When to Apply to College

Deadlines and requirements for college applications vary, so experts advise high school students to begin the process by the start of their senior year.

But there’s still plenty of related work to do before then, including taking the SAT or ACT — though many schools have gone test-optional or test-blind — visiting college campuses, registering for advanced classes, participating in extracurricular activities and requesting recommendation letters.

“If you’re planning to or even thinking about applying to college, it never hurts to start early,” says Greer Davis, associate director of strategic communications for the office of admissions and recruitment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Think about what you might be interested in and get a sense of what colleges might be looking for, so that you can kind of choose classes accordingly and try different things.”

Planning ahead is especially important for students interested in specific college programs, like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, known as ROTC, which often requires physical fitness tests and nominations.

[Read: A Complete Guide to the College Application Process.]

Timeline for College Admissions

Here’s what to do the summer before and throughout your senior year for college admissions.

To keep track of all of the application and financial aid deadlines, experts suggest putting important dates on a calendar.

“The fall is jammed with deadlines and lots of opportunities,” says Kelly Adams Fraser, founder and principal consultant at Green Apple College Guidance & Education, a college counseling company. “I would really recommend taking a breath over the summer to try to organize all those opportunities and deadlines so that you can take advantage of as many of them as possible.”

Summer Before Senior Year

There’s only so much information available on a college’s website, so it’s vital for prospective students to tour a college campus either in-person or virtually. Experts recommend visiting schools either during the spring semester of junior year or summer before senior year.

From there, students can start to create a list of schools to apply to — keeping location, academic programs, student life, size and cost in mind.

Once you have a list, you should start organizing your materials. General college applications require an essay, list of extracurricular activities, high school transcript, letters of recommendation and, in some cases, standardized test scores. Some school materials, like a transcript — which is sent to a student’s list of colleges by a guidance counselor — are not accessible until the academic year starts.

Many applications, like the Common App, open on August 1, meaning students can apply anytime after that. But students don’t have to wait until that date to get started. An account can be created at any time and all inputted information is rolled over once the new application opens.

“It gives students a chance to explore the site and see what’s there,” says Jayne Caflin Fonash, a Virginia-based college counselor and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “As they’re developing a list of schools where they’re thinking about applying, they can look to see essay and material requirements for the current year. So it gives them a better idea of what to expect.”

Some schools offer the option for an interview, which can either be informational or evaluative. Experts encourage students to set up an interview — which typically occurs over the summer or in the fall.

“While interviews are a great way to show interest in the college and to get to know people on college campuses, it is true that not every student interviews well or feels very comfortable with that,” Fraser says. “I think if students have enough time, that’s a great goal to get comfortable with it. But I think they really need to make that decision and determination on their own.”

[Read: What to Know About Early Action, Early Decision in College Admissions.]

Fall of Senior Year

If a student has not already done so, it’s important to ask a teacher or counselor to write a letter of recommendation early in the fall semester.

“When it comes to references, it’s not just about the person’s name and title. It’s about what they know about you,” says Boyd Bradshaw, vice president for enrollment management at Towson University in Maryland. “It’s really important to use references that can really tell your story as a student.”

Students should also start to think about their options for paying for college. To qualify for federal, state and institutional aid, a student needs to first file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which opens Oct. 1 every year.

“Get it in as early as possible,” Davis says. “Most schools tend to have a priority deadline, so that means if you get your FAFSA in by then, you’re going to be eligible for the most possible aid. Depending on the school or what state you’re in, some aid starts to run out at a certain point in time, so it ensures that you’re eligible for the most things.”

Many college scholarship applications close in the fall. However, there are still some available in the spring or early summer if a student misses the fall deadline.

As for college admissions, there are two types of fall deadlines: early decision and early action. Both typically have a November deadline, with some applications due as early as mid-October.

Early decision is a binding commitment — the only exception being if the school cannot meet the applicant’s demonstrated financial need. So if a student is accepted, they are required to withdraw all other applications and submit a deposit. Meanwhile, those who received an acceptance through early action can wait until the national commitment deadline on May 1 to reject or accept the offer.

Note that a few colleges have restrictive early action, which limits the number of schools a student can apply early to.

It is advantageous to apply early, Caflin Fonash says. “If you look at the common data site information for institutions, you’ll see that colleges and universities are admitting greater percentages of their incoming class through the various early options.”

Another option offered by some schools is rolling admissions — applications are evaluated as they are received rather than all at once after a certain deadline. Many schools open their applications in August or September. The application window is typically open until the spring or even up to the first week of classes. Applicants are usually informed of a decision within four to six weeks of submission.

As for honors programs, the process is different at each school. Some require a separate application, while others automatically consider students from their initial application. Visit a school’s website to learn about eligibility and deadlines.

Winter of Senior Year

Early-decision or early-action decisions are normally released in December. But for those who still want to apply before the regular decision application pool, some schools offer a second round of each option, commonly known as ED I and ED II or EA I and EA II. The second deadline is in December or January, so students receive decisions around February.

Meanwhile, deadlines for applying for regular decision are typically in January, but can be in December or February.

[Read: Rolling Admissions: 10 Frequently Asked Questions.]

Spring of Senior Year

Applicants who applied regular decision should expect to hear back around March or April. Once all decisions are released, it’s time to select a college.

Choosing where to enroll can be difficult, especially for students who weren’t accepted into their top choice. To find the best fit, reach out to college officials or current students with follow-up questions, revisit campuses and compare financial aid offers.

Note that financial aid offers are not always final. Students who experienced changes to their financial circumstances can file an appeal, for instance.

Once you’ve committed to a college by the deadline, be sure to reject any other admission offers.

“Deciding on which college to enroll is truly an investment in your future,” Bradshaw says. “Obviously you’re picking a college because of a major, but there’s so much more that goes into an education. Fit and lifestyle, like living on campus and being engaged as a student, is really important. So don’t ignore the other factors.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

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When to Apply to College originally appeared on usnews.com

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