How and When to Apply to College

UCPG 82017-08-03T03:30:40+00:00

In the previous chapter of the Ultimate College Prep Guide, we laid out our three-step plan to help your student decide where to apply to college. By pinpointing your academic interests, building your college list and visiting schools, your student can get a clear idea of what college is right for them.

In this chapter, we’ll give you a comprehensive run-down of the things you need to know about actually applying to college. We’ll provide the resources and information about things like filling out applications and deciding when to apply, that you need to make sure your student doesn’t miss a step in their college application process.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this chapter:

Start with the Common Application and Secondary Applications

The Common Application is an integrated undergraduate and transfer application shared between 695 colleges and universities, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large public universities.

The Common App asks for information such as:

The essay prompt selection for 2017-2018 has already been released so your student can start thinking about which topic inspires them the most. We’ve copied the essay prompts below:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Remember that while the Common App is a broad application that is sent to many colleges, there are significant differences in things like due dates (orange) and requirements (blue) for each of these institutions, as this cross section demonstrates:

Common Application

Make sure you’re aware of the due dates that correspond to your student’s college(s) of choice. The Common App and all other parts of the application must be completed before the earliest due date because once the application has been sent, it’s a hassle to change things.

Note: Submitting the Common Application for some schools requires paying a fee. Fee waivers are available to those who qualify under certain categories.

The main portion of the Common Application, including the personal essay, is shared across all colleges, but each college reserves the right to add their own “supplement” or “secondary application” as an addendum to the shared application.

Supplements / Secondary Applications

Many colleges, particularly the more selective ones, include secondary portions of the application that ask for more information. This is usually in the form of additional essay prompts. For many schools, these are optional but highly encouraged.

Strong supplemental applications can help your student’s application stand out. Often when admissions officers are having a tough time deciding between equally qualified candidates, the student with the better supplement will have the edge. Putting just as much effort into your supplement as the rest of your application could make or break your student’s acceptance to a certain school.

To find whether or not a school requires a supplement, you can search for a public listing on the school website. Sometimes supplements will be included on the Common Application. Most supplement essay topics fall under the generic “Why do you want to go to this school?” category, but some (like the notoriously unique University of Chicago) will be more complicated.

Some examples of supplement essay questions include:

  • Oberlin College: How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excite you?
  • Tufts University: Artist Bruce Nauman once said: “One of the factors that still keeps me in the studio is that every so often I have to more or less start all over.” Everyone deals with failure differently; for most artists failure is an opportunity to start something new. Tell us about a time when you have failed and how that has influenced your art practice.
  • University of Chicago: Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.

Schools That Don’t Accept the Common Application

While many schools do use the Common App, including most of the more selective public and private colleges, not every college in the US is on the Common App. Surprisingly, the vast majority of schools in the US actually do not use the Common Application—there are over 4,000 colleges in the US, and only ~695 schools use the Common App.

The content on the common app and other schools’ unique applications does not vary much. Both applications ask for many of the same metrics and personal statements. For example, MIT does not use the Common App, but still requires test scores, multiple personal statements, letters of recommendation, GPA, and strongly encourages an interview.

There are also several alternative group applications, such as the Coalition Application which is intended to be more affordable and reduce barriers to entry for lower income students. There are also some state school systems that have integrated applications for their public systems, such as the University of California system.

Decide Whether to Apply Early Action, Early Decision or Regular Decision

Each round of applications has its pros and cons. It’s important to decide ahead of time when your student will apply because some deadlines are earlier than others.

Early Action

Early action is a non-binding application that—as the name suggests—a student submits earlier than a regular decision application. Early action applicants receive an earlier admissions decision.

Students are allowed to apply to more than one college early admission and if they are accepted, they do not have to commit. The final deadline to commit to an early action acceptance is May 1st, which is the national response date for all early and regular college applications.

There are some pros and cons to consider when deciding whether or not to apply early action:


  • Differing (and smaller) application pools may be less competitive and increase your student’s chances of admission
  • Reduces stress because your student will find out admissions decisions sooner
  • Earlier financial aid notification may grant you more time to get finances in order and seek out other schools with more aid if your initial package isn’t suitable


  • Some colleges might want an extra semester of academic info to make their decision, applying EA means you have one less semester to prove your worth
  • Some schools might not send financial aid notification until the regular decision time

Early Decision

Similar to early action, early decision applications are submitted earlier than a regular decision application. However, students are only allowed to apply to one college early decision and doing so commits them to a binding application process which means they must commit to attend if accepted.

If your student decides to apply early decision, it should be to their top choice school. Students must agree to attend if they are accepted and offered a financial aid package that their family considers adequate. If your student plans to apply to any other colleges, they must do so under regular decision and if they are offered acceptance to their early decision school, they must withdraw all other applications.

There are again, some pros and cons to consider when deciding whether or not to apply early decision:



  • Your student is locked into attending the school, even if they realize later on that it’s not a good fit
  • You’re tied into a financial aid plan which may not be as competitive as other schools
  • Some schools may give lower financial aid packages since students are bound to come if accepted
  • ED plans may give an unfair advantage to applications with more financial resources since often families with low incomes do not have the opportunity to compare financial aid offers with a binding application

Regular Decision

Your student will likely be submitting the majority of their applications regular decision. These applications are typically due in January, students are notified in March, and a decision is required by May 1.

While there are no limiting factors in terms of how many applications your student can submit, there are still some factors to consider:


  • Students have more time to apply since deadlines are later
  • There are no special commitments or contracts
  • Students have more choices in terms of number of colleges to apply for and choose from
  • You have a chance to compare financial aid packages


  • There is more uncertainty, since students aren’t notified until March
  • Due to this uncertainty, some students may apply to an excess of schools, which can get expensive and time-consuming
  • The pool of applicants may be more crowded and your application may be less competitive

ED vs EA vs RD

Students often wonder if applying ED or EA really increases your chances of admission over RD? The answer is: yes.

Generally students will see a 5-20% bump in acceptance rate when applying early. This will vary from school to school, so look online to see if schools have released early admissions rates to draw a comparison.

Of course, these statistics can change substantially from year to year, based on factors such as applicant pool and changes in admissions policies. Below we’ve provided a comparison chart based on selectivity to give you an idea how the acceptance rates vary among schools.

Very Selective Colleges

University Name EA Acceptance Rate ED Acceptance Rate RD Acceptance Rate
Yale University 16% N/A 5%
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill 32% N/A 17%
Grinnell College N/A 53% 25%
Brown University N/A 18% 8%

Selective Colleges

University Name EA Acceptance Rate ED Acceptance Rate RD Acceptance Rate
Clark University 79% 73% 55%
SUNY Binghamton 47.90% N/A 42%
Whitman College N/A 76% 43%
Smith College N/A 58% 41%

Less Selective Colleges

University Name EA Acceptance Rate ED Acceptance Rate RD Acceptance Rate
Ursinus College 88% N/A 83%
Iona College 96.30% N/A 91%
University of Scranton 77.90% N/A 72%

To help make sure you never miss an important deadline, we’ve put together this worksheet to help you keep all the important information in one place. On it, you can fill in all of the early and regular application deadlines and keep track of when you should be hearing back from schools so you can follow up if needed.

College Deadline Worksheet [Free Download]

Download your College Deadline Worksheet to stay on top of all the application dates on your college list.


What Should You Do If You’ve Been Deferred or Waitlisted?

Occasionally, when your student’s application was not competitive enough for the first round of early decision or early action, your final decision will be deferred to the regular decision pool. Although disheartening, it’s important to remember that your student is still being considered.

It’s also possible that your student may be waitlisted after RD results are out. This doesn’t mean that your student has been completely denied, as colleges use their waitlists to fill the incoming class if not enough accepted students enroll.

There are a few things your student can do if they have been deferred or waitlisted to help push their application towards the top of the pile:

  • Contact admissions and reiterate that they will in fact attend if accepted because they feel like this institution is the best fit. Perhaps even say your student is willing to attend regardless of financial aid package, if this is true of your situation.
  • Send in additional application materials to bolster their application. These can include additional recommendation letters, updates on academic affairs, or rewards they’ve received.
  • If they do not get off the waitlist, try again next year! Transfer applications can be far less competitive, although this varies widely.
  • See if they have any alumni connections, such as family members or college success organizations. Sometimes this little push can bump your student’s application to the top.
  • Your student can write to a professor that they’re particularly interested in working with. While they aren’t guaranteed to read it or respond, if they feel particularly inspired, they may speak up on your student’s behalf.

There are also a few things your student should make sure not to do:

  • Do not continually pester admissions officers. Your student is not the only person on the waitlist!
  • Overreach and bother professors or connections too much. These people are doing your student a favor by helping them with your application so make sure your student expresses appreciation.

Deferral and waitlist admissions rates vary greatly from school to school because each college fills its acceptance pool and waitlist differently. For example at some colleges, a deferral is issued to give admissions officers more time to make sure a student is a good fit for the college. At other colleges, a deferral is used in place of a rejection.

Usually, deferral and waitlist admission rates do not strongly correlate with how selective the school is. There are resources available online where you can search to see if the school(s) your student is interested in has released deferral or waitlist admissions data.

Set Your Schedule

There are many choices to make and lots of deadlines to consider when applying to college, so make sure to sit down with your student early on and decide which schools to apply to and when to apply. Your student will then have enough time to put together a strong application that gives them the best chance of acceptance at their top choice schools.

In the next chapter, we’ll cover the second most stressful part of college, aside from the actual application — paying for college. College can be a very expensive experience, but it doesn’t have to be. We’ll discuss the many different options that can help pay for college including financial aid and scholarship opportunities.