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. You want to dig into application options at each school and create a strategy for when to apply to college to have your best chances for success.
Most college applications open around August 1, for first-time students entering the following fall. So, students who would be college freshmen in Fall 2023 could submit applications beginning in August 2022.
Students should not procrastinate working on their applications and might choose to work on portions like essays and activities lists months before senior year. This helps spread the work out so you don’t get overwhelmed. Trust me, it’s no fun to have an early application deadline and homecoming the same weekend. 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 accept supporting documents like transcripts and recommendations a few days after the deadline). You should create a clear list of deadlines so you know when to apply to each college.
A single college may have several application options with different deadlines. It’s important to understand the difference between each type in order to decide which is the right choice for you to use at each college.
When to Apply to Colleges Using 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. This is a serious commitment that includes a ED agreement signed by the student, parents, and the counselor. Early Decision might make sense if the college is the students clear first choice, if they are willing to commit to attending, and if the potential cost of attendance from the Net Price Calculator is within the family’s budget.
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. Some colleges require athletes to apply ED if they want the coach’s support considered as part of the application. I’ve also heard of colleges that expect legacy applicants to apply ED if they want legacy status to be considered. Also, it’s simply in 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. You can use their data to see how big of an advantage an ED application is at individual colleges.
How Binding Is Early Decision, Exactly?
Because students who apply Early Decision agree to withdraw other applications without knowing if they would have been accepted, they don’t have the option to see all of their acceptances and to compare financial aid offers from other schools. Just how binding is Early Decision. This depends whom you ask. A college admissions rep will point out that your commitment to attend was part of the application review. At the same time, you can’t be forced to enroll if you can’t afford the college. Ron Lieber, author of The Price You Pay for College, wrote an article for the NY Times about how in his judgement a student cannot be forced to enroll. But since there is usually a short deadline for making an enrollment deposit at the ED college, a student will have to decide quickly if they accept the offer or not. This can cause a lot of stress, especially if the student didn’t have a clear first choice or if the financial aid offer is out of the family’s budget. Think carefully about applying Early Decision and be sure to use their Net Price Calculator before committing.
When to Apply to Colleges Using Early Action (EA)
Early Action also gives students 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. EA deadlines tend to be November 1 or December 1. Some colleges select most of their incoming class through Early Action. For example, University of Maryland gives priority consideration for admissions, honors programs, and merit aid to Early Action applicants. At a recent counselor conference, they said they admit over 90% of the new class during Early Action.
In some cases, a college might even have an Early Action and Early Decision deadline on the same date. The difference there isn’t when the application is due, but if the student is committing to attend.
What are Restrictive Early Action and Single Choice Early Action?
Some colleges have a Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) 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. SCEA is also non-binding, but might prohibit students from applying to other colleges using ED or EA (including REA). If this feels like alphabet soup, it’s them, not you. The requirements are detailed, set by each college, and sometimes quite restrictive. For example, Yale University has SCEA that does not allow applications to other Private colleges through Early Action, even if that is required for priority scholarship consideration. So choose carefully, as you may be giving up a lot.
When to Apply to Colleges with Regular Decision
Under 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.
When to Apply to Colleges with Rolling Admission
Colleges with Rolling Admission review applications as they are received and will give admissions decisions throughout the admissions cycle. Many colleges with Rolling Admission use their own application portal instead of (or in addition to) the Common App. In some cases, these apps are available before the Common App opens on August 1. What’s more, Rolling Admission colleges often don’t require essays or letters of recommendation. So you could potentially have an acceptance to a Rolling Admission college at the beginning of senior year of high school!
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. 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. And more students are taking a gap year between high school and college.
A big take away is that it may be wise to start work on college admissions well before senior year. This isn’t just about spending the summer working on essays. A critical part of the process is taking time to determine what qualities would make a college a good fit and then identifying colleges with those qualities. This often requires time to think and research, so starting junior year can help spread out the work and reduce pressure. If you would like help in this process, let’s connect.