How Early Should You Submit Your College Application?

Going to college is a large decision. It’s not something that can be organized quickly or without effort. A good deal of planning and preparation is required. Read on to see just what is involved.
You should submit your college application in Senior Year but start the process in Junior Year. Good preparation is key.

  1. School selection
  2. Early Decision / Action vs Early Application
  3. Following and knowing your timeline
  4. Avoid Technical Issues
  5. Being Prepared. Start Early

The thoughts of applying for college are usually not in the minds of 16-17-year-old teens. But if you want to be at the races you need to be thinking about applying for college in your junior year. There is a process, read on to find out how it goes.

School Selection

The process of college should start with “Where?”. Where in the country do you think you would like to continue your education? This is a huge consideration both financially and emotionally. Going to school out of state is more expensive, both for tuition and board, but other things like travel have to be considered.

But if you really like the look and ethos of a school then it should be part of your application.
You should have about 8-10 schools in mind. These range from Dream – Reality – Safety.

Your Dream School is possibly an Ivy and by all means, put it on the list, but be mindful of the extra costs involved, and also the extra work added to your application. Ivies tend to be more involved in their application process.

GPA Average

Most of your choices should be selected through your reality list. Of all applications to college, approximately 75% are successful.

You may also be interested to read my other posts about choosing where to go to college;

Should I go to college outside of the US?

Should I go to college out of state?

It is only the elite schools that have a high rejection rate, due to their low acceptance rate. As you select your reality schools try and put your requirements at a high bar. Don’t just select a school because it’s in your town or your best friend is going there. This is your education. It’s important to give it some real thought.

As for your safety school. Again, don’t just select any random school. You never know how SATs or transcripts are going to pan out. Give it some thought. Once you have your list in mind you can start the process.

Early Action/Early Decision vs Early Application

So, realistically when can you start applying? The Common App (the process of pretty much all college applications online bar a handful) generally opens on the 1 August, beginning your Senior Year.

There are a few options available on your application. You can choose Early Decision/ Early Action. Early Decision is a binding agreement. If you have selected a school, applied with Early Decision, and are then accepted, you must commit to enrolling in that institution and withdraw all other applications.

This is a fantastic option is it is your dream school but you may not have access to the financial aid package on offer yet and you cannot hold off until you do. You must make the decision regardless.

Early Action on the other hand is non-binding. You will just receive a decision earlier but are not obliged to accept it.

The timeline for Early Decision/ Early Action is shorter so if you are thinking of this route then you need to be super organized. The application date for Early Decision is generally 1 November or 15 November, depending on the college. But you will be notified in mid-December. Some schools also offer an Early Decision II which happens in January. If you go for this option it will allow more time for additional SAT, and also Senior Year grades included in your transcript.
Only a small number of schools offer Early Decision II.

The benefits of Early Decision / Early Action are that if you are offered a place (and statistically you are better off applying this way)then you will have your college search and application done and dusted by Christmas of your senior year.

But the actual process of the application is the same as Regular Decision. You still have to sit SAT/ ACT, have letters of recommendation written, write your essay, send transcripts and hit that “Submit” button, but it all must be done 2-3 months earlier than a Regular Application.

I have also written the following posts about SAT/ACT/GPA;

Should I take both the SAT and the ACT?

Taking the SAT first time senior year

Is GPA or SAT score more important?

Unless you are completing your application as an Early Action/ Early Decision then there is no reason or benefit for you to complete it early. The application process is a lengthy process. There are a lot of elements involved and everything needs to be correct and checked many times before submission. If something is missing or incorrect it could hamper your chances of being offered a place. So have a calendar and follow it.

Following / Knowing your College Application Timeline

The process rarely deviates from the timeline year to year. The Common App opens within the first couple of days of August each year. You can create a Common App account before this date and transfer your application when it opens in August. The process is quite in-depth and not something to be rushed. It takes approximately 6 weeks to complete your application. 2 weeks to gather any background information, and parent employment information, and then 4 weeks to complete essays, and external school documents required such as transcripts, letters of recommendation etc.

Many teachers will have a cap on the number of letters of recommendation that they will write so better to be safe and get that request in early. You will need to know whether they are going to email or mail it, as this will be asked when you are listing your names in the Common App.

This is why your college application in reality should start in your Junior Year. Teachers, coaches, and anyone else that you feel could make recommendations for you should be approached before the summer so they can have some time to fulfill your request. You need to keep on top of this. Teachers are human after all, and also on their summer vacation. Ask if would it be possible to have their email address (so you can gently remind them, that this needs to be done). They may not want to give you their email address and this is also perfectly fine. They are entitled to their summer.

Then there is the essay prompts. It’s a snapshot of you as a person. What are your interests? What has challenged you in the past/ Is there something you are passionate about?

The prompts, like the online opening day of the app, don’t really change from year to year. Essay writing is something you should spend time on. It’s only 650 words max. It is going to need writing and rewriting possibly a couple of times. It needs to be punchy, and interesting! Admissions officers receive so many of these, you want to be the one that stands out. You definitely need to be giving this some consideration the summer before senior year.
Once the senior year starts it will be so busy and will fly by.

My post, can I pay for my college essay may also be an interesting read.

If you have decided not to go the Early Decision/ Early Action route and opted for the Regular Decision then your timeline is somewhat longer. Most schools have an application deadline of 1 January. (University of California is uniquely 30 November). There are a few schools that have later deadlines in February or March such as Penn State, University of Alabama, University of Indiana, Michigan State, University of Maine, University of Tulsa, and University of New Haven. If you opt for the Regular route you will hear back around April and have until 1 May to decide where you want to go.

The final option for applying is Rolling Admissions. This is an open window from Fall to Spring. They don’t have deadlines as such, but they are filled on a first come first served basis, so if you are interested in a school with a Rolling Admission it is a good idea to apply early. Places may fill up quickly and you may miss out. The other good point about Rolling Admission is that you could hear back within a couple of weeks. You also have no restrictions, unlike the Early Decision. You can apply to as many as you wish.

The other part of your timeline that you need to give your attention to is the sitting of the SAT/ ACT. (Currently, a lot of schools are waiving this for the fall of 2020 due to COVID restrictions). But in normal circumstances, many would sit their SAT a few times. The majority of scores increase the more times you attempt it. Think of the first time as a practice run. But don’t leave yourself short on time. You need to sit the first test in your Junior Year.

This gives you plenty of time to resit up until November of your Senior Year – if applying through Regular Decision. If you are applying through Early Decision/ Early Action you need to consider that your SAT needs to be completed by August – October at the latest. It takes about three weeks to receive your results, so don’t leave it until the last minute.

Avoiding Technical Issues

The introduction of technology has made applying for college much more streamlined. The Common App has been in place since 1975 but with advances in online services, this now allows you to view up to 900+ colleges. Each with its own link so you can check out admissions requirements and all the other great stuff associated with going to college, activities, clubs and societies, and on-campus living.
The Common App allows you to apply for several colleges all through one portal.

Throughout the application process, you are relying on external measures to complete the process. It’s important that you have correct details for teachers, recommenders, coaches, and counselors. They will all form part of your application. Make sure they are doing their part. This is why it’s important to have them on board before the summer of senior year.

Your essay – depending on where you first typed it may fall foul to the input text box in the App. Ensure you check it fully as it has been known in the past to delete or remove some information. You may also lose some or all of your formatting. Admissions officers prefer not to see a wall of text. If it has all merged into one paragraph go through it and space it out, so it is easier for them to read.

The payment part of the App has also caused difficulty in the past. Sometimes when you have paid, and even received a receipt, the signature page won’t be available. People panic and think that it hasn’t gone through and click it again. It will charge a second time, and then you have the hassle of having to go and request a refund.

Don’t pay a second time. It may take up to 48 hours for card payment to clear. (but not any longer). Return to the page after 48 hours and see if can you now sign your application. If you can’t then you have to contact the Help Desk.
Until you sign, your application is not complete. For peace of mind, you can always contact the Admissions Office to check that they have received your application. It’s what they do, don’t feel like you are annoying them.

Being Prepared. Start Early

Go and visit as many schools as you can. Get a feel for the place by taking a tour (COVID permitting – lots of schools have Virtual Tours on their websites). There’s no better way to choose a place than being able to see yourself there. There are people that will help no matter how big (or small) your query may be. Don’t be afraid to ask. If they don’t know, then surely they can point you in the right direction.

This is your future. Your career path. Don’t get left behind.
Be proactive and start the process as early as you can. Be organized and be excited to click that “SUBMIT” button.

Tara Cunningham

Tara Cunningham is a Mum and Graphic Designer. My children's education has always been very important to me. I feel that if you are willing to put in the time they will appreciate the effort. I hope that you find our thoughts and ideas useful and interesting.

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