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Your College Application: Get a Head Start

By Peterson's Staff updated on Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Even if you're not applying to college under Early Decision or Early Action, getting an early start on your college applications is a smart idea.

Why? Most importantly, taking your time will help ensure a flawless presentation to your future alma mater. In other words, last-minute applications have more last-minute mistakes. Submitting your college application early may also help out in terms of how it's processed — but the key word here is "may."

The college application essay

Although many colleges have application deadlines as late as December or January, it's wise to begin your essay as early as the summer before you apply — even though the temptation to procrastinate might be overwhelming.

A good essay is a work in progress, and requires multiple drafts and careful editing. When you're in a rush, it's very easy to miss the small mistakes (or large omissions) that an admission officer will catch immediately. It's also more likely that you'll freak out and draw a big, fat blank when you read the essay question. If you're working on it, say, two days before the college application form is due, that's going to put you in a very stressful situation. Luckily, that's avoidable when you're ahead of the game.

"Time is an incredibly powerful editorial tool — and it's free," notes Peter Van Buskirk, former Dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College. "By giving yourself time on an assignment, whether it is a term paper or a college essay, you give yourself perspective. You gain perspective when you can step back from your work or when you are able to ask a parent, teacher or friend to read and react to something you've written.  If you don't give yourself that cushion of time, though, you deny yourself valuable perspective that can make a good essay great."

Recommendation letters
It's also wise to seek recommendation letters well in advance of deadlines and even as early as the spring of junior year. Many teachers, especially popular ones, are bombarded with requests as college common application deadlines draw near. If you wait until November, your writer may not have as much time to dedicate to your letter. Ideally, you should meet to discuss your goals and accomplishments with each writer — early. That way you can provide them with the kind of information they'll need.

"Make sure the people who will write on your behalf know you," says Van Buskirk. "Not only should they know your goals with regard to college — why you want to go — they must have an intimate knowledge of your 'story.' If things have been going on in your life that have affected your academic performance, they need to be able to help you tell this part of your story to an admission committee."

Submitting your college application early

Part of the reason some students apply early is because they can't stand the suspense. The sooner they apply, they figure, the sooner they'll get a response. But is this true? Sometimes.

For schools with rolling admissions, there's an advantage to applying before other candidates. Students applying to a college with rolling admission will receive decisions and notifications of financial aid soon after their completed applications are received. While you could theoretically get in with a last-minute application for college, you could also miss out on financial aid as the college's resources may have been depleted by then. This is a case where earlier is better.

If a school has a hard application deadline, then the answer as to whether you'll hear back sooner if you apply sooner is a maybe, but don't count on it. As we explained above, a better approach than racing to get a college application form in six months early is to focus early on the parts of your application that take the most planning.

Early application incentives
An expedited college application may not inspire a lightning-fast response, but it can work in your favor when a college is considering applications for special scholarships or choice student housing. Make sure you read the fine print of the application instructions to learn if there are good reasons (or incentives) for getting your application in ahead of posted deadlines.

"You need to remember that the application process is a process," reminds Van Buskirk. "From the point that the first bit of information arrives in an admission office to the point that a decision is made, your admission file is active at that college. Make sure that all of your materials are submitted in a timely fashion so your completed application can be considered fairly with the rest of the competition."

Two-part college applications

When schools have two-part applications, you should complete Part One as soon as you can. With these types of applications, Part One collects basic biographic information about you and enables the college to create a file into which additional materials can be added. (You could call this the "easy" part of the application, so there's really no reason to put it off.)

You'll then have more time to complete Part Two, which will include your essays and extracurricular profile. Other critical information, such as letters of recommendation, secondary school reports, and transcripts will flesh out the completed application for college.

By being timely in submitting Part One, and continuing to express interest in the school by updating them on any developments that could sweeten your candidacy, you'll ensure that you're seen as a candidate with "demonstrated interest." That's a factor that can be very important as selective institutions decide whom to admit.

According to Van Buskirk, "Colleges that have many more applications from qualified candidates than they can admit must make fine distinctions. They don't have to admit you because you are good. In fact, many will try to reserve their offers for compelling candidates who are more likely to enroll if accepted. It is very important, then, that you establish a relationship with the colleges to which you are applying. In polite and appropriate ways, demonstrate your interest so they will be able to see your application within the context of that relationship. You don't want your only point of contact to be the application you have submitted."

Online college applications

Online applications are great. They're efficient, they save you postage fees, and they could even save you money on application fees if schools offer application fee waivers in order to encourage online applications. An often used online form is the college common application, which allows you to fill out one form and submit it to multiple schools.

But online forms are not fail proof, and just like a hard-copy application, they task you with paying attention to what you're doing. When you hit a button — say, "submit" — you can't take it back. So, it's essential that you check and re-check everything you've completed to be sure that it's accurate. An error could cause a delay in processing that might jeopardize your chances of getting in. If you apply online, be sure to contact the college to confirm that they have received everything they'll need to evaluate your application.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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