When to Apply to College?

Most high school students apply to college fall or winter of senior year.  But the specific details vary from college to college and can affect admissions choices significantly.

Colleges open applications around August 1, for students entering the following fall.  This means that students who intend to be college freshmen in Fall 2021 would submit applications beginning in August 2020. 

Students should not procrastinate working on their applications and might choose to work on portions like essays and activities lists over the summer before senior year.  At the same time, there isn’t a prize for being first.  Instead, concentrate on having a high quality and complete application that tells your story to the admissions office. 

While you don’t have to hit submit on the day applications open, you don’t want to miss deadlines.  Selective schools are not likely to extend deadlines to students who are late (though they may have a short grace period for documents from counselors).

Colleges may offer several application options with different deadlines.  It’s important to understand the implications of each type in order to decide which is the right choice for you to use at each college.

Early Decision (ED) – Students applying Early Decision will know the admissions result earlier, often before winter break.  However, the student also makes a binding commitment to attend the college if accepted and to withdraw other applications.

Because ED applicants commit to attending, many colleges like Early Decision and use it to fill a large proportion of the class.  Some schools have a significantly higher admissions rate for Early Decision applications. This is partly because students who are motivated and ready to meet early deadlines are often high-quality applicants, but also because it is to the college’s advantage to know that a student will enroll if accepted.  Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent at Big J Consulting produce an annual table comparing ED and Regular Decision admissions rates, which you can find in the Admissions Decrypted Resources section.

Students who apply Early Decision usually have to withdraw other applications without knowing if they would have been accepted and will not be able to compare financial aid offers from other schools. 

Early Action (EA) – This also results in an earlier response, but it does not have a binding commitment to attend.  The student is free to wait for other admissions results and financial aid packages before making a decision. 

Some colleges have a Restrictive Early Action (REA) application.  Students applying REA are not bound to attend if accepted, but do agree not to apply to other colleges under ED, EA, or REA.  There might be specific exceptions to these restrictions, so read the guidelines closely and ask the Admissions Office if you are not sure.  Stanford University for example has both a Regular Decision and Restrictive Early Action option with some exceptions. 

Regular Decision (RD) – Students apply by a certain date and receive a decision under a specific timeline.  There is no binding commitment to attend if accepted.

Regular Decision deadlines are often in January or February, with results in March or April.  There are exceptions to the late winter timelines for regular decision.  For example, University of Florida has a November 1 Priority deadline for freshmen and only considers later applications on a limited space available basis.   Meanwhile the colleges in the University of California system accept applications for freshmen ONLY November 1-30 each year. 

Rolling Admission – Colleges with Rolling Admission review applications as they are received and will give admissions decisions throughout the admissions cycle. 

NACAC has a chart that may help you remember the differences between the admissions options.

You should also be aware of other critical deadlines.

Priority deadlines — Some colleges have an explicit priority deadline to be considered for competitive merit scholarships or admission to special programs such as an honors college, nursing program, or performing arts program.  These deadlines might be listed on the main Admissions pages, or they might be under Financial Aid, Honors College descriptions, or in descriptions for specific scholarships.    For example, Boston College only considers students who apply by the priority scholarship deadline of November 1 for its Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program. 

Selective programs within a college may have earlier deadlines related to auditions or portfolio submissions.  For example, Syracuse University has some drama pre-screening audition deadlines as early as October 1. 

It’s also worth noting that many colleges accept more than half of the students who apply and may accept applications into the summer months.  In spring 2020, a number of colleges reopened applications to students who wanted to reconsider a school closer to home.  Some colleges will accept students for Spring with a separate set of deadlines.  Each year NACAC publishes a list of colleges that are still accepting applications after May 1.   

A critical part of the process is spending time to determine what qualities would make a college a good fit and then identifying colleges with those qualities.  This is a process that can take some time, so starting work on it during junior year can be helpful.  If you would like help in this process, contact me at lisa@admissionsdecrypted.com.

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