Guide for the College Application Deadlines and Process

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Are you or a loved one planning to apply for college in the near future? While the application process is designed to be approachable for all students and their guardians, it is multifaceted and can sometimes be perceived as confusing or overwhelming for first-time applicants. When it comes to college application deadlines, there are many factors to consider, as well as terminology with which you will need to become familiar. It’s also important to be aware of potential college application resources that can help you along the way. Overall, it can be very helpful to review some of this basic information before applying to your first college or university.

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Definitions of Terms for College Applications


As you begin your search for a college or university program, you’re likely to see some industry-standard terms. Knowing the meaning of these will make the research and application process easier. Some of the terms you will want to be familiar with as the college application deadlines approach are: early action, early decision, regular decision, rolling admissions and you need to be ready for the early action deadlines, early decision deadlines and regular decision deadlines when applying to college. You will also want to start to obtain multiple letters of recommendation from high school teachers, community programs and start the financial aid process.

What is Early Action?

Early action (EA) is an admission process offered by some colleges and universities. Early action is basically an option allowing prospective students to apply earlier and find out sooner whether or not they’ve been admitted. Deadlines vary, but most institutions require early action applications to be submitted by October or November of a student’s senior year of high school, whereas regular admission applications are due on January 1. Early action applicants are generally notified of the college or university’s early action deadlines are generally by December or January 1 of their senior year, which allows them to begin weighing their options much earlier than standard applicants.

What is Early Decision?

Early decision (ED) programs are similar to the early action option, but there are a few important distinctions that applicants must be aware of. The biggest difference is that early decision applications are binding. If admission is granted, then the applicant must enroll at the college or university in question. It’s also important to note that students can only submit a single early decision application, making it an ideal option for individuals with first choice institutions and programs. Early decision deadlines vary, but most early decision applications must be submitted by November 1 of a student’s senior year of high school, with a December notification date. Some schools offer a second round of early decision applications, which are typically due on January 1.

What is Regular Decision?

Regular decision refers to the standard application process most students go through when applying to a college or university. This process follows a schools’ published deadlines, which generally require application submission by January 1 of the students’ senior years. In most cases, applicants can expect to hear back regarding admission for regular decision deadlines, which is by March or April. Students can apply to as many colleges and universities via regular decision as they want and there are not requirements to enroll after acceptance.

What is Rolling Admission?

Rolling admission is not an application option students can choose, but rather an admission process utilized by some colleges and universities. It’s similar to regular admission, with a few key differences.

Whereas institutions with regular admission have a set due date for applicant materials, schools using rolling admission accept continuously. In most cases, this means students can apply for enrollment at any point during their senior year of high school, although some institutions do have deadlines for admission to the upcoming academic year.

This method is significant because schools with rolling admission also review and respond to applications as they receive them, instead of waiting until after a specific submission deadline. These colleges and universities will continue to consider students for enrollment until all of the slots for incoming freshmen are filled. Most applicants hear back with an admission decision within a few weeks.

While this process seems very convenient, spots at popular institutions can fill up quickly and waiting too long will result in a more competitive candidate pool. Applying late in the year also means hearing back even later, which can cause problems for students considering other schools with stricter enrollment deadlines. For this reason, it’s a good idea to submit rolling admissions and rolling college applications first.

When Do College Applications Open?


While college applications for standard enrollment may not be due until January 1 of a students’ senior year, the process begins much earlier. Most colleges and universities start accepting completed college applications in August for enrollment the following fall. It’s important to realize, however, that every institution is different, and some submission periods start earlier or later. Candidates should research each of their options carefully to determine the exact open and close dates for the college application deadlines process.

Students may also be able to submit general application components before the official open date. Some colleges and universities will let applicants begin completing and submitting materials early, either via online portals or in hardcopy forms. Most electronic application systems allow students to save their progress as they work through the application, which means they can easily leave the task and return to it later.

What Will You Need for Your College Application?


After generating a list of potential colleges and universities they may wish to attend, students will need to begin collecting and completing the various application materials. Every institution is unique and, as a result, may have different requirements. Prospective applicants should carefully research what they will need to apply to each school individually to ensure nothing is overlooked.

While requirements often vary, there are some standard materials that most institutions need. Some of the most common items include:

Official High School Transcript(s)

Most colleges and universities require a copy of students’ high school transcripts before they will consider application packets completed. While a few institutions may accept copies provided directly by applicants, the majority only accept official documentation sent directly from high schools. In some cases, students can send their transcripts in a sealed envelope by mail. Breaking the seal, however, will invalidate the documents.

Students can request their transcripts directly from the school or schools they have attended. Most office assistants and school counselors are able to create and/or mail official copies. It can take a few days for these requests to be processed, however, so students should act early.

Standardized Test Scores

The majority of traditional four-year colleges and universities require applicants to provide their standardized test scores. In most cases, this includes SAT and/or ACT reports. Every institution is different, with some requiring both exams, others accepting only one, and some not requesting them at all. Schools may also have varying minimum score requirements; if students’ scores are below certain thresholds, in some cases their college applications will not be considered.

Generally, it’s best for students to anticipate that standardized test scores will be necessary for admittance. This means that they will need to register and take the exam(s) early enough for the results to be processed and sent to colleges and universities prior to college application deadlines. This is an involved task that can take months to complete. Additional time should be factored in if the student plans to take the exams more than once.

Specific test dates can vary by year, but the SAT is generally offered monthly from August through June and the ACT is usually available monthly from September through July. In most cases, both exam companies require registration at least by the month prior to the test being administered. The SAT costs $52 ($68 with the essay) and the ACT costs $55 ($70 with writing), but fee waivers are available to eligible candidates. School counselors and representatives can assist with the waiver authorization process. Both testing companies provide the opportunity for a limited number of exam score reports to be sent directly to academic institutions for free, with additional requests accepted for a small charge.

Some schools also allow students to simply list their scores on their college applications. In these cases, most will require the official scores be sent after being admitted.

Application Essay

Many academic institutions request students submit a personal essay with their college application materials. While the length of this document can range from 300 to 500 words or more, all are expected to be error-free, with no spelling or grammar mistakes present. As a result, it’s generally recommended that essays are proofread and edited by multiple people prior to submission. Because multiple drafts may be necessary, it’s important to begin perfecting essays early.

Colleges and universities often designate a specific essay topic or provide a list of prompts for applicants to choose from. The most generic option is a personal essay which addresses why the particular school was selected, as well as academic goals and career aspirations. Many essay prompts also provide ample opportunity for applicants to highlight their most significant honors, achievements, and extracurricular activities.

Recommendation Letter(s)

Students are also likely to need at least one or two recommendation letters when completing their college applications. These letters are meant to highlight accomplishments, potential, and general overall character – qualities that colleges and universities value and can use during the evaluation process.

Recommendation letters should be written by people who know the student well, such as:

  • Teachers
  • Counselors
  • Employers
  • Mentors
  • Advisors
  • Coaches
  • Church Leaders
  • Community Members

As a general rule, letters of recommendation written by family members are not acceptable and should be avoided.

Because recommendation letters must be written by other people outside of your immediate circle, it’s important to request them well in advance of the application due date. Some schools provide an online portal where the writer can submit their letter, while others require a physical copy of the letter be mailed with the rest of the application materials.

Completed Application

Every college and university will have an application form that must be completed. Some are as short as one or two pages, while others are significantly longer in length. Many can be filled in using an online portal, but some institutions require a hardcopy be sent by mail. Because every form is different, students should begin completing it as early as possible to ensure nothing is missed or overlooked.

Most sections on the application request personal identification information such as name, address, high school name, and GPA. Some forms may also ask for a detailed list of extracurricular activities, honors, achievements, and volunteer work.

While this is a significant part of the application packet, it’s important to remember that all other materials must also be submitted before the school’s official deadline. The application alone is not enough to be admitted to any college or university.

Application Fees

In addition to the application and all of the necessary documentation, students are usually responsible for an application fee. Depending on the institution, these fees can range from as low as $20 to as much as $100 or more.

Students who are unable to take on the financial burden of paying for one or multiple application fees should discuss options with admission counselors employed by the colleges and universities in question. In some cases, these fees can be waived.

College Interview

Some colleges and universities invite candidates to their campuses for formal interviews as part of their application process. This is particularly popular with Ivy League institutions and private schools.

During an interview situation, students are most likely to meet with an admissions officer. The questions asked generally focus on candidate interests, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. A poor interview may not directly impact admittance prospects, but an engaging interview can help candidates stick out among their competition.

Students should spend some time preparing for interviews if this is part of the school’s application process. At the very least, it’s a good idea to formulate a good response to why the college or university was chosen. Researching the institution, identifying campus highlights, preparing questions, and dressing professionally may also prove helpful.

Tracking Application Deadlines


There are a number of reasons to carefully track college and university application deadlines, chief among them being that a small miscalculation can result in significant delays and/or changes to future academic plans. Properly tracking application due dates is the only way to ensure all the necessary materials are submitted on time. While some institutions are forgiving when one or more items arrive late, most schools will immediately remove the students from the admission process and will not refund any portion of the application fee.

Also, some popular colleges and universities may have limited space available for new students. The most sought-after institutions will fill up quickly. This is especially true for schools with rolling application. As a result, applicants should avoid delays and procrastination as much as possible.

If a due date is missed, it’s worth checking to see if the school accepts late applications with a fee. Some colleges and universities will allow students to submit materials after the hard deadline as long as they pay additional processing costs. Submitting multiple late applications can become very expensive, however.

Because most colleges and universities have different application deadlines, it’s recommended that students create some form of tracking system. This will also help keep track of which materials have and have not yet been submitted, such as standardized testing which require a significant amount of coordination in advance.

One final aspect related to college and university application deadlines is the difference between ‘received by’ and ‘postmarked by’ dates. Some institutions expect for all materials to arrive by the date specified, while others will accept them days later as long as they were sent on time.

Where to Apply


With so many colleges and universities to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to apply. Remember that applying to colleges and universities requires a significant amount of time and, sometimes, money. Every application is multifaceted with numerous materials required and every submission is accompanied by a processing fee. Additionally, it can become expensive to send so many SAT and/or ACT score reports. While students may want to apply to 20 or more different institutions, it’s usually best to select 7-10 top options. These selections should range in size and fall into one of these three categories: target schools, safety schools, and reach schools.

Target Schools


Target schools are the colleges and universities students are aiming for and may be the school they want to attend most or may be their main goal if their dream school seems like an unattainable goal. They are still prestigious to attend and will provide a quality education. Applicants’ grades, test scores, and class ranking all fall perfectly in line with the institution’s expectations. Competition may still exist, but admittance is still likely.

Safety Schools


Safety schools are usually considered backup options. They are generally considered easy to get into because the applicant’s academic credentials exceed the institution’s standards for incoming freshmen.

Reach Schools


Reach schools, or dream schools, are the colleges and universities that may be out of reach. In most cases, however, their academic credentials are on the low end of or below the institution’s standards. Admittance at these options is often unlikely but could be possible with extracurriculars or unique life circumstances.

How the College Application Platforms Can Help


Students can also take advantage of college application platforms, which are designed to make applying to multiple colleges and universities easier. Instead of submitting several different applications, students complete a single form that is accepted by many institutions. Some good examples of this include the:

  • Coalition Application
  • Common Application
  • University College Application

These three platforms offer many options, but not all of them have an expansive reach. While the Common Application is used by nearly 700 different institutions, the University College Application is only accepted by 20 schools. The Coalition Application can be used to apply to 90 different colleges and universities. Those interested in using these systems should verify that at least two or three of their target, reach, or safety schools are participants before completing the application.

Final Decision Time


Once applications are submitted according to the various college and university deadlines, it can be months before admission and/or rejection letters begin arriving. Students should spend some time preparing for the next phase of the process – the final decision stage. There are two potential scenarios.

The first possibility is that the decision, for one reason or another, is easy. This may be because only one institution is offering enrollment or that the student was accepted into their first-choice school. It could also be that the financial aid provided by one option is simply too good to pass up or that lack of funds means the cheapest solution is the only solution. Some of these situations can be disappointing, but the final decision is ultimately quite clear.

Alternatively, it’s very possible that hearing back from various colleges and universities will make the choice much more difficult. This often occurs when most, if not all, schools send acceptance letters. Students must then work through the benefits and drawbacks associated with each, weighing the options carefully before settling on a course of action. It’s also possible that an unlikely acceptance at a dream school conflicts with the cost of attending a target or safety school, complicating matters significantly.

Appealing a Rejected Application


Many students believe that once they have received a rejection letter, there are no alternatives other than waiting to reapply the following year. This is not completely true. While successful appeals are extremely rare, it is possible to have the college or university’s original decision overturned.

Most institutions do have an official appeals process, although others do not. The procedure can vary significantly, so thorough research and communication with the admission’s department will be necessary. Once familiar with the school’s policies, the appeal, usually in the form of a letter, should be submitted as soon as possible. The request needs to be fact-based and specific in nature, as well personal so those reviewing it gain a clearer understanding of the situation.

If the application is rejected due to an issue with the materials submitted, there may be alternatives. This may include resubmitting the information and paying a late fee or following some other procedure set forth by the institution. In either case, it’s always best to direct any questions to an admission’s specialist right away.