Applying to college can feel like climbing a mountain. And just like climbing a mountain, it’s a lot easier if you plan, prepare, and have everything you need to get it done. Planning for college applications starts with understanding how the process works. Don’t put it off — let’s break down the college application timeline, and answer common questions like, “When should I start applying to colleges?” and, “How long do college applications take?”
For the average high school student, most of the college application process will happen during the fall semester of their senior year of high school. Application deadlines are usually in January or February, with early decision deadlines in November, but you don’t want to be scrambling to get letters of recommendation and writing your essays at the last minute.
You’ll ultimately put hours of work into applying for college, so you definitely need to spread that out over several months. Remember, if you’re planning on hitting one of the earlier deadlines, you’ll need to bump your schedule up a month or so.
That’s why many college application timelines start in August with planning and preparation. Some aspects of choosing a college might start even sooner than that — you might be researching colleges and even going to visit campuses in your junior year. But the work of applying to college begins in August.
August 1 is when the Common App opens for the following year’s admissions. It’s the perfect time to create your account and fill in as much of the basic information as you can. Common App recommends you sign up with an email address you check regularly, because college admissions and financial aid personnel may need to contact you at different times throughout the application process.
The summer before senior year is also the time for finalizing your list of colleges you want to apply to. One great way to do this is to organize your favorite colleges into target, reach, and safety schools.
An important consideration when choosing a school is figuring out what colleges you can afford. That means you’ll want to gather your family financial info and fill out the FAFSA at this stage, too. You can review statistics about schools using our college major finder tool that will allow you to easily compare schools.
You’ll probably spend more time writing essays than any other part of your college application. Essays can seem daunting, especially when there’s so much riding on their success. Just like you wouldn’t climb a mountain without visiting a gym with a climbing wall a few times, you shouldn’t tackle your college essays without writing some practice essays.
Common App offers essay prompts that will help you frame your thoughts and organize them into essay form. You should spend September writing and polishing practice essays so when it’s time to write them for real, you’ll be an pro. It’s also a good time to get your SAT or ACT scores sent off to the right places.
In October, you’re almost ready to start climbing for real. But you can’t climb a mountain without the proper gear. In this case, that means letters of recommendation. If there’s a teacher, coach, or mentor you’ve worked with, a good letter from them can make a good application into a great one that stands out.
October is also a good time to meet with a college counselor — having a professional by your side to help you navigate the college application process can make a big difference in your success.
November is show time. Start filling out applications for the schools you’ve selected. Submit all the necessary materials, and start writing your essays. It’s important to remember that your first draft of an essay doesn’t need to be perfect. Just get your ideas down (which will be easier since you did all those practice essays).
This is one of the ways spreading out the application process can help you — at this point, you only need something that’s vaguely essay-shaped. You’ll have most of December to polish it to perfection.
December is a busy month for most people, so you want to have as much of the application process as possible done by this point. Then you can take December to tie up loose ends — get another letter of recommendation, or update your application with an additional extracurricular.
Most of all, revise your essays. Have a friend proofread them. When they’re finally done, you’ve reached the top of the mountain!
Most colleges use January 1 or January 15 as their application deadline. Hitting that “Submit” button is the last step in the process. You probably won’t get a response until March. Try not to stress about it too much — you already did all the hard work, so enjoy your senior year.
Technically, you could complete the entire college application process in a few weeks. But spreading it out across five months is much easier, far less stressful, and lets you be flexible and adapt to unanticipated problems (like someone not getting a letter of recommendation ready on time).
A solid plan and a clear timeline will make your life much easier and improve your chances of success.