When to Apply for College: A Complete Timeline

Marissa Daniel
May 4, 2021

Amidst the standardized tests, essays, and recommendation letters many college application deadlines differ, depending on their application process which can make an already complicated process feel even more daunting.   Preparing for college should be an exciting process, not so stressful you dread every deadline approaching and passing you by.   For that reason, we have put together a timeline to help students and their families organize their applications and avoid missing crucial deadlines.   The more on top of your application process you are, the better chance you have at getting into your top schools and scoring the most financial aid and scholarship awards possible.   college application timeline  

Don’t wait till senior year

Meet with your school’s guidance counselor 

The truth is, students should begin the process of applying to college before their senior year of high school. Hello, junior year!   First things first, know your ultimate resource!   The main job of your high school’s guidance counselor is to assist juniors and seniors with their post-high school plans.   Utilize them as much as possible and build a good relationship with them so they give you their utmost attention throughout the whole process whether you wish to apply to college, trade-school, or immediately enter the workforce.   High school guidance counselors can help: 
  • Solicit recommendation letters as well as give advice on who the best people would be to ask
  • Sign up for SAT and ACT exams and provide resources to help you study
  • Organize campus visits
  • Provide you with a list of schools based on what you want to study that you may not have considered otherwise
  • Give constructive feedback on college essays, majors you might be interested in, and the type of fit that would be good for you.
  Picking a major or maybe just looking for the bachelor's degrees that make the highest salaries, check this list out, maybe it will help you pick what you want to major in.  

Make a list of colleges and universities you’re interested in applying to

You should compile a list of schools and back up schools during your junior year and begin the application process in the fall of your senior year. This is also a great time to assess if you want to go to a 4-year school or a 2-year schol or if you want to take classes at a community college while you figure that out.   Junior year is the best time to start touring the colleges and universities of interest to you to decide if they are a good fit or a waste of time.   Pro Tip >> the average cost to apply to each college is approximately $43, but the most common fee is $50 (Edmit.com). So touring schools before applying to them can save a lot of money. To avoid dropping a lot of money on applications, pick 3-5 colleges and/or universities you’re interested in and limit it to this selection.  

Secure the people you want to write you a letter of recommendation

Most college applications require that you have a letter of recommendation from a mentor or someone who can speak to your character and accomplishments.   Though it might not always be required, thinking about your list of recommenders now can take the stress out of this process. Not to mention, asking the person you ultimately narrow it down to ahead of time can give them more time to prepare as well as likely say yes since there is much less stress for them to rush.   Pro Tip >> Imagine the recommendation letter your mentor will write if you approach them early, this will speak worlds to who you are as a person and they will likely boast about this in their recommendation.  

Applying senior year

Know how the application process works

You should already be aware of how the application works per the colleges and universities you plan on applying to.   It’s not always safe to assume that every institution accepts The Common Application, though many of them do.   To best prepare for this, make sure to note this in your list of schools so you aren’t surprised when the application deadlines approach.   Remember, submitting multiple application types takes time and effort and rushing the process will make you stressed and anxious. Rather than let that happen, get ahead of your planning by checking each individual program’s website to determine which application process applies   Not all schools accept ‘The Common Application’ and students should research the programs and applications their college accepts since submitting multiple application types can take up valuable time and precious energy.

The early birds

If you started your college search during your junior year, you might be ready to apply early to avoid waiting for acceptance letters.   Early decision and early action applications typically have deadlines that come as soon as October, but November and December.   It is not recommended that if you have any financial concerns submit ED applications because financial aid is not usually secured this early on and could cause some financial hardship before your first semester has even begun.   YOU SHOULD KNOW!  And we cannot stress this enough… That early action applications are non-binding, this is simply just submitting your application early and finding out if you got in before most of your peers apply. Early decision applications are binding and if you do get into these schools you will be enrolled automatically and forced to withdraw your applications from other institutions.   Applying early action or early decision can still put you at risk for not getting accepted right away. Depending on where you fall in the pool of other applicants, some colleges and universities might defer your application to the regular pile so they can correctly accept or deny you.   This can be tough but it’s important to know why they do it. They really just want to give your application as fair a chance as anyone else’s so don’t get discouraged if this happens to you!  

Regular deadlines

Most admission deadlines for the coming fall are due in January but some colleges accept applications into the early spring.   If you apply during the regular decision deadlines, you will likely hear back from mid-March to April about your status.   When applying for regular admission, you should always note if a college accepts rolling admissions.   Rolling admissions allow you to apply to a school any time after the school begins accepting applications until a predetermined date. However, you should also note that if you apply at later dates you could be disadvantaged because spots have already been reviewed and taken up by students who applied earlier or on-time.   So in the case of rolling admissions, it is best to submit your application as close to the opening date as possible because spots become more competitive as seats fill up  

Other items of importance

Honors programs

Deadlines for honors programs can differ from school to school.   When compiling your list of colleges, make sure you note these as well if this is something you want to be considered for.   Staying on top of these deadlines will ensure that you don’t miss important dates and you feel prepared for whatever the application process might entail.   Pro Tip >> Set up alerts in your phone a couple of months in advance reminding you of approaching deadlines, and keep them repeating until the day of the deadline. This will help keep you on top of your applications further in advance than simply just the day before or the day of.  

Financial aid and scholarships

If you are relying on financial aid and/or scholarships, ensure you have these application dates organized as well.   This is VERY important. Submitting the FAFSA early can score you a better financial aid package which means less money you will need to find elsewhere. For more information on this, check out our Financial aid 101 post where we outline everything you need to know about the FAFSA and getting the most out of this service.   Scholarships are abundant on the internet, and there’s basically a scholarship for everyone, so a little digging can go a long way.  When applying for scholarships, always pay attention to deadlines and due dates, missing out on free money because you missed a deadline is incredibly frustrating, so it’s best to keep the same habits across the board for your entire application process.   By being aware of these deadlines, you will also eliminate the financial stress that comes along with paying for college that many students face. Rather than force yourself into that situation, just keep your ducks in a row.

To sum it up 

Applying to college can be complicated and many students find the process overwhelming to face on their own, especially in cases where no previous member of the family has attended college.   The best approach is to start early.   Junior year is the perfect time to get the preliminary tasks out of the way such as:
  • Meeting with your schools’ guidance counselor
  • Making a list of colleges and/or universities you want to apply to
  • Touring schools
  • Making a list of possible people you plan on asking to write your letter of recommendation
  • Getting a head start on putting all the deadline dates in one place for easy access
  This will free up your brainpower to start the application process senior year.   That way during senior year you can focus on the actual process by:
  • Deciding if you want to apply early action, early decision, or regular/rolling admission
  • Filling out all application types on time
  • Getting your letter of recommendation secured
  • Applying for financial aid and scholarships
  • Accepting the college or university that best fits your wants and needs
  Overall, you should stay organized and overestimate the process times rather than underestimate and leave things to a last-minute scramble   Staying organized will require you to:
  • Keep ongoing to-do lists
  • Keep spreadsheets and update them regularly
  • Sign up for all email notifications to stay updated by each institution and resource such as FAFSA, scholarship award programs, etc.
  • Update calendars and set reminders to help you and your family stay on top of all details surrounding the application deadlines and requirements
  Everything you can do to prepare will ensure that only the best quality applications are submitted. Rushed applications will only cause unnecessary stress and decrease your likelihood of acceptance.   Rather than stress out about the process of applying to college, you should actually enjoy your last year of high school with all of your friends. So start your planning early.