When Should I Apply to College? The Complete Guide

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College applications are complex. They have a lot of moving parts, and the work necessary to complete them properly, especially when you are applying to a list of 10-15 schools, can add up quickly.

If you want to avoid as much stress as possible during a process that can be, admittedly, extremely stressful and exhausting, you need to plan ahead.

But chances are, you haven’t applied to college before, so knowing when you should tackle which piece of the application can be difficult.

Luckily, we have compiled this handy guide for when you should begin each part of the process!

When are college application deadlines?

Keeping your deadlines straight is integral to staying ahead of your college application. Keep the list of deadlines below in mind when you are planning out your approach. 

Remember, each school is unique and you should check their website to confirm their exact application deadlines.

Early Action

The most common deadlines for early action (non-binding, more on that later) applications are November 1st or November 15th. They can also sometimes be before or after November, so check your school’s website. Decisions are often delivered in December.

Early Decision

Similar to early action, early decision (binding, more on that later) deadlines normally hit around November, but, again, that deadline can vary from school to school. Decisions are often delivered in December. Some schools have begun offering a second early decision deadline (Early Decision II), often in early January.

University of California (UC)

The UC school system has a fairly unique deadline.  You can submit applications any time from November 1st to 30th. Decisions aren’t normally released until March.

Regular Decision

For regular decisions, the deadline usually comes in January. January 1st is a common deadline, but it can range throughout the month, and even sometimes into February or as early as December. Again, check your specific school. Decisions usually arrive in March or April.

Rolling Admission

Some schools offer rolling admission, which is usually a range of dates over several months during which you can apply at any time. No specific deadline, but a range during which you can submit your application. Also, the sooner you apply, the sooner you will receive your decision.

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When should I start my Common Application personal statement?

Earlier than you think.

The Common Application personal statement is incredibly important for your application.

Depending on your ability, a 650-word essay might not seem that difficult. More than likely, you have written essays for your English class that were longer. However, its relatively short length may actually be one of the reasons it requires so much attention.

*Check out the Common Application essay prompts here.*

Think about it, another applicant might have the exact same GPA as you, or the same test scores—on a graph, you could look exactly the same as other potential candidates for admission.  

The personal statement is one of the only places on the application where you are in complete control of your narrative. A good essay will reveal parts of your experience and personality that simply cannot be captured in any other way on your application.

In just 650 words, you need to perfectly encapsulate your identity in a way that convinces your potential school that you are the right candidate–student–person to add to their student body. Simple, right?

With that in mind, you want to be able to write, and rewrite, until you have an essay that can meet those expectations. Then, when you think you have it finished, show it to people. Show your parents, show your friends, show your teachers, show anyone who you think will be able to give you valuable constructive feedback. 

Finally, take all that feedback, and apply it to your draft (just remember not to lose your voice in all the feedback—you are the one your schools are interested in). Rinse and repeat until you think it could not possibly be any better.

This process takes time.

Taking into account all the brainstorming, outlining, writing, and rewriting that is necessary, you should give yourself at least three months. However, starting as early as February is recommended, as it would greatly increase the chances that you write something unique and memorable.

When should I start my early action and early decision applications?

Predictably, both early action and early decision deadlines push your start time a few months earlier compared to a regular decision application. 

But what are early action and early decision?

  • Early Action is a non-binding early application deadline for some colleges that can be a great way to show your interest, and your application, to a college before its regular decision period. They are normally offered without restrictions, meaning you can apply early action to several schools (however, some schools offer a restricted early action that limits the number of other early action applications you can have—i.e. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc.).
  • Early Decision is a binding early application deadline available at some colleges. If you apply early decision, you are agreeing to go to that school if you are accepted. You should only apply early decision if a school is your number one choice. Some schools have started offering a second early decision deadline (Early Decision II), often in January.  This allows students who were rejected from their first early decision choice to apply for another.

Aside from making sure you have taken your SATs or ACTs in junior year, and asking for teacher recommendations at the end of your junior year, you can reasonably begin your early action and early decision applications in September of your senior year.

Starting in August will give you plenty of time to follow up on missing recommendations, finish drafting your essays, send your transcripts, and compile any information that is required for the actual application.

When should I start my University of California essays?

The University of California application has eight essay prompts, and you are asked to respond to four with a maximum of 350 words each.

Due to the University of California’s somewhat unique application period—you can apply any time between November 1st and November 30th—you should approach the UC application and essays as you would an early decision or early action application. Begin them a few months earlier than you would your other regular decision schools. 

Over the summer is actually a great time to start writing these essays.

Many of the prompts focus on specific moments or experiences in your life, and as a result, the essays tend to be more narrative-driven than the typical “why this school” supplemental essays. That can be a double-edged sword. Ultimately, it means you want to put as much attention-to-detail and personality into them as you would a longer personal statement-type essay, but it also means that you have specific moments of your life that you can build the essay around.

One important point to keep in mind is that your UC application is completely separate from the Common Application. So, if you are also applying to some schools through the Common Application, that stellar Common App personal statement you have been working on can oftentimes be repurposed for one or more of the prompts here.

When should I start my regular decision essays?

You should start any supplemental essays for your regular decision schools no later than August.

Not every school will have a supplemental essay in addition to the personal statement, but many will, and they will likely have more than one. With 10-15 applications, that would mean you might have to write—you’re probably already doing the math—upwards of 25-30 essays for your college application.

Don’t Panic.

You can do this.  And the reason you can do it is because you are going to reuse and recycle. Unlike the personal statement essay, which most schools will see on your application, the supplemental essays are unique to each individual school, and many times, their prompts are extremely similar.

Obviously, if the prompt centers around describing unique things that draw you to the school or their particular program, then you can’t reuse another essay word-for-word, but you can take ideas and structures, which will make finalizing your work much easier.

When should I apply for college financial aid?

School deadlines for financial aid can be around February or March of your senior year.  Likewise, you should apply for federal student aid on or before that deadline. 

The free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) is released on October 1st, so any time between then and your deadline would work, but the earlier the better.

Check out your college’s website for more info, or visit studentaid.gov for a more detailed checklist.

What should I be doing as a freshman or sophomore?

Should you really be thinking about college as a freshman or sophomore? 

Yes, definitely.

The key to making the application process as painless as possible is to plan ahead. And starting in freshman and sophomore year can help you solidify your interests, and bolster your credentials, so you can more easily decide what schools or careers might be best for you.

  • Focus on your grades. Obviously, during freshman and sophomore year, you want to keep up your grades as high as possible. Choose courses with the highest level of rigor you can handle, and excel in them.
  • Read! Reading is the best way to improve your writing, and as you will find out, writing will be an important part of your application. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, read the news, read novels, read roadside pamphlets, literally anything will help you improve your skills.
  • Explore your extracurriculars. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their life when they start high school (in fact, most don’t have a clue). Join clubs, volunteer, start a club of your own—take stock of your interests and explore them as fully as you possibly can outside of school and during each summer.
  • Take on a capstone project. Start thinking about ways to get involved in your community, and then figure out the best way to build a sustained project to help out and get others involved.
  • Check out some schools. You don’t need a finalized list of schools at this point, but this is the perfect time to begin to understand what colleges offer. Visit a school or two nearby and take a tour, or just walk around their campus.  

If you keep up with every point on this list, then you will be in great shape going into arguably the most important year of your high school career, junior year.

What should I be doing as a junior?

Junior year is when you should finally be finding your footing in high school. You should be able to take all of the experimentation and experiences you had during your freshman and sophomore years, and hone them into more compelling and complex projects and experiences while preparing for your application.

  • Prepare for and take the SATs and/or ACTs. While their weight has diminished somewhat in recent years, the two main standardized tests for college, ACT and SAT, are still incredibly important pieces of your application. A high score here can often mean the difference between getting into a good school and a great school.
  • Keep your grades up, or improve them. As the latest complete year that will appear on your application, junior year grades are seen as much more indicative of your current success as a student. So, if you’ve slacked a little in the past, this is when you want to kick into gear and improve your performance. Keep in touch with your guidance counselor to make sure you are on the right track.
  • Continue expanding on your interests both inside and outside of class. With all the different experiences and activities you completed in freshman and sophomore years, you should be able to focus on a few main interests that you can dive into really deeply.
  • Visit more schools.  At this point, you should start looking at schools that you think could be on your list.
  • Figure out your major. All of the activities and experiences you have had up to this point should help you pick your potential major(s). Now is the time to look at your major more seriously, and make some decisions.
  • Start your Common App Personal Statement. We’ve already been over this in an earlier section, but to reiterate, you should begin working on your personal statement around February or March of your junior year. 
  • Finalize your college list. After doing a ton of research, and firming up your wants and needs, you can make a list of colleges to which you want to apply.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation. In most cases, you will want your junior year teachers to write your letter(s) of recommendation.  The best time to start bringing up the subject and ask them is at the end of junior year, when they hopefully think very highly of you after having had a great school year.

At this point, you are almost there.  You’ve taken the preliminary steps to prepare for your application, and you just need to make a plan and stick to it.

How long does writing a college essay take?

You are going to write a lot of essays and not every essay is created equal.

Stanford famously has eight supplemental essays varying in length from 50 to 250 words, whereas NYU has one main supplemental essay at 400 words.

Some essays require research. A “why this school” essay or a “why this program” essay will require you to look into specific details about a school and its programs and professors to give a satisfying answer.

Other essays require deep introspection, the ability to look critically at your successes and failures, which for many, can be excruciating.

The good news is that it will get easier.

As with anything, the more you practice, the better you get.  Although your first few essays might take a few weeks, the next few might only take a week or two, until you get to the point where you can write several essays over a long weekend.

The best approach would be to look at all of your essays, find which ones are the longest and attack those first. After each new essay, look for other prompts that might fit that same subject and work on those next.  Before you know it, you will make your way through your whole list, and have some exciting and interesting essays to show for it.

Conclusion: When Should I Apply to College?

Applying to college doesn’t need to be a marathon. In this case, slow and steady wins the race. 

If you have pulled all-nighters before, avoid that for your college application.

Look at the deadlines, keep in mind when you need to start each piece of the application. Make a plan, stick to it, and your application will not feel so overwhelming, and you can have some peace of mind that you did everything you could to nail your application as you wait for your colleges to make their decisions.

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