Guide to Hitting Your College Application Deadlines

Guide to Hitting Your College Application Deadlines

The New Year is almost here, and while everybody around you is guzzling eggnog and renewing their gym memberships, you have one thing on your mind—submitting your college applications. For the vast majority of students seeking regular admission into college, early January marks the big moment when all that preparation, aspiration, and perspiration reach their climax. Are you ready?

Are you among the tens of thousands who will click submit and immediately begin checking your inbox for good news? Or are you just beginning your college application journey?

Wherever you are in the college application process, there are steps you can take to reduce the pressure that many of us experience when faced with deadlines.

If need to know how to apply to college, check out our guide to applying for college.

If you’re mostly concerned with when you should apply to college, read on...

Identify Target, Reach, and Safety Schools

Obviously, you can’t start applying until you have a list of schools. Start by identifying schools that meet your basic needs—geography, relevant programs, proper accreditation, size, etc. Then narrow your choices into three categories—“target” schools where you are an ideal academic match; “reach” schools where admission might be challenging, but still possible; and “safety” schools, where you are a shoe-in for admission. If you’re not sure where to begin, we actually have a tool that helps you break down your choices into these three categories.

Visit Colleges Early

Once you have a list, the best way to narrow it down is to plan your campus visits. The earlier you take this step, the more prepared you’ll be to start building out your college applications. Spend the summer before your junior year visiting colleges. Get a sense of what it’s actually like to be on campus. Check out the residential halls, academic buildings, student centers, and recreational facilities where you may be spending 4+ years of your life. And do not overlook the valuable opportunity to ask questions to actual students. They are your best source for really getting to know what a school is all about. Use this first-hand experience to determine which schools are a good personal fit.

Consider Early Admission and Early Decision

As we noted above, most schools adhere to the regular application deadline that falls somewhere between January and February. But you also have the option of seeking Early Decision or Early Admission at many schools. Either of these options allows you to complete and submit your application early—typically by a November 1st deadline—so that you can be considered for early acceptance. Today, most elite schools in the U.S. offer either Early Decision, Early Action, or both. If you seek Early Decision and are accepted, you are obligated to enroll in the accepting college. If you choose Early Action, you have the option of accepting your invitation to attend early, but you are not obligated to enroll in the accepting school.

To learn more, check out our feature, which asks the question, Is Early Admission Compounding Inequality at America’s Colleges?

Build Out Your Application Calendar

Now that you know which schools you’ll be applying to, it’s time to figure out all the key deadlines. You have a few choices here. Early Decision, Early Admission, Common Application Admission, Regular Admission. Not only that, but you also need to prepare for National College Decision Day—the final day by which you must notify your chosen college that you plan to attend in the fall. There’s a lot to remember. Get it all clear in your head. Then put it in your calendar.

According to Khan Academy, key submission dates are as follows:

  • Nov. 1: Early Admission/Early Decision Applications Due
  • Jan. 1: Common Application Due
  • Jan.–March: Most Regular Admission Applications Due
  • May 1: National College Decision Day

Figure Out Which Schools Accept the Common Application

The Common Application is a single online application that allows you to apply to multiple colleges at once, which can save a great deal of time and money. Today, more than 900 schools use the common application. In addition to sparing you the redundancy of providing the same biographical and academic information to a dozen different schools, the Common Application can simplify the deadline process. Any school that accepts the Common Application can be penciled into your calendar for a January 1 deadline. Once you’ve identified participating schools, you can distribute the remaining schools on your list into your calendar according to their individual deadlines—most of which will be on specific dates in early winter.

To learn more about why the Common Application is so awesome, check out our Focus on the College Application.

Start Working on Essay(s) Right Away

For many students, the most time-consuming and challenging part of the application process is the admission essay or personal statement. The good news is, you can begin working on this step almost as soon as you identify the schools where you’ll be applying. Some schools pose boilerplate questions about life-changing experiences or reasons why you plan to apply to the school in question. Others may challenge you with creative prompts about current events, ethical dilemmas and abstract scenarios. Your job is to use that platform to distinguish yourself from the competition while also demonstrating why you’re a perfect fit for the academic community. Start this process early and allow yourself to work through multiple drafts. Give yourself the time for revisions, as well as reviews from trusted friends, teachers or relations.

For tips on how to stand out, check out our Focus on the College Admission Essay.

Identity Sources for Letters of Recommendation Ahead of Time

Another step that can become time-consuming is the acquisition of letters of recommendation. This is because you must depend on the support of others—and sometimes these others can be quite busy. If you plan on approaching a teacher, advisor, coach, or employer for a letter of recommendation, make sure you give them plenty of lead time and a clear sense of your deadlines. The result will almost certainly be a stronger letter of recommendation.

Give Yourself A Cushion

Set your own deadlines just a few days earlier than the actual deadlines. Whether you’re staring down the barrel of a January due date or you’re looking ahead to Early Decision next fall, plan to submit your completed application packages at least a few days before the official deadline. The sooner you get it in, the more space you allow to correct unexpected issues like email bounce-backs, incomplete information, or mail delays. As a bonus, the earlier you hit your Common Application or regular application deadlines, the more time you’ll have to enjoy the holiday season.

What Should I Do if I Miss a College Application Deadline?

If you miss your college application deadline, your options will depend on the school and the flexibility of its admissions offices. This level of flexibility can vary widely depending on the nature of the school, how competitive enrollment is, and whether any seriously extenuating circumstances have impacted your ability to submit the application on time. In any case, you should contact admissions right away to find a solution. Some offices may be willing to work with you while others may simply advise you to begin your process for submission in the following academic calendar year.

If you can’t wait to get started, you may consider the array of excellent online colleges that offer year-round admissions or more flexible enrollment periods. Find out more by checking out The Best Online Colleges for 2022.

See our Complete Guide to the College Admissions Process for more.

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