. The filing period for all applications is November 1st to November 30th.

When Should You Start Your Applications?

The exact process will vary from student to student based on a whole host of factors, on top of the actual application deadlines for schools that you are interested in. Most educators and administrators recommend starting your application process in the summer preceding senior year for most students.

While you generally don’t need to rush anything, it doesn’t hurt to get started as early as possible, especially if you have early decision schools that you want to apply to. Students can underestimate the time commitments necessary to writing essays, gathering recommendation letters, polishing up resumes, and getting together all of the required documents. When you factor in your regular schoolwork and duties outside of class, things can quickly get out of hand.

Even if you do not apply for early decision or early action programs, getting your applications done can be a huge weight off your shoulders. If you have a longer list of schools that you want to apply to, getting started early allows you to invest plenty of time in each admission application instead of rushing to get all of them done to meet the deadlines. That will only contribute to burnout and potential mistakes in your applications.

What to Include

Your exact timeline might be different depending on the different variations of bachelor degrees or something different. If you need a place to start your application planning, here is a general timeline for when to get your admission application ready.

Letters of Recommendation

Most college applications will ask for two to three letters of recommendation from counselors or teachers who know you well and can speak to your skills, educational awareness, and potential. The good news is that you do not have to do much work here, but that bad news is that you have to rely on someone else. Some teachers may cap the number of letters of recommendation they will write for students.

Regardless of who you ask, you generally want to give your teachers plenty of time to write the letter. It would not be courteous to ask (or necessarily feasible) for a letter of recommendation one week before the deadline. Ideally, you want to approach your teachers or counselors for letters by the end of your junior year or during the summer, which gives them plenty of time to think about and craft a solid letter speaking to your strengths. At the latest, you should ask at the beginning of your senior year. Check-in periodically and provide any extra information that they might need.

SAT/ACT Scores

You should take the SAT or ACT at least once in your junior year, though most students take it twice, once in the fall, once in the spring. This gives you potentially one more opportunity to take the SAT or ACT in the fall of your senior year.

Personal Essay

Most schools release college essay prompts a few months before application periods even open. That usually means you can start drafting your essay in the summer. You generally want to give yourself a good two to three months to work on your college essay, allowing for several rounds of edits.

Activity List

Most college applications allow you to create an activity list, which gives you the chance to show off your extracurricular activities and scholarly achievements in a few short sentences. This can help round out the image you want to convey to college admissions and build you out beyond your grades and test scores. While some students leave this to the last minute, your activity list can be as time-consuming as any other step in your application process. Much like the essay, this can take a few rounds of editing and polish. 

Prioritizing Applications

The more schools you apply to, the more cumulative time you need to spend on the college application process. Each of your applications deserves plenty of time and work, but knowing how to prioritize applications can help to simplify the order of operations.

Prioritize your early decision or early action schools first. These tend to have much earlier application deadlines, so make these the first applications that you work on. Look at the deadlines for the other schools on your list and focus on when the applications are due the soonest. Try to spread out your time so that you aren’t working on everything all at once. Starting early can be a big help with that.

Applying for college comes with plenty of its stressors, but as long as you plan and stay on top of important dates, you should have no problem applying well within your deadlines.

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