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When Should You Start on College Applications?

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Every college-focused high school student has heard of “College Applications Season.” This intense period is when 12th graders prepare to showcase their last four years of academic and extracurricular achievement in their college applications.


You’ve likely seen your senior peers enduring “College Applications Season,” but do most seniors begin work on their college applications well the fall and winter of their senior year? When does “College Applications Season” really start? In this post, we share our advice on when to start on your college applications, along with key college application dates and deadlines that will be relevant to most applicants. 


When Do Most College Applications Open? 

One challenge of college applications is the variability from school to school. Each college chooses how students should apply, when its application opens, and, of course, its final application deadline (as well as any early decision or early action deadlines). This means that every college you apply to probably will likely have different dates and deadlines that you need to track. However, this won’t significantly affect your big-picture timeline, since most colleges open up their applications around the same time. 


There are other factors that add some uniformity to the college admissions timeline. Many colleges use the Common Application; for all Common App schools, the application opens on the day that the Common App opens, August 1st. This Common App opening date has remained the same for some years. 


Another frequently used application platform is ApplyTexas, which (as you might guess!) is used by most public universities in Texas. The ApplyTexas application opens a little bit sooner, around July 1st, and you can submit your application as early as 10:00 AM Central Time that day! 


There’s also the University of California Application, which is the only application platform used by all public universities in the University of California network—these schools include UC Berkeley and UCLA. This application is unique because, though it is released in August, applicants are only allowed to submit their applications from November 1st to November 30th. 


Of course, there are other application platforms, like the Coalition Application and the Universal College Application. These platforms’ timelines vary from that of the more traditional Common App; in the case of the the Coalition Application, colleges choose when to open their applications, so the opening dates will vary. However, you can expect both the Coalition Application and the Universal College Application to open around the same time as the previous platforms, if not a bit sooner!


All in all, you should be able to start filling out some applications as early as July, and will definitely be able to begin most of your applications by August. However, most essay prompts are released a few months before the application platforms open, so you’ll likely be able to start working on your applications even before you are able to hit “submit.” Indeed, you should start working on those essay prompts as soon as possible to allow time for multiple rounds of drafting and editing. Aim to start your college essays during the summer before your senior year. After all, once senior year is under way you’ll also have to juggle coursework and other commitments, so having a draft or two completed will put you in the best possible position to submit polished, compelling essays. 


When Should You Ask For Recommendations? 

Most college applications require you to submit two or three letters of recommendation from teachers or counselors who know you well. The good news about these letters is that you don’t have to spend time crafting them! The bad news is that you need to ask your teachers to write them for you, which can be uncomfortable, since you are asking them to go above and beyond their everyday commitments. 


With this in mind, you should aim to ask for letters of recommendation sooner rather than later in senior year. Ideally, you should broach the topic with the teachers who know you best toward the end of your junior year, giving them the whole summer to think about what they would want to write and craft an outstanding letter. 


If you don’t approach your teachers by the end of your junior year or over the summer before senior year, you should certainly ask them at the beginning of your senior year. Generally speaking, you should give your teacher at minimum a few months to write a letter of recommendation from the time you first ask; then, politely check in every few weeks or so to see how the letter is progressing and ensure that your recommender doesn’t require additional information (for example, some teachers might realize, as they write your letter, that they would like to include specific information about your career plans or background). By giving your teachers plenty of notice and checking in periodically during your senior fall, you can do your best to ensure that you get a strong letter of recommendation from each of your teachers. 


So, When Is the Best Time To Start On College Applications? 

We at CollegeVine strongly recommend that you start working on your college applications during the summer before your senior year. This might seem like a long way before your winter application deadlines, but you shouldn’t underestimate how long it can take to craft separate essays for each application, finalize your resume, finish up your standardized tests, and compile your activities list. And remember—you’ll be doing all this while handling Senior Year coursework! Time really does fly, so it’s important to start early. 


Hopefully, you’ll already have a preliminary school list by the summer before your senior year. With a school list in hand (or on screen), you can start getting organized and figuring out which essays you’ll need to write; then, you can use the summer to brainstorm essay topics and start drafting essays. Most of our students find that their essays are one of the most time-consuming parts of the application, and most students put their essays through multiple drafts, proofreading sessions, and revisions before they feel satisfied and ready to submit.



Don’t Forget…

There are a few parts of the college application process that can sneak up on some seniors. To avoid throwing together an application or application component last-minute, you should be cognizant of these elements as you plan out your application timeline. Here, we’ll highlight two “surprises” that you’ll want to avoid!


Early Action or Early Decision deadlines. Be sure to consider if an early application approach makes sense for you before the fall of senior year. Then, plan a timeline and strategy for any early applications that you plan to submit. Students can choose to submit either early action (EA) or early decision (ED) applications to schools that offer these options. EA and ED are non-binding and binding options, respectively, but both allow you to demonstrate your interest in a school—and, potentially, learn about your acceptance early! However, EA and ED deadlines are usually in November (and sometimes even in October), so if early decision is right for you, you’ll need to all your application materials (including letters of recommendation!) compiled by late fall for your ED and/or EA schools. 


Your activity list. You should also be sure to reserve time to work on your activity list. Most college applications give you the opportunity to describe, in a few sentences or phrases, your extracurricular involvement and achievements. It’s critical that you pack this section with clear, powerful information to give a holistic and impressive picture of each of your activities. Some students leave this section until the last minute, perhaps assuming that it won’t take long because of its relatively short length. However, it often takes a few rounds of editing and tweaking to capture the essence of each activity within the word limit. 


Should I Prioritize Any Applications Over Others? 

Each college application you fill out deserves your time and attention equally, even if some schools are your “backups” or “safety” schools. Given the unpredictability of the college admissions process, you shouldn’t risk your admissions chances by submitting an application that you haven’t given enough time and attention. 


With that said, the more colleges you apply to, the more difficult you may find it to work on each of them at the same time. Thus, it may be worth your time to space out when you work on each set of applications. 


For example, if you’re applying to any school as an Early Decision or Early Action applicant, your application deadline is likely much sooner than most of your other deadlines. Therefore, you should make sure you prioritize that application first and make sure that it is one of the first applications that gets finalized.


After that, you can take a look at your application deadlines and try to spread out your time, focusing on the applications that are due the soonest first. For example, if you’re applying to UC Berkeley (deadline of November 30th) and UT Austin (deadline of December 31st), you can start work on the Berkeley application first and reserve time in the month after you submit your UC Berkeley application for UT Austin. 


Now, you can run the risk of “burnout” as you work through your pile of college applications; this can make your later applications weaker than the ones you complete first. At the same time, if you do excellent work on your early application components—by creating a strong Common App essay and activities list, for example—then you’ll set yourself up for a lower-stress end of your applications season. Nevertheless, it’s important to be cognizant of potential burnout; set goals for yourself, focus on creating really excellent components that you can use in multiple applications, and take breaks during your application season to recharge. With a few days or maybe a week “off” from applications, you’ll come back to your later applications with a clear head and renewed determination. And, of course, starting your applications early will make it more feasible for you to take a break in the middle of application season! 


For More Information 

Want more admissions tips as you begin your college application process? Check out these other blog posts: 


What is An Application Theme and Why Is It Important?

Tips For Meeting College Application Deadlines

Balancing The Start of Senior Year and College Applications

3 Mistakes To Avoid In The College Planning Process


Finally, if you find yourself filling out the Common App, you’re going to have to write the Common App essays. The Common App’s broad, personal prompts might seem daunting, but CollegeVine’s essay experts have compiled an extensive and comprehensive post to walk you through the optimal strategy to approach these essays. In the post, you’ll even find examples of successful essays from former applicants! It’s certainly worth a 21-minute read.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger

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!