How to Stay Ahead of the College Application Process

Last updated: Dec 11, 2019

Applying to colleges demands a defined game plan for the deadlines and details you have to deal with in a timely and mature manner. You need to know what you want, what’s required, when it’s due, and where you stand, with as little stress as possible. How to stay ahead of the college application process comes down to planning, timing, organization, and a whole new level of anxiety management that starts with a detailed timeline and ends with the satisfaction of knowing you represented yourself admirably to your top-choice schools. 

A student receives help on her college application while on her laptop

Prep a Plan Before You Begin Applying

Once you have your shortlist of safety, reach, and match schools, take the time to evaluate each college’s application process. That means before you even key your name into the form, carefully read through each school’s online application so you are certain about deadlines, fees, policies, and essay prompts. You don’t want to be blindsided by an unanticipated due date or document request. You can’t go wrong by starting earlier than you think is really necessary.

Now is the time to plan how you’ll track your applications. A number of convenient apps can assist and remind you, but admissions pros suggest keeping both digital and hard-copy folders, so consider a countdown-to-college checklist to keep track of when to do what. Virtual, paper or both, these essentials need to be at your fingertips: 

  • Documents, such as essays, completed FAFSA forms for financial aid, highlights of your personal profile and accomplishments, scholarship applications, copies of your submitted applications, your social security number
  • Checklist, to keep on top of tasks and deadlines

A high school student fills out her college application

Decide When to Apply

Each school has its particular methods and time frame, but most offer options for when you can apply and when you’ll get your response. There are pros and cons to each choice, so consider them carefully before committing.

Early Decision: November

This is an application with a binding agreement, stating that the school is your first choice and you will accept an offer if it is extended. The typical deadline for early decision applications is Nov. 1, or sometimes Nov. 15. You’ll be notified by December. Some schools offer a second round of early decision applications in January, still binding, with a decision in February.

Pros: It can tip the scales in your favor. Early decision clearly telegraphs your enthusiasm to the college’s admissions staff.

Cons: You will be contractually obligated to accept an early offer even if you haven’t sorted out financial aid yet, so it’s risky for students who need loans, scholarships, or grants.

Early Action: November

This is an application with similar timing to early decision, but it is not binding. The typical deadline for early action is Nov. 1, or sometimes Nov. 15, with a decision in December.

Pros: You’ll know your answer early, leaving you time to apply to more schools during the regular decision period.

Cons: Early action is becoming more and more competitive, so deferrals are common. If deferred, you may have to wait for mid-year test scores or grades to improve your standing.

Regular Decision: January

This is the most common choice for most students. The deadline to apply is usually Jan. 1, or sometimes Jan. 15, although some university systems have fall or spring regular decision deadlines, so make sure you confirm dates early in the application process.

Pros: You can apply to as many schools as you want under regular decision.

Cons: You won’t be notified until March or April, so you’ll need a backup plan.

Rolling Admission: Sooner Rather Than Later

This is an option offered by schools filling out their incoming class on an ongoing basis. They release admission decisions on an ongoing basis, too, rather than sending them out on a single day. No matter when you apply or receive your "yes" from a school that offers rolling admission, you usually do not have to commit until May 1, commonly referred to as National College Decision Day. Rolling admission should not be considered a license to procrastinate, but it’s a great option if you need a little extra time to bump up your GPA or improve your SAT score.

Pros: It could be a matter of days rather than months to receive a decision.

Cons: If you wait to apply, you run the risk that the incoming class will be full.

Keep on Top of Testing

If you need to retake the SAT or ACT before applying, give yourself enough time to study and to submit your scores before your target school’s deadline. Both standardized tests offer seven test dates in the United States. Most SAT scores are released about two weeks after test day. June scores can take up to six weeks. Note: You can send the SAT to four schools for free when you register for the exam; each additional report is $12 (the fee for the ACT is $13), so budget accordingly if you have a long application list. Fee waivers are available.

Manage the Details

Plan to get a few things ready to roll well ahead of submitting your applications.

  • Transcript request: Weeks before you intend to start applying, submit a request to your high school counselor’s office for your official transcript. They will send it directly to your target colleges. 
  • Recommendation letters: If you need letters of recommendation, prepare a list of appropriate writers and their contact information long before you apply so they don’t feel a time crunch. 
  • Essay: Draft, revise, and proofread your essays through several versions weeks before the deadline.
  • FAFSA application: To be considered for federal student aid, submit your FAFSA form beginning Oct. 1. Many states have earlier deadlines, so don’t procrastinate on this one.
  • Application fee: There is no set price but expect to pay $50-$90. Two options: Ask your college if you qualify for a waiver and check promotional emails from the school (colleges often offer a discount code).  

A high school student writes his college application essay

Tame the Turmoil

Planning your application process and hitting every deadline in the bull's-eye is no guarantee of a stress-free waiting period. In fact, anxiety is as much a part of the experience as all the paperwork. But using the same organizational tools and the focused schedule that makes the application process run smoothly can help you tame the turmoil of waiting for a yes or no. Keep yourself busy while you work hard to not overhype any one school. Consider sharing your anxiety with a trusted friend or your college “team.” It can help to talk about it.

Even if it has felt overly complex and all-consuming, the application process doesn’t last forever. Once you hit send and it is no longer in your hands, breathe a sigh of relief and congratulate yourself on managing the first major endeavor of your college career.

If USF is on your shortlist, the Office of Admissions is ready with advice and answers to your application questions. Contact us online or by phone, 813-974-3350.