With so many things to do, so many deadlines to keep track of and so many decisions to make, it can sometimes feel as though you need to take a class on how to get through the college application process. Fortunately, a little bit of planning often goes a long way, especially when it comes to applying for college. Knowing what to expect and then formulating a plan of action can help transform you from a confused and overwhelmed prospective student into a confident college applicant.

What is the College Application Process?

The college application process involves the collection and submission of various documents and information. Most colleges have similar requirements for the application process. You’ll need to submit an application that covers basic information about yourself and your family. You’ll also need to submit an official high school transcript that reflects the courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned. Results of standardized tests you’ve taken and letters of recommendation from former teachers or counselors are often a required part of the college application process. You'll need to write the college admissions essay, which is a personal essay that highlights who you are and why you want to attend a particular college. Don't underestimate the power of a strong college essay since it's the main component of an application that allows the admissions board to get a glimpse of who you really are.

College Application Processing Time

If you're particularly eager to plan your educational future as early as possible, you might consider taking advantage of the early application options that many colleges offer. Keep in mind, however, that some of the early application programs do come with some strings attached. There are three early application programs to choose from if you want to get a head start on college applications.

Early Action (EA) programs allow you to apply in November or December and typically send out admission notices eight-to-10 weeks later. There's no limit to how many colleges you can apply to using EA programs, so you can apply to as many as you’d like as long as they offer the option. EA gives you the opportunity to hear back from colleges earlier than traditional application timelines, but it doesn't restrict you like some other programs do since you still have until May 1 to decide which college is right for you.

Early Action Restricted (EAR) is like EA in the deadlines and response times, but there exist some restrictions that vary from college to college. If you plan to apply through an EAR program, make sure that you thoroughly understand the rules for that program and any restrictions that you may be subjected to. If you aren’t clear on it, contact an advisor or another representative from the college that can help clarify the rules for you.

Early Decision (ED) programs are the most restrictive. While you apply and receive an early response like the other programs, the ED route could lock you into the college you apply to if you're accepted and it meets your financial aid needs. Due to its restrictive nature, the ED option should only be pursued if you're absolutely sure that the college you apply to through it would be a good fit for you.

If you go the traditional route, you'll likely be looking at an application deadline between January 1 and February 1, depending on the college, and can expect a response sometime between late March and early April. Even if you're not applying early, it's a good idea to start getting your application in order in November so you won’t end up having to scramble later. College applications aren't something you want to procrastinate on.

College Application Process Tips

Even if you don’t plan to apply early, you should get an early start preparing and organizing yourself for the college application process. Brainstorm a list of colleges you'd like to attend and research them thoroughly. Consider location, academic programs, tuition costs and any other factors that are important to you. Once you have a list of your top college choices, check out what their individual application deadlines and requirements are so you know what to expect and can start gathering what you’ll need. Review all of your application materials carefully before submitting and look out for careless mistakes. Don’t forget to save up for application fees since those can add up when applying to multiple schools. If you aren’t sure where to start or need more information, ask your guidance counselor for help.

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