How Long Do College Applications Take?

Technically, the college application process begins when you first enter high school as a freshman. The classes you take, the extracurriculars you choose, and your grades all throughout high school are all reflected in the final college applications that you send in during your senior year. That being said, the process of actually filling out your college applications and completing all of the necessary parts doesn’t start until you are an upperclassman, and there are several time-consuming steps involved. 

 

Luckily, you don’t need to worry about remembering everything you need to do to complete your college applications. We’ve outlined exactly what steps you need to take during the college application process, broken out by year of high school, as well as how long each should take you, on average. This way, you can plan and allocate time for your college applications far in advance and set yourself up for success. 

 

Junior Year 

 

Many students make the mistake of thinking that their college application process starts during their senior year. However, there are a few key things that you need to do during your junior year that will be necessary when filling out your applications. 

 

1. Take The SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Tests (40-60 hours) 

 

The SAT/ACT are standardized tests that assess your aptitude and college readiness on an identical scale to all other students who take the exam. You are usually required to take at least one of these tests and submit your test score for your college applications, though it is worth noting there are some schools that don’t require it, and some schools that have waived that requirement due to Coronavirus. 

 

You should also check whether your colleges require the SAT Subject Tests. These are hour-long, subject-specific exams, and you can take up to three in one sitting. Many students don’t realize they need to take these for more competitive schools and programs (like engineering), so that unfortunately limits where they can apply. To get a more comprehensive overview of SAT Subject Tests, check out our post What are SAT Subject Tests?.

 

Now, preparing for these exams properly often takes 4-6 months, with some time studying each day, and a handful of full-length practice tests, which take 3-4 hours.

 

Here are some free resources to help you prepare for these exams: 

 

Links to Every SAT Practice Test + Other Free Resources

Your Guide to Free SAT Prep Classes

Your Guide to Online ACT Prep Classes

25 Tips and Tricks For The SAT

10 Tips to Improve Your ACT Score

SAT Subject Tests: Everything You Need to Know

 

2. Think About Who To Ask For Recommendation Letters (2-3 Hours)

 

Since you apply to college during the fall semester of your senior year, your senior year teachers won’t have had enough time with you to write your letters of recommendation for college applications. So, your choices for recommenders are usually restricted to your teachers from your first three years of high school, though you’ll ideally pick teachers from your junior year (since you had them recently). 

 

Now, choosing a recommender is more than just selecting a few teachers at random. You should think carefully about which teachers would write you the best recommendation letter based on which teachers:

 

  • Know you best and can speak best to your academic accomplishments
  • Would be willing to take the time to write you a thoughtful recommendation letter
  • Would be most reliable in submitting the letter on time. 

 

Then, once you’ve chosen your recommenders, you need to reach out to them for a recommendation letter kindly and respectfully, making sure that you’ve given the recommender all of the information about you that they need to craft a stellar letter (they may ask you for a brag sheet, so be prepared to make one). 

 

Want a more thorough explanation of how to choose which teachers to ask for recommendation letters? Follow our comprehensive guide. 

 

3. Research Colleges and Visit Them (20+ Hours)

 

You should narrow down the list of which colleges you want to apply to during your junior year because this is a big decision with a lot of factors at play. You need to think about whether you want to go to a big college or a smaller college, which colleges are best for your intended major, where in the world you want to be during college, how much each college is going to cost, etc. 

 

Thinking about all of these factors and choosing colleges that fit your criteria takes quite a bit of time and a lot of research. Plus, if you decide to visit some colleges to get a better idea of whether they would be right for you, those visits can sometimes take days, depending on how far you go for your visit. 

 

Luckily, we at CollegeVine have given you a great place to start your research and plan your college list from the comforts of your home. Our School List Builder helps you form your college list by taking into account your preferences, your chances of acceptance based on your profile, and each school’s cost of attendance. 

 

Moreover, if you want to get a first-hand view of what it is like to attend some of the schools you’re considering, join CollegeVine’s Livestreams, where you’ll not only gain some helpful college application tips from the experts, but also have the opportunity to have Q&A’s with current students from the top schools.

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Senior Year 

 

1. Decide Whether Or Not You’re Applying Early (5-10 Hours)

 

Most students know that the majority of colleges set their college application deadline around January 1st. However, if you are really passionate about a school, you have the opportunity to submit your college application earlier in the semester to be given early consideration for acceptance. However, many of these early decision options come with large caveats (e.g. if you get accepted early, you are obligated to attend). So it’s important to know what each early applying option is and how it might affect you: 

 

Early Decision (ED): Early November

 

Applying to a college Early Decision means that you submit your application months before the Regular Application deadline, and you commit yourself to attending that specific university if you are accepted. You can’t apply to more than one school Early Decision. 

 

Early Action (EA): Early November 

 

Early Action differs from Early Decision in that your acceptance to the school in question is not binding, and you can apply to more than one school Early Action. You could apply to a school Early Action in order to indicate your interest in the college, but you would have the option to turn down the acceptance in favor of another college if given the opportunity. 

 

Restrictive Early Action/Single-Choice Early Action (REA/SCEA): Early November

 

Like Early Action, REA/SCEA is non-binding, but you can only apply to one private school using this option. For more information on this option, check out our comprehensive post on Restrictive Early Action.

 

Early Decision 2 (ED 2): Early January

 

Some colleges offer an Early Decision 1 deadline and an Early Decision 2 deadline. The two are very similar in that they are binding decisions that require you to submit your applications early. However, ED 1 deadlines are usually earlier than ED 2 deadlines. For more details on this, see ED I vs. ED II: Frequently Asked Questions.

 

Regular Decision (RD): Early January

 

This is the college application process that most people are familiar with. You submit your application by the Regular Application deadline (usually January 1), and you’ll be considered for admission amidst the much larger Regular Decision pool of students. 

 

Rolling Decision

 

Larger public universities often use rolling decisions, which is when they review applications on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more spots there are available, and the more lenient the standards tend to be. The good thing about schools with rolling admissions is that they tend to accept applications well into the spring, but you should always apply as early as you can to increase your chances of acceptance.

 

Deciding whether to apply early can take anywhere from 5-10 hours because you need to assess whether there’s a school that you want to attend enough to apply early, and also whether you can complete the application in the shortened time frame. Here are some helpful blog posts to help you make this decision: 

 

What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision?

Does Applying Early Decision Increase My Chances?

Should I Apply Early Decision If I Need Financial Aid?

 

2. Write The Common App Essays (20-30 hours)

 

Now it comes time to actually fill out your college applications. When you submit the Common App, you will need to use the essays to showcase who you are and why you stand out from other applicants. 

 

The Common App essay is one of a portfolio of essays that you will send to colleges, but it is arguably the most important. This essay will be seen by every college you apply to using the platform. Good essays are deeply personal and show how you think, solve problems, make decisions, and what you’re passionate about. 

 

These essays can take anywhere from 20-30 hours as you need to carefully choose a prompt, brainstorm ideas, organize your thoughts, draft, edit, re-draft, edit again, and so on. You also need to make sure you proofread before you submit for any grammar mistakes and have someone else who knows you proofread as well.

 

To learn more about the Common Application Essays, the Coalition Application Essays (another major application platform), and receive strategic tips on how to tackle this year’s prompts, check out: 

 

How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2020-2021

How to Write the Common App Essays 2020-2021—With Examples

11 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your Writing

 

3. Complete Each School’s Supplemental Essays (5-10 hours per school)

 

Supplemental essays are the college-specific essays that you may or may not have to write, depending on which colleges you are applying to. Some colleges require several short supplemental essays on prompts that are specific to their school. For example, one of MIT’s supplemental essay prompts during the 2019-2020 school year was: 

 

“At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)”

 

On the other hand, some colleges don’t require supplemental essays at all. If you do find yourself with numerous supplemental essays to write, you may notice that there are common themes among the prompts for different colleges. There will probably be essays you can write that would be applicable to multiple supplemental essay prompts for different schools. 

 

For example, many colleges ask for an essay describing your extracurricular involvement. With a little bit of tweaking, you could make one extracurricular essay speak to every prompt that asks about it. Since there is likely to be overlap in your supplemental essay prompts, we expect this process to take less time than the general Common App/Coalition Application essays.

 

That being said, there are some essays that you absolutely should not reuse for multiple schools. For example, the famous “Why This College?” essay needs to be unique to the school and mention specific aspects of each college that appeal to you. If you find yourself thinking you can reuse a “Why This College?” essay, you probably haven’t been specific enough with the essay. 

 

4. Fill Out Financial Aid Documents (5-10 hours)

 

Once all is said and done and your application is complete, you still need to figure out how you plan to pay for college. Of course, before you apply to colleges, you should have a conversation with your family outlining just how much they can contribute financially and how much outside funding you’ll need. 

 

If you need financial aid to fund your college tuition, you’ll have to submit applications. The most common financial aid applications are the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. The FAFSA is an application for U.S. citizens to apply for federal government-funded need-based student loans. The CSS Profile is a financial aid form administered by The College Board that helps over 400 colleges across the nation determine what financial aid package to offer you. 

 

To learn more about how to fill out the FAFSA, see The Ultimate Guide For Filling Out The FAFSA. For more information on the CSS Profile, check out Every School That Requires The CSS Profile.

 

Filling out these forms can take a bit of time, as you’ll need to gather your family’s financial info and relevant documents. It can be helpful to have a parent/guardian nearby while you’re going through these forms.

 

The Bottom Line

 

The college application process starts during your Junior year and can take at least 100 hours to complete. This process includes completing your standardized tests, asking for recommendation letters, researching colleges, writing essays and more. 

 

Once you’ve done all the preliminary steps for filling out the application, actually filling out each school-specific application and writing their supplemental essays should only take 5-10 hours. 

 

As you begin your College Application and research process, you may be asking yourself important questions: What test scores should I aim for? What colleges should I apply to? What colleges do I have a chance of getting into? To help you answer those tough questions, CollegeVine offers a free Chancing Engine that lets you know your chances of acceptance at the schools of your choice, plus how to improve your profile. Sign up for a free CollegeVine account to get started today.

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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!