When Should We Apply to College and What Is Required?

This summer I will examine some of the more detailed aspects of college applications: essays, letters of recommendation, choice of major, scholarships, etc. Today I’m going to start with the basics— when to apply and what is required. 

I’m going to outline the general application process for four year colleges and universities. If you want to take classes at your local community college or trade school, check their admission website. Most will accept applications for the upcoming term with manageable deadlines and won’t require much more than your contact information, academic history, and a transcript. 

When to Apply (Official Answer)

The official answer is before the deadline. Students apply in the fall of their senior year. Most applications do not open until August 1, so you can plan and prepare over the summer, but you can’t apply until August. 

Most admissions deadlines are in the fall / winter of a student’s senior year. Typical deadlines are December 1 and January 1. Some schools have earlier deadlines, so be sure to research the schools on your list. University of Florida (UF) is a good example; the absolute latest you can apply for admission to UF is November 1. (A good reminder not to fall for generalizations like “state school deadlines are later!”)

If you want to apply for one of the official early admission plans (Early Decision or Early Action), most of those deadlines are October 15 or November 1. More information on early options HERE and HERE.

When to Apply (Practical Answer)

While the official answer on when to apply simply means meeting the deadline, there are some practical considerations. 

  1. Don’t wait until the day before. This isn’t just my attempt to discourage procrastination. I have seen too many last minute issues that become emergencies when students try to apply the day before the deadline. First, sometimes the application platforms (Common App, Apply Texas, etc.) slow or crash due to high traffic. Next, localized problems such as power outages, computer crashes, weather emergencies, or personal illness can put your admission in jeopardy if you wait until the last minute. 
  2. Senior year gets better when all your applications are submitted. Even pretty easy-going seniors comment that they noticed a weight off their shoulders once they hit “send” on that final application. Set a personal application deadline that allows you to put the stress of applications behind you and move on to the rest of your senior year. 

What would I do? The goal for our daughter (who is entering her senior year in college) was to have all applications done by Halloween. We failed. She had a full summer and didn’t start work on her essays until August. Most applications were done by November 1, but with five AP classes and a busy competitive schedule for speech, two regular decision applications dragged into November and December. It was brutal. (It didn’t help that she had to write supplemental essays for 4-5 schools on her list.) We will not repeat those same mistakes with our son. ALL of his essays will be done before school starts his senior year and applications will be in before Halloween. 

Texas School Frenzy

If you won’t be applying to UT Austin or Texas A&M, you can skip to the next section. 

Ugh! This is one part of my job that I actually hate. We know that in some cases, demonstrated interest can help in admission. When it comes to applying to Texas A&M and UT, word on the street says that submitting your application early can help if you aren’t going to get automatic admission based on class rank. Every year this creates a frenzy. 

I’m not going to break down the reality versus the myth. There are a lot of factors at play.

Here’s what I tell my clients:

  • A poorly written application, submitted early, is not going to help. Take your time and get it right. 
  • You do not need to submit at 12:01 AM on August 1 to be early. Applications sent anytime in August (even September) are early. 
  • Good luck getting transcripts and letters of recommendation out of your high school on August 1.  
  • If you want to go to A&M or UT, go ahead and send your application early. It can’t hurt. Of course, no amount of early makes up for bad grades, low scores, or poorly written essays. 

Personally, I don’t know how much difference “early” will make. But I also know it isn’t worth the worry or potential regret. So go ahead and send your UT and A&M applications in the month of August. 

What Do College Application Require

Like most answers involving admissions questions, it depends. 

I’ll outline the typical requirements from the most basic to the most involved. 

Quick App / Easy App — You may receive an email from a school inviting you to use their quick app or free app. Many of these applications require a quick page of personal information, a copy of your transcript, and maybe your test scores. You could complete your part of the application in under an hour. 

[A side note on these apps— schools that promote quick applications are often looking to increase their numbers. It doesn’t mean you are guaranteed admission. It often means the school is playing games. They want to rank higher (because so many families believe the rankings identify “good” schools.) Colleges can make themselves look better if they get more students to apply. First, they appear in demand. Second, they can appear more selective (a U. S. News ranking criteria.) If last year they admitted 2000 of the 5000 student who applied, they admitted 40%. This year they send out a quick app and get 10,000 applicants. When they admit the same number of students, their acceptance rate has dropped to 20% and the school is considered more selective. Keep in mind schools are looking out for themselves in this process too!]

Basic application— a basic college application will include the following

  • Personal information (name, address, family information)
  • In-state residence question (this is to see if you qualify for in-state tuition for state universities only)
  • List of senior year classes (because you won’t have senior grades when you apply, but they want to see what classes you are taking)
  • Activity list / resume
  • High school transcript (sent from your school; some applications ask you to list all your grades / classes in addition to sending your transcript)
  • ACT / SAT scores (unless the school is test optional— more about that HERE)

This type of application will take 1-3 hours to complete if you have your academic information handy and have a draft of your activity resume. 

Application with essay— Some schools just ask for the basic application, but probably the most common is the application with essay. 

You will submit everything from the basic application AND a personal statement that is typically 500 to 650 words long. Many schools use the same essay prompts, so you can submit the same piece of writing to multiple schools, but some schools elect to have their own prompts, requiring unique responses. 

Application with essay and extras— Some schools want even more information. Often, these institutions are evaluating applications holistically and some are highly selective. The extra information can include one or more of the following:

  • Short answer responses — these questions may be answered with a few words, a single sentence, or a couple paragraphs. 
  • Short essays — unlike the 500-650 word essays, these responses are shorter, often 250-300 words long.
  • Letters of recommendation — often schools that require recommendations ask for one letter from your counselor (or school official) and one or two letters from academic teachers. 
  • Supplemental essays — these are additional long essays (500-650 words) addressing school specific prompts. 
  • Portfolios / auditions – these may be required for students applying to music, theater, dance, and visual arts programs. 


Students who want to graduate from high school then start college in the fall will submit applications during their senior years. While deadlines vary by campus, the majority of colleges an universities have fall and winter deadlines. 

Typically, applications don’t open until August 1 of a student’s senior year. This means you can begin gathering information and preparing over the summer, but you can’t start the application until it opens. 

Some applications can be completed in a single day, but those requiring essays, short answer responses, or additional information can take significantly longer. Because students only have one opportunity to make a good impression with their application, it is important to take time and submit quality work. 

On a personal note— essays and short answers take a lot longer than you expect. My daughter is an excellent writer and knew what she wanted to say in her personal essay. It took a couple weeks (not hours, not days— weeks!) for her to complete that essay. It is uncomfortable to write about yourself in first person; that is not the type of writing we teach in high school. Next week I will focus on these essays: what to do, what not to do, and some tips for making the process easier.

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