Tackling the College Application Beast
You already know that applying to college involves a bunch of moving parts, and it can be a scary process to undertake (let alone hit “submit” on!). To make it feel a bit more attainable, let’s go through it piece by piece. In this post I’ll provide an overview of decision timelines, the logistics of applying, and the major empirical components of the Common Application. Even if you’re applying somewhere that uses a different application portal, you’ll find some version of each of these components there, too. In Part III, we’ll cover the application components that will allow for a bit more storytelling and creative expression.
Deadlines and Decision Timelines
As you start researching colleges and adding them to your list, you may notice that some deadlines seem to follow a pattern, but others might feel fairly random. What’s all this “decision” jargon?! Let’s break it down:
Regular Decision (RD): It varies by college, but deadlines are often January 1 or 15. (This can vary quite a bit, though, so don’t forget to double check: for example, colleges in the University of California system have their deadline at the end of November.) Expect to hear back around March or April about whether you’ve been accepted. The national response deadline to tell colleges whether you’ll enroll there or not is May 1, and there’s no limit to the number of schools you can apply to under the regular decision deadline.
Early Decision (ED): This application is binding, which means your application constitutes an agreement that you will enroll at that college if you are accepted. The most common ED deadlines are November 1 and November 15, and colleges will generally notify you of their decision in mid-December. Keep in mind, when you apply early decision, you commit to a school before getting to review your financial aid offer, so if flexibility in this regard is important to you, early decision might not be the best choice for you.
Early Decision II (ED II): This is the same concept as early decision in that it is also binding, but the timeline is pushed back a bit. Deadlines are generally in January, and you’ll be notified of your admission status around February. Colleges are less likely to offer this option than the earlier early decision deadline, but ED II can be helpful for students that didn’t get into their early decision choice the first time around, because it gives them the chance to commit to a different college and still hear back early.
Early Action (EA): Early Action has the same deadlines and notification timeline as ED, but without the commitment. You’ll hear back about your admission status by December but you’ll have until the national May 1 deadline to decide where you’ll enroll, so you can compare financial aid offers with those from regular decision schools. Some colleges (often elite universities) have “single-choice” or “restrictive” early action, which only allow you to apply early to their school, but colleges with standard early action deadlines will let you apply early to multiple schools.
Hearing Back from Colleges
Once you’ve submitted your application, you’re just waiting for that “yes” or “no,” right? Well, not quite: most often you’ll get a clear acceptance or rejection, but there are some other possible outcomes. If you apply early, your application might be deferred. This just means that the application pool has been very competitive, and you didn’t make it in with the batch of early admissions, but the admissions committee wants to push your application to the regular decision pool and evaluate it again. Being deferred can be frustrating because you’ll have to wait longer for your decision, but it’s not a hard “no,” so don’t lose hope if it happens to you!
For regular decision, you may also get waitlisted. This means that there isn’t enough space in the incoming class to admit you, but they still think you are a promising applicant. If enough admitted students decide not to attend, their spots may open up and become available to students on the waitlist.
It won’t help to call the admissions office repeatedly or drown your dream college in additional letters of recommendation. The best thing you can do for your chances of getting off the waitlist is to confirm right away that you’d like to stay in the running, since many colleges remove students from the waitlist if they don’t confirm their interest. Then, work hard to raise or maintain your grades, and write a letter to the admissions committee reiterating your interest and making an argument for what you would add to the campus community.
Colleges generally make information available about how many students they accept off the waitlist on average (generally between 5-10%), but this number can be very hard to predict in any given year. That is to say: it’s largely out of your control whether you’ll get off a waitlist or not, so make sure that by the time May 1st rolls around, you’ve made a decision to enroll somewhere, even if it’s not your first choice. It’s possible to be admitted from a waitlist over the summer, but you shouldn’t bank on it.
SAT or ACT
You don’t have to take the SAT once and live with whatever score you get. If you’re happy with your first score, great! But if not, keep in mind that many students improve the second time they take the test, especially if they make some time to study or work with a tutor. Also, there’s a lot of information out there about the differences between the SAT and ACT… but the best way to figure out which one you should take is to take both a practice SAT and an ACT. If your scores indicate that you’ll have much more of an uphill battle with the SAT, don’t make your life harder than it has to be: go for the ACT. On the flip side, if you score well on a diagnostic SAT or the PSAT and it feels attainable to push to a higher score with a bit of studying, stick with the SAT.
Just make sure to leave yourself enough time to retake whichever test you choose before your earliest deadline! If you’re applying early, this will probably mean the latest time you can take the test will be October, though you might not receive your scores before you have to decide if you’ll send them to colleges. And remember that registration deadlines are about a month before the actual test date, so make sure to build this lag into your application timeline. You can find SAT test dates on the CollegeBoard website, and ACT dates here.
It’s so easy to get caught up in a flurry of supplements (which we’ll cover in the next post) and put a ton of your focus on deciding the best way to describe your stellar extracurriculars, but it bears repeating: Grades. Are. Crucial. Just like I mentioned in Part I, it’s a tricky balancing act to stay focused on school while you’re completing your applications, but it’s an area where you can’t afford to lose focus. Colleges want to see an upward trajectory of your GPA, so even if you haven’t always been a stellar student, it means a lot if you can show some improvement.
If you need help balancing all these scholarly demands, it’s okay! Take an honest, hard look at your transcript and your organizational skills and figure out where you need support. Do you need a better system of accountability to make sure you’re staying on top of homework? Maybe your parents can help with that. Are you overwhelmed trying to figure out how to manage schoolwork while staying on top of your self-made deadlines for the college process? Whenever I work with students as a college coach, this type of time management and long-term planning is one of the first things I address. Whether you’re working with a tutor or on your own, the best thing you can do is identify your strengths and weaknesses, so you can ask for the support you need while there’s still plenty of time.
AP and SAT Subject tests
Ah yes, even more standardized tests. If you’ve been taking AP courses throughout high school, you’re already familiar with the process of taking AP tests in May that cover material you’ve been working throughout the year in your AP course. They’re scored on a 1 to 5 scale, with 3’s and above considered a “pass,” though colleges will often only grant course credit for 5’s. If you’ve been working hard all year in an AP class, it’s worth it to power through the 3-hour test and come out on the other side with a score that can boost your application.
SAT subject tests are a little different: they’re offered multiple times per year, and last one hour. They’ll be scored on a scale of 200 to 800, and they can be a great way to showcase advanced knowledge in a specific subject. If you’re already studying for an AP test, you might as well also take an SAT subject test in the same subject, since there will be significant overlap in the material. Depending on where you choose to apply to college, SAT subject tests may be optional, or you may be required to submit one or two scores with your application.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
If you’re hoping to receive any type of financial aid for colleges (whether it’s a scholarship, grant, work-study opportunity, federally subsidized loan, or some combination of these), filling out the FAFSA has to be your first step. Many colleges have deadlines to submit the FAFSA in February or March, well after the application deadline, but there are significant advantages to submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible after it becomes available on October 1st. Not only are you likely to receive your financial aid award letters sooner from the colleges where you are accepted, but some schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis.
The FAFSA asks detailed questions about your family’s finances, so you’ll need to sit down with your parents and their tax return from the previous year. The detailed questions can be confusing, especially if your parents don’t have experience with the American college system. But there are plenty of online resources (both on the FAFSA website and on others) to help you through the process. Your guidance counselor should also be able to point you towards resources about how to fill out the FAFSA.
Additionally, you may have the opportunity to apply for “merit-based” scholarships, depending on the college. Merit scholarships are awarded based on academic achievement, not financial need. Some colleges require applications for these, or while others automatically consider all applicants.
They’re easy to forget about, but if you’re applying to 10-12 colleges, those fees (an average of $40 per school) can quickly add up. Many schools will accept fee waivers, especially if you’ve already qualified for a fee waiver for the SAT. It can be a bit tricky to secure application fee waivers, but your guidance counselor should have some advice, and you can find more information here. The College Board also has a database that allows you to search through colleges that accept fee waivers.
Get those logistics squared away, so you can focus on the fun stuff.
I hope this has been a helpful primer on all the quantitative and administrative components of your college application. It can be stressful to think about being evaluated based on so many numbers (your grades, a multitude of test scores, even the FAFSA), but just remember that these numbers aren’t the only important part of your application.
Once you’ve got a plan to stay on track with your schoolwork and any extra studying for SAT’s or AP’s, all you’ve got to do is stay the course. You’ll figure out which application deadlines make the most sense for you, you’ll get ready to check all the academic boxes, and then you’ll get to focus on the truly exciting part of the application: the part that highlights who you are. In Part III, we’ll cover the writing-based and qualitative components of the application, which will require a different kind of strategy.
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