Tips for Meeting College Application Deadlines
The college application process can be stressful and overwhelming. Students need to fill out applications, solicit letters of recommendation, submit test scores, write essays, and secure transcripts—all the while ensuring that all necessary materials arrive at the right institution in advance of their distinct deadlines. Applying to college is almost a job in itself, and students must tackle these tasks while maintaining their GPA and participating in extracurricular activities varying from sports to after-school jobs.
Because the college application period is such a busy time in a high school student’s life, it’s imperative that they’re aware of the deadlines ahead of them and are proactive in taking steps to meet them. Falling behind on the college application process can cause students to miss deadlines, submit sub-par work, or lose out on important opportunities such as scholarships or even direct admission to specialized programs. Simply put, failing to prepare for college application deadlines can undo the hard work that students have put into making themselves attractive to college admissions officers.
The popular old saying, “there is only one way to eat an elephant, a bite at a time” translates well to the college application process. On the whole, the task feels daunting—but, when broken down into bite-sized steps, applying becomes much more manageable. Below are the general steps students will take in the college application process.
Filling Out the Application: College applications typically require students to answer some basic questions such as name and contact information, then move onto information such as GPA and standardized test scores. Students should double-check their applications before submitting to ensure the accuracy of the information and guarantee that there are no typos. If all the schools a student is applying to are covered by a general application such as the Common Application or the Universal College Application, then they’ll be able to save time by filling out this one application which they’ll submit to a number of schools. Find out more about these applications and the schools they cover by reading our blog Universal College App Vs. Common App: Which to Use?
Securing Letters of Recommendation: Many colleges require students to submit a letter of recommendation from a student’s counselor—also called a “secondary school report”—or a letter of recommendation from a teacher, although sometimes letters of recommendation can come from coaches, community leaders, or other people who can speak to a student’s skill and character. The most effective letters of recommendation come from teachers familiar with the student and their work. Students should allow a minimum of three to four weeks for their writers to craft their letters—after all, the more time they’re given, the more likely they are to write something truly thoughtful and personalized.
Get all your questions about letters of recommendation answered in A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Recommendation Letters.
Submitting Test Scores: While self-reported standardized test scores will likely be required on an institution’s application, students will also be asked to include their official scores as part of the documentation supporting their college applications. Both the SAT and ACT allow students to send their scores to schools in a variety of ways—most commonly by sending a student’s scores directly to a school. While students can take advantage of rush and priority services to deliver their test scores, we recommend that students not wait so late into the application process that they need to use these services.
For more information on submitting your test scores, check out our blog What You Need to Know About Submitting ACT & SAT Scores to Colleges.
Essay: Many schools want students to submit an essay as part of their application. This is often the most challenging aspect of the college application process—it’s also extremely important, as it allows students to share information about themselves and their accomplishments from their own perspective. Students should plan for the process to take a few months, leaving an abundance of time to brainstorm ideas, solicit feedback, revise, and proofread.
Getting started on writing your essays? Read our blog How to Showcase Your Strengths in Your College Application Essays.
Supplemental Essay/Personal Statement: In addition to a major essay, some colleges also want applicants to submit a supplemental essay or personal statement. As with their main essay, students should leave themselves a considerable amount of time to craft a persuasive, error-free piece of writing.
If you’re applying to a school that requires a supplemental essay, don’t miss our article How to Write the Most Common Supplemental College Essays: A Complete Guide.
Transcripts: Schools will need a copy of a student’s official transcript to see their GPA, which classes they’ve taken, and to ensure that the student is on track to graduate. Generally, high school students request that their transcript be sent directly to a particular institution through their school’s office or their guidance counselor—it’s also common for schools to charge a small fee to send the transcript. Like everything else, we encourage high schoolers to request this documentation well in advance of a school’s deadline.
Create a College List: A lot of the work that goes into applying for college can be done in advance of the actual application period. This is particularly true of creating a college list, which should start a year (or earlier) ahead of the application process. Applicants who know which colleges they plan on applying to understand what grades and test scores they need to achieve, what supplemental materials they need to gather (i.e., essays and letters of recommendation), and are better positioned to tailor their applications specifically to particular institutions. Consequently, these students are also well-situated to meet college application deadlines.
Schedule for Scholarships: Students hoping to win scholarship money for college also benefit from getting a headstart on the college application process. Applying for scholarships can be as time consuming as college applications; many scholarship applications require their own essays, letters of recommendation, and supporting documentation that need to be as thoughtfully completed as a college app. Students who’ve started their college applications early are less likely to have an overlap of multiple time-intensive (and anxiety-inducing) activities happening concurrently.
Request Recommendations: Students should know who they will secure letters of recommendation from and give those people ample time to write them. One way students can help ease the recommendation process for their writers is by providing them with a resume or profile that shines a spotlight on the student’s accomplishments, successes, and skills.
Take Standardized Tests: It’s a good idea for students to take their standardized tests early. This allows students to retake the test if they fall short of their target score. The CollegeBoard, the provider of the SAT, recommends that students take the test in the spring of their junior year so that they’ll have an opportunity to take it a second time in the fall of senior year before college application deadlines, if necessary.
Wondering if you should retake your SATs? We’ve got the answer in our blog Should You Retake the SAT?
Craft Essays: For the overwhelming majority of college applicants, writing a college essay tailored to a particular school requires an incredible amount of time and energy—making it a process that can’t be rushed. Brainstorm ideas, draft, write, revise, proofread, and make sure you submit your best work. The essay is the one place where students can insert their voice and share with colleges something about themselves that can’t be gleaned from their grades or test scores.
Getting College Applications Organized
One of the simplest and most effective ways for college-bound high schoolers to keep track of admissions requirements and deadlines is by building a comprehensive spreadsheet or chart of the tasks they need to complete for each individual school(they should do the same thing for potential scholarships as well). Schools on the chart should be listed in descending order, showing the schools with the earliest deadlines at the top.
Once the chart is created, students should break college applications down into smaller pieces and assign deadlines to complete these pieces on a calendar, prioritizing materials for the schools with earliest deadlines. When assigning self-imposed deadlines, students should aim to complete an application a few days to a few weeks in advance of the college or university’s application deadline. This leaves students time to overcome any difficulties that may arise throughout the application process.
Of course, self-imposed deadlines are only beneficial if you stick to them; hence, it’s important that students hold themselves accountable for meeting their milestones. Computer or phone reminders are an excellent way to enforce deadlines and to keep them at the forefront of a student’s thoughts. But don’t just set reminders for final deadlines—setting reminders a week (or several weeks) in advance is a great way to stay on track and meet deadlines.
If you feel like the time spent building a chart and creating a calendar can be better spent working on college applications, the Milestone Tracker available in our College Applications Program auto-populates deadlines and helps students manage the numerous deadlines of the college application process.
Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Although it can be difficult to meet the variety of deadlines and needs of each college you’re applying to, preparation can simplify the process tremendously. Get started early, break big tasks down into smaller bits, create deadlines, and hold yourself accountable to them. If you need help doing any of this, don’t be afraid to ask a counselor, parent, or CollegeVine.
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