When and How to Apply to College

Freelance writer

Last Updated: Sep 24, 2020

When is the best time to apply to college? Should you submit an optional essay? What about test scores? There is no single correct answer to these questions. Applying to college is as individualized as finding the right school, and there's a lot to keep in mind. Here's what you should consider in order to make the best decision for you. 

Timing is everything

College applications come with a few different timelines and common due dates. Most prospective students apply for regular admission—usually that’s January 1 of the year in which they plan to begin their undergraduate studies. Colleges and universities typically send their decisions sometime in April. This method gives you a lot of time to put a lot of effort into your college application and produce a thoughtful piece of work. However, this is also when the majority of applicants submit their materials, so you really have to make yours stand out if you want to be noticed and not lost in the shuffle. Remember: a standout application is eloquent but concise; free of errors; and filled with memorable, unique stories.

Early admission

Students who can’t wait to get their foot in the door have the option of applying through early admission. There’s nothing wrong with applying early—you just need to be organized and prepared, often long before your Regular Admission peers. The term “early admission” typically encompasses two different paths: Early Decision and Early Action. They sound the same, but they’ve got some major differences! With Early Action, you apply to a college or university with a typical deadline falling around November 1; some schools go as late as November 15, some as early as October 15. You'll hear back from the school in early December. You can apply to as many schools Early Action as you want because the application is non-binding. Even if you’re accepted to many schools through Early Action, you can pick and choose among them to find the one you think is best for you.

Although the timelines are very similar, Early Decision applications are binding, meaning if you are admitted, you must attend the school. You should go the Early Decision route only if you have a clear top-choice school that you're sure you would attend if admitted, no questions asked. And remember, you won’t get your financial aid package until the spring—after you’ve committed.

A third early admission option offers a compromise between the first two; it’s called Single Choice Early Action (SCEA). With SCEA, you can submit a non-binding application to one college or university early; however, you cannot apply early to any other schools, whether it be Early Action or Early Decision. But you can apply to other schools Regular Decision. You then have until the Regular Decision deadline to make your choice. SCEA guarantees you'll have an early admission decision from that particular school.

Related: Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action: What's the Right One for Me?

Rolling admission

Finally, a large number of schools offer rolling admission. This gives you a wide timeline in which to submit your application, typically over six months. Once the admission committee has all your materials, they'll make a decision in a few weeks and get back to you. Rolling admission gives students a chance to really take their time and not stress about the application process, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Spaces in the freshman class fill up on a first come, first served basis, so if the school is one of your top choices, don’t put off applying until late in the season. And some schools still have application deadlines for particular programs, like Physical Therapy or Pre-med, even though they have a general rolling admission. If you already have a major in mind (especially in the health sciences), double-check to make sure it doesn’t have a unique application deadline.

So which timeline should you choose? It can be tricky, but it may help to weigh your decision with other factors. True, it would be nice to know right away whether you got into XYZ University through Early Decision, but in reality you might need more time to decide, you might be unsure of your future goals, or you may simply need more time in your senior year to prove yourself. “Give yourself time to make thoughtful decisions throughout the college process,” says Julie McCullogh, Dean of Admission at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. “Pace yourself so you don’t feel rushed or pressured.”


“Students should consider an application as an extension of themselves,” says Thomas B. Hassett, Director of International Admissions at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. “The presentation that is made on an application suggests an applicant’s interest in both the process and the university.”

College applications have many different parts that need to come together to form a complete and consistent view of who you are. “Of all the requirements and criteria that are needed in the admission process, the one item with which a student has complete control at the time of making is the application itself,” Hassett says. From the essay to the interview to the application itself, the college admission process can take many forms.

The Common App

One of these forms is the Common Application. It’s an online application you fill out once and send to multiple schools, making your life a little easier! Almost 900 schools accept the Common App, so there are bound to be a few on your list that take it. Be careful, though—many schools require additional materials to supplement the Common Application, like institution-specific personal statements, and your application won’t be reviewed until everything is received. As always, make sure you check each school’s website to be sure of what they need from you.

Auditions and portfolios

If you’re applying to a Music, Art, or Design program, your application might take a creative turn and require an audition or portfolio. These special application elements show admission officials that you can handle the rigorous coursework and have the talent to succeed in their program.

Art portfolios need to give admission counselors a glimpse of what makes you unique; they should be able to look at your work and get a sense of who you are and what’s important to you. “If you’re drawing or painting a still life, assemble things that really interest you,” says Jeremy Spencer, Director of Admissions at Alfred University in New York. “That way, it will be easier for you to spend a lot of time looking at the subject while drawing it and we’ll have a better idea of who you are. If you express your personality and interest in your work, you won’t just blend into the crowd.”

The Cooper Union—an arts, architecture, and engineering college in New York City—requires its Art and Architecture students to submit a portfolio and complete a home test. The home test includes a few projects that should be completed in three to four weeks. Portfolios consist of about 20 pages of students’ original work, showcasing their talent and revealing the very best they can do.

Related: Portfolios, Home Tests, and Other Special Art School Applications

Financial aid in admission

“Cost should not limit choice in the beginning,” says Alyssa McCloud, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. “Students should apply to the schools that best fit their needs and assess the impact of cost after the admission, scholarships, and financial aid packages have been received. In the end, after grants and scholarships are factored in, students may find that a school with higher tuition, like a private school, may actually cost less or the same as a school with lower tuition, like a public school.”

Though you shouldn't limit your search based on cost alone, it's helpful to know what the typical aid packages are at the schools you’re applying to. Early aid estimators, like the FAFSA4caster, can provide you with a projected amount that reflects what your federal aid may be. It's also beneficial to know whether a school is need-blind or need-aware. Need-blind is when a school considers your application without knowing whether or not you need financial aid in order to attend. Some schools are need-blind and also meet full demonstrated financial need. Need-aware schools take financial aid into consideration when admitting applicants.

Related: How to Get Financial Aid for College: The Ultimate Guide

A final thought

The entire application is a reflection of you, so do your research and keep track of deadlines! “Put a great deal of thought into your application,” says Michelle Lockhart, Senior Director of University Admission at Oklahoma City University. “Many people at the university will see it before you ever arrive—think of it as a first impression. We want to get to know you.”

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