When to Apply to College: The #1 Best Time

When should you apply for college? The short answer: Before the deadline date that is posted on the college website. The long (and accurate) answer: there are many deadlines to consider, depending on your hopes, needs, and dreams. 

Regular and Early Application Deadlines

If you plan to start in the fall semester, most college applications are due in November or December of the year before. So, if you’re looking to start college in fall 2024, you’ll need to have your applications submitted by late fall / early winter 2023. Check with the schools’ web pages and make sure you are clear about these deadlines. They are written in stone and unbreakable, so if you submit late or miss the deadline, you will have to wait a year to re-apply or apply for January admission.

Also, most colleges offer desirable notification and admission options with earlier deadlines. (usually October or November for the next school year). Each option requires a different level of commitment. Here are the most common early application options:

  • Early decision. This is for people who are absolutely sure about where they want to go. You apply by the early deadline, and if you’re accepted, you must commit immediately. Usually, you can only apply for early decision at one school. 
  • Early action. Many Ivy League schools use this option; most don’t allow you to apply for early action elsewhere; you apply by the early deadline but have until the general acceptance deadline (usually May 1st) to accept. However, once you receive notification (usually mid-December), you can apply anywhere else you want.
  • Priority review or early notification. Becoming more common, you apply by an early deadline and receive a decision earlier (usually about six weeks earlier) than the general pool of applicants. You still have until the regular acceptance deadline to make your decision.
  • Early read. The financial aid office gives an early estimate of your possible financial aid award. Often this goes hand in hand when you apply for early decision, but don’t assume anything – check with the college’s financial aid office.

When you apply early, the university will notify you early whether your application has been accepted, rejected, or deferred. Deferment means that your early application has been put into the regular pool of applicants, and you’ll receive a decision in April when they do. Deferment can feel like rejection but remember — “Don’t Panic!” You still have a chance to get into the school. You may be able to submit additional materials to boost your application, but don’t do so on your own. Ask the college’s admissions office if there’s anything you can do — and at all times, remain polite and patient, and thank them for their time.

Some colleges also have rolling admissions, meaning that you can submit your application during a large window of time (usually over six months). The plus side is that you will usually hear from the school within 4 – 6 weeks after applying. Occasionally, a school with rolling admissions will have slots open long after deadlines for other schools have come and gone. But in general, it’s best to apply to a rolling admissions school as early in the admissions period as possible because there will be more slots open and more financial aid available. Furthermore, these colleges tend to look favorably on students who apply earlier.

Don’t forget, scholarship programs also have deadlines. The Alliance has awarded millions of dollars in scholarships to thousands of students since 1996. Learn more about the program and the application headlines here.

“It isn’t just about personal statements that focus on historical figures. Applicants too often choose to list, cite, and quote from books. It would be better if they put all of this in their own words! They shouldn’t just insert quotes from famous people in the hope of sounding more intellectual.”

—Advice from The Ivy Coach

Target, Reach, and Safety Schools

Now it’s time to make a list. Where would you like to go to college? In making your list, you need to consider three categories of schools:

  • Targets. These are the schools that are the best fit for you. Your grades, test scores, and interests are well-matched to these schools, and chances are, if you apply, you will get in.
  • Reach. Dare to dream. Did you always want to go to Yale? Ever envision yourself with a Harvard diploma on the wall? Would you like “B.A. from Stanford University” to be a part of your resumé from now until all eternity? You should apply to at least one school that is a reach with your grades/test scores. You never know what can happen. Remember: your application is compared with the general pool of applicants, so depending on who else is applying, your chances might be better than you think.
  • Safety. Applying to a couple of colleges where you think you may be accepted is important. These may not be your first choice schools, but if you are serious about applying to college, you need to have some “sure things.” After all, it would be terrible to go through this process and come out with nothing, right? Another way to look at this: which colleges would be thrilled to have you? The bonus of applying to places where you look like a superstar is that these schools will possibly offer you larger financial aid packages and/or scholarships to attend.

Most college counselors and organizations like The College Board and Peterson’s agree that you should apply to between 6 and 10 colleges. Within that framework, you should be thinking about 3 – 4 target schools, 1 – 3 reach schools, and 2 – 3 safety schools. 

That doesn’t mean you have to spend a zillion hours filling in applications. The Common Application lets you apply to many, many more, and indeed it is not unheard of for students to apply to 15 to 20 schools. However, experts generally recommend sticking with the standard 6 – 10. Most applications will still require individualized materials and a separate application fee. And though these fees can be waived for select students who use the common app, sticking to the recommended 6 – 10 will make the process more manageable and strengthen your applications.

What Are Colleges Looking For?

By and large, colleges are looking for enthusiastic, intelligent, diverse, and vibrant student populations. The more of these qualities you present to the admissions officers, the better! Of course, depending on what kind of school you are applying to, this can be presented in different ways. There’s the kind of enthusiasm that a musical theater program would desire – focused, buoyant, bubbly, and high energy. And there’s the kind of enthusiasm that an engineering program would welcome — still focused but more serious, passionate about math and science, quieter.

In general, the best advice that counselors and websites give on this subject is to be yourself. That is, be the best version of you that you know how to be, and chances are the right school will find you.

Make sure you have all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed when you apply for college. Check out these Alliance articles about how to apply, standardized tests, and essay, recommendations, and interviews. Be sure to check out The Alliance College Guide. It explains what you need to know about choosing, preparing for, applying to, and paying for college. All in clear, no-nonsense language.

College Stats

6 million – The number of applications sent using the Common App in 2021, according to Forbes