When should I apply to college?

by Marketing & Communications,

  • Student sitting on lawn working on laptop

In college as in life, timing makes a difference. 

Applying to colleges isn’t an overnight project, and when you do it can be just as important as how well you execute it.  

Senior year starts busy and only gets busier, so planning the application process during your junior year is a great way to ease anxiety, said Sue Corner, Willamette’s senior associate director of admission. 

Request credential documents early.

Teacher recommendations, counselor reports, transcripts and other credential documents should be requested early in the application process to meet deadlines — don’t expect a college to wait for it. 

Know the difference between early action and early decision.

Early decision means you’re obligated to attend the college regardless of the financial aid they can provide; early action means you’re interested in the school but not committed. 

Early decision can benefit students who are on the margins of acceptance at a college. The enthusiasm demonstrated by applying early can encourage institutions to take a second look at a student who might not otherwise be admitted, Corner said. However, it’s a big commitment and the only way to bypass it is if the institution can’t meet your financial need. Consider that your perception of financial need might differ from the federal government’s definition, Corner said. 

Also, a select number of institutions use restricted early action, which means if you apply to them early, you can’t apply to any other college. 

Take a hard look at your GPA.

Apply regular decision if you need extra time to finish the application — deadlines are usually early January — or if you want to boost your GPA senior year for financial aid calculations. For early action and early decision students, admissions officers can view a list of classes, but they can’t see how that translates into grades. If your senior year work is important, apply regular decision.

The best approach?

Apply early action if you can, Corner said, because it can only serve you. 

By the end of December or January, you’ll likely have heard back on decisions, and that means you can head into spring knowing where you stand with each institution and how much financial aid you can receive, she said.

Early round decisions also allow you time to get acquainted with your new campus during events for admitted students paid for by universities — Willamette’s version is Bearcat Days — that regular decision students might miss out on. 

But regardless of when you apply, the most impressive applications are complete, thorough and do not contain mistakes. 

Corner said, “Whatever deadline allows students to be really thorough is the most important one.”

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