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When to Apply

Deadlines & Early Application

If you plan to start in the fall semester, most college applications are due in November or December of the year before. So, if you’re looking to apply for fall 2016, you’ll need to have those applications submitted by late fall / early winter 2015. Check with the schools’ web pages and make sure you are absolutely clear about these deadlines. They are written in stone and unbreakable, so if you submit late or miss the deadline you will have to wait a year to re-apply or apply for January admission.

Most colleges have options to apply early with special early deadlines (usually October or November for the next school year). Each option has a different level of commitment required. Here are the most common early application options:

  • Early decision. You apply by the early deadline and, if accepted, must commit immediately. Usually you can only apply to one school early decision. This is for people who are absolutely sure about where they want to go.
  • Early action. You apply by the early deadline but have until the normal acceptance deadline (usually May 1st) to accept or not. Many of the Ivy League schools use this option; most of them don’t allow you to apply elsewhere early, but once you receive notification (usually mid-December) you can apply anywhere else you want.
  • Priority review, or early notification. Becoming more common, you apply by an early deadline and receive a decision earlier (usually about 6 weeks earlier) than the general pool of applicants. You still have until the regular acceptance deadline to make your decision.
  • Early read. The financial aid office gives an early estimate of your possible financial aid award. Often this goes hand in hand when you apply early decision, but don’t assume anything - check with the college’s financial aid office.

When you apply early, you will be notified early whether your application has been accepted, rejected, or deferred. Deferment means that your early application has been put into the regular pool of applicants and you’ll receive a decision in April when they do. Deferment can feel like rejection, but remember - “Don’t Panic!” You still have a chance to get into the school. You may be able to submit additional materials to boost your application, but don’t do so on your own. Ask the college’s admissions office if there’s anything you can do - and at all times remain polite, patient, and thank them for their time.

Some colleges also have rolling admissions, meaning that you can submit your application during a large window of time (usually over six months). The plus side is that you will usually hear from the school within 4 to 6 weeks after applying. Occasionally, a school with rolling admissions will have slots open long after deadlines for other schools have come and gone. But in general, it’s best to apply to a rolling admissions school as early in the admissions period as possible because there will be more slots open, more financial aid available, and the colleges tend to look more favorably on the students who apply earlier in the admissions period.

Target, Reach and Safety Schools

Now it’s time to make a list. Where would you like to go to college? In making your list, you need to consider three categories of schools:

  • Targets. These are the schools that are the best fit for you. Your grades, test scores, and interests are well-matched to these schools, and chances are if you apply, you will get in.
  • Reach. Dare to dream. Did you always want to go to Yale? Ever envision yourself with a Harvard diploma on the wall? Would you like “B.A. from Stanford University” to be a part of your resumé from now until all eternity? You should apply to at least one school that is a reach with your grades/test scores. You never know what can happen. Remember: your application is compared with the general pool of applicants, so depending on who else is applying your chances might be better than you think.
  • Safety. It’s important to apply to a couple of colleges where you think you may be accepted. These may not be your first choice schools, but if you are serious about applying to college you need to have some “sure things”. After all, it would be terrible to go through this process and come out with nothing, right? So, realistically speaking, which colleges would be thrilled to have you? The bonus of applying to places where you look like a superstar is possibly these schools will offer you larger financial aid packages and/or scholarships to attend.

Most college counselors and organizations like The College Board and Peterson’s agree that you should apply to between 6 and 10 colleges. Within that framework, you should be thinking about 3 to 4 target schools, 1 to 3 reach schools, and 2 to 3 safety schools. With the Common Application it is possible to apply to many, many more, and indeed it is not unheard of for students to apply to 15 to 20 schools these days. With the amount of individualized material that most schools require, however, the general recommendation is to keep the process more manageable and make your applications stronger.

What Are Colleges Looking For?

By and large, colleges are looking for enthusiastic, intelligent, diverse, and vibrant student populations. The more of these qualities that you present to the admissions officers, the better! Of course, depending on what kind of school you are applying to, this can be presented in different ways. There’s the kind of enthusiasm that a musical theater program would desire - focused, buoyant, bubbly, high energy - and there’s the kind of enthusiasm that an engineering program would welcome - still focused but more serious, passionate about math and science, quieter. In general, the best advice that counselors and websites give on this subject is to be yourself. Be the best version of you that you know how to be, and chances are the right school will find you.