Timeline for Success: Applying to Colleges Early is in Your Best Interest

Ashley Thommana
April 6, 2024

College application season, usually the first semester of a student’s senior year, is notorious. Parents and students alike dread it, fearing it will be taxing and overwhelming to balance during the school year, along with classes, extracurriculars, and other responsibilities.

The good news is that applying early can help eliminate some of this stress and ensure a much smoother college application process. But, what do we mean when we say “apply early”? Let’s start by dissecting some terminology.

Key Terms - Deadlines

Colleges have different “deadlines” to submit applications. The four most common, in no particular order, are: 

Starting with the bottom of this list, the term “regular decision” refers to the deadline by which you must submit your application to be considered for the school. It is the final and last day you can apply by. After this deadline, schools state that they will review your application along with all the others that came through.Generally these will be in December or January, but may be as far into the year as March or April.

In schools with a “rolling” deadline, the school will review your application as soon as they can, even if it is before the final deadline. An example of a school with a rolling deadline is the University of Pittsburgh.

Early action deadlines are deadlines for highly interested students and occur earlier in the cycle than regular decision applications. They are usually in October or November. Early decision deadlines are also around the same time, but require the student to commit to the school if they get in. This means that if you apply to Duke by their early decision deadline, and you are subsequently accepted, you are committed to attending. Students who apply by both of these early deadlines usually find out their decisions earlier in the process. 

Back to “Applying Early”

Returning from our quick aside, let’s reframe what we mean by applying early for each of the categories of deadlines.

One way you can “apply early” in the cycle is by choosing to apply during the “early action” or “early decision” deadlines instead of the regular decision deadline. A benefit of this is that in some schools, there are higher chances of acceptance. For example, according to an IvyWise article, schools like Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and Northwestern University had 2 to 3 times higher acceptance rates during their early action and decision deadlines. Especially if you are sure you want to apply to a school, applying early through the early action and decision deadlines can be very beneficial. 

In rolling applications, it is especially important to “apply early” by submitting your application well before the final deadline. This is because your application will be compared with fewer applications since as you get closer to the deadline, more and more students will be submitting their applications. For example, on their website, the University of Pittsburgh even states, “there may be less competition early.” The college will look at your application as soon as they can so the benefits of applying earlier than the deadline also include hearing back sooner, which is always a great thing. In rolling admission specifically, applying early is very important since waiting to submit your application closer to the deadline can be extra detrimental to your chances, since acceptances have already been issued. On their website, the University of Pittsburgh explains, “available spots can fill up quickly.”

Finally, even when applying during the “regular decision” cycle, it can be beneficial to submit your application earlier than the deadline. One reason is that many schools offer scholarships and will consider applications that come in before a certain deadline, usually a deadline before the regular decision deadline. 

Additionally, another general benefit of submitting your applications earlier than their deadline is just that it allows you to enjoy more of your senior year and have less stress. Often students are taking their hardest course-load, have leadership roles in extracurriculars, and are also trying to enjoy their last year of school. There is a lot going on. 

By submitting your application earlier in the cycle, you free up more time to prioritize other commitments in your life, as well as focus on other parts of the application cycle like interviews and scholarship applications.

Building the perfect schedule = Maximizing the summer

Okay, hopefully you are convinced that no matter what deadline you are applying to, the earlier you apply the better. But, how can you achieve that?

Maximizing your time over the summer is important. You can get a lot done in the first few months to save you time and improve the quality of your application.

For example, in your application, arguably the most important essay is your personal statement. The great thing about writing your personal statement is that you can start at any time. The purpose and prompt associated with the essay is usually very easy to find. For example, every year, months before they open their system, the CommonApp posts their list of prompts. For the 2024-2025 cycle, they have already released this information.

So, while many students continue to work on their personal statement well into the college application cycle, you can expedite your application process by finishing in the summer—ideally before August 1st which is when the Common Application portal opens up and starts accepting applications. 

Finalizing your personal statement early is important because it is a required task to apply to almost any school. You need your personal statement done before writing your supplemental essays and hitting submit. It is the bottleneck. By starting early, in the summer, you can test out more ideas with your Dewey Smart college admissions advisor and refine your essay further without worrying about deadlines.

Additionally, over the summer, you can identify your school list, contact recommenders, and start brainstorming ideas for common supplemental essays. Working ahead means that you will have less to do during the school year and more time to focus on the important parts of your application. It will help you reap all the benefits of applying to college early.

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