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The Best Time to Begin Working on College Applications

woman in white long sleeve shirt sitting on table

As a college application consultant for the past 13 years, I am often asked by interested parents when is the best time for their high school student to begin working on their college applications. The conventional wisdom of many Guidance Departments is to start the process in earnest the beginning of senior year – primarily due to the fact that the Common App releases its applications to rising seniors shortly before the school year begins (August 1st, to be exact). Unfortunately, this timeline only affords those students applying early action and early decision a nerve-wracking 2-3 month window in which to finalize their applications before the November 1st deadline. Application materials of such tremendous consequence should not be hastily completed – especially amidst the chaotic backdrop of senior year – but, rather, thoughtfully considered and meticulously planned out through a series of extensive rewrites. Yet most students I encounter are unaware of the fact that they can widen this window and gain a meaningful head start on their applications.

The truth of the matter is that there is plenty of work a motivated student can accomplish on their college applications ahead of senior year. Though students technically cannot begin inputting their responses into the Common App portal until August 1st, the essential components of the application remain largely unchanged from year to year. The all-important Personal Statement, for example, has featured the same array of prompts and word count considerations as when I first began assisting students with this essay more than a dozen years ago. Moreover, the critically significant and underrated Activities List section of the Common App has similarly maintained the same format for well over a decade. And while it is true that certain colleges prefer to update their Supplemental Essay guidelines from year to year, the vast majority do not (a surprising fact to most!). Thus, enterprising students can often anticipate nearly every written prompt they will be tasked with answering months (if not years) in advance of their upcoming application deadlines.

In light of this information, I encourage students to begin working on their application materials in a more gradual and thoughtful manner approximately 6-9 months before their applications are due – usually during Winter Break of junior year. Needless to say, the second half of junior year can be a particularly busy time for those students juggling myriad other academic, standardized testing and extracurricular responsibilities. Yet I have found that students who engage in a series of small but targeted steps at this early stage can streamline the application process immeasurably come the summer and fall.

With this in mind, I often recommend that students aim to complete the following tasks before the conclusion of their junior year: 1) craft a tentative College List featuring a healthy balance of reach, match and safety schools 2) examine the Supplemental Essay requirements from previous years for each school on their College List 3) create a comprehensive list of every “extracurricular” activity they have participated in throughout high school 4) brainstorm a list of at least 8-10 potential Personal Statement ideas and 5) compose carefree, multi-page “free-writes” exploring several of those Personal Statement topics.

This multifaceted and incremental approach to the college application process should ensure that your student is able to produce high-quality materials while feeling in control every step of the way.


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