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    When Should I Apply to College?

    By Emily Wong

    Emily Wong is a writer at Scholarships360. She’s worked as a social media manager and a content writer at several different startups, where she covered various topics including business, tech, job recruitment, and education. Emily grew up and went to school in the Chicago suburbs, where she studied economics and journalism at Northwestern University.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: November 28th, 2023
    When Should I Apply to College?

    The college application process can feel overwhelming at times. In addition to finalizing a list of schools to apply to, you’ll also have to worry about writing essays and collecting supplemental materials. On top of that, varying deadlines can also leave you wondering, “When should I apply for college?” Let’s talk about how to prioritize your college application responsibilities for a stress-free senior year.

    Types of college deadlines

    College deadlines vary widely based on the type of application you submit. Let’s go over the four main types of application and how to approach them.

    Early decision

    Ideally, students applying early decision (ED) will want to do all of their research beforehand. Unlike with other types of applications, ED is a binding agreement. This means that if you’re accepted to the school, you’re promising to attend. Additionally, if you’ve received any other acceptances or submitted any other applications, you must contact the schools to withdraw them.

    Most early decision deadlines fall around early November or December. That way, students can hear back by mid-December or January. Some schools also have an Early Decision II deadline in early January. While ED II is still binding, it allows students more time before the deadline to prepare their applications and hear back from other schools. Students should consider how early decision and financial aid work before applying ED.

    Early action

    Early action (EA) is similar to ED, except that it’s not binding. In other words, if you get accepted to a school that you applied to EA, you don’t necessarily have to attend. If you want, you can just put the acceptance letter in a drawer and wait to decide until May 1.

    EA deadlines typically fall somewhere between November and January. However, if you miss the early deadline, you can usually just apply to the regular deadline. The only difference is that you won’t hear back until later. For that reason, you’ll want to start your EA applications around the same time or a little bit later than ED.

    See also: Everything you need to know about Early Decision and Early Action.

    Rolling admissions

    While other types of applications send out decisions to all applicants around the same time, rolling applications allow students to hear back shortly after applying on a “rolling basis.” Rolling admissions schools are constantly accepting applicants throughout the year. Therefore, the process may get more selective as the next class fills up. For this reason, many recommend putting your rolling applications at the top of your priority list in order to get an early bird advantage.

    Regular decision

    Regular decision (RD) applications have the latest deadlines out of all other types. While they can span a range, RD deadlines usually fall around January or February. Students typically hear back around March or April, giving them about a month to make their final decisions.

    Although RD applications should fall at the bottom of your priority list, don’t be fooled into putting them off for too long. Between homework and finals, you probably won’t have as much time in the second semester as you think.

    Missed the college application deadline? Here’s what you can do

    Making a college application timeline

    When applying to college, you’ll want to consider the key components of your applications. Then, you can plan out when to tackle each part instead of saving it all for the last minute.

    Standardized tests

    ACT and SAT scores are a significant part of college admissions decisions. Most students start testing in the winter or spring of junior year. However, it can take a few tries to get the score that you want, and some students may take a test in the summer leading up to senior year. If that’s you, don’t stress. Just remember that ACT and SAT scores can take between 2-8 weeks to come back. Therefore, you’ll want to aim to be completely finished with testing by August of senior year.

    As you prepare for your standardized tests, it’s important to find a great tutor. If you’re still trying to schedule your standardized tests, check out this list of ACT test dates.

    Also see: When should I take my SAT/ACT?

    Letters of recommendation

    Many college applications request a letter of recommendation. In this document, a teacher or counselor will express to the admissions committee why you’re a great applicant and will fit in well at the institution.

    Since teachers often receive a lot of requests for recommendations, you’ll want to ask them well in advance. Many students will even give their teachers a heads up at the end of junior year. Then, you can give them all of the details about a month before their earliest deadline.

    See also: How to ask for a letter of recommendation for college and scholarships.

    Essays

    For many students, one of the most daunting components of the college application is the essay portion. Although most writing components range from 250-650 words, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to revise and edit before submitting. If you have a college counselor, they can also offer useful feedback.

    To make sure you’ll have enough time to perfect your essays, you can start brainstorming during the summer before senior year. In fact, the Common App, which is used by over 700 institutions, typically releases its prompts well in advance of the college application season. We have a guide to help you through answering each of those prompts as effectively as possible.

    College application deadlines can be hard to keep up with, especially if you’re applying to EA, ED or rolling admissions. However, if you stay on top of the main pieces and prioritize earlier deadlines, it can be manageable. Good luck on your applications!

    Don’t miss: When should I start my college search?

    So, when should I apply for college?

    Now that you know about the different types of deadlines and the things to consider leading up to your application submission, let’s dive into the big question: When should you apply for college?

    Applying to schools with firm deadlines

    In most cases, it’s a good idea to send in your application in the days or weeks preceding the deadline. Whether you are applying Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision, this helps you take advantage of as much time as possible in fine-tuning your application. And you won’t receive any penalty for submitting it close to the deadline as long as you don’t end up submitting it too late.

    But remember – just because you are holding your application until close to the deadline, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started early! The earlier you get started, the better your essays will turn out and the easier it will be to secure letters of recommendation.

    Applying to schools with Rolling Admissions

    If you are applying to a school with Rolling Admissions, it’s usually a good idea to send in your application on the earlier side. This can improve your chances of admission and of receiving good financial aid. Don’t rush out your essays to the point of submitting mediocre work, but also don’t hold them off for too long.

    Frequently asked questions about when you should apply to college

    Do colleges penalize me if I turn in my application on the due date?

    Colleges generally do not factor in the date when you turned in your application in their admissions decisions. Although the submission date may appear on your forms, there is no clear incentive for colleges to take it into account; they do not encourage students to apply as soon as they can, only before the deadline.

    So, unless the college is rolling admissions or says it prioritizes applications turned in early, don’t fret. In fact, it may be a good idea to wait so that you can give yourself more time to review the application. Oftentimes, it can be helpful to step away from an essay for a month and then re-review it, as the distance will help you notice changes to make that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

    Do colleges prefer students who apply early?

    Colleges typically do not care one way or another if a student sends in a Regular Decision application earlier than the deadline. The only factors that will matter are that it was turned in on time and that it was sent as a Regular Decision application.

    When it comes to Early Action and Early Decision, however, it is a different story. Generally, applying Early Decision does help your chances of admission by showing your devotion to the school and ensuring that you will attend if accepted.

    The consensus is less general when it comes to Early Action. Some argue that it helps admissions chances, some say it has no effect, and others even argue that it can be detrimental. At the end of the day, it seems like applying Early Action does not have any great advantage or disadvantage over Regular Decision. The main difference lies in the fact that you will get a decision back quicker from the college.

    Can I apply for a college past the deadline?

    Generally speaking, colleges do not accept applications past their regular deadline. However, as with all things, there are exceptions to the rule, and if you are in a situation where you want to apply to a school whose deadline has already passed, it can never hurt to email the admissions office inquiring if they would accept your application.

    That being said, you shouldn’t get your hopes up. If you’re in a situation where you want to apply to more schools and the main deadlines have already come and gone, try checking out our list of schools with late application deadlines.

    When is the earliest I can apply for college?

    Each college has its own date at which it begins accepting applications; they are typically in August and September. So, any time after they open submissions, you can technically apply for college. However, keep in mind that at colleges with firm deadlines, there is no advantage to submitting your application early.

    You may be better-off waiting until closer to the deadline to give you as much time as possible to fine-tune your essays, improve your SAT/ACT scores, and secure great letters of recommendation. 

    You won’t get your application decision back any earlier if you submit your application early, nor will you be at an advantage over those who turn theirs in later. That being said, if you are applying to a school with rolling admissions, it is absolutely advantageous to turn in your application early. Though you should still take your time to fine-tune your essays, don’t wait for any deadline to turn in these applications.

    What month is best to apply for college?

    This is a tough question to answer, as it varies by student. If you are applying for Regular Decision, Early Decision, or Early Action, the best time to submit your application is usually right around the deadline. If you are applying for Rolling Admissions, try to finish your application early-on in your senior year and submit it as close to the opening date as you can, without compromising the quality of your essays and letters of recommendation.

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