Launch Global Education
What is the college application timeline? It’s complicated.

by  Mr. Michael Wagner

The most common first question I get from parents is:

When does my child start the application process to universities?

The quick and easy answer is the fall (August-December) of a student’s final high school year (Senior year or Grade 12 in U.S. terminology, Year 13 in U.K. terminology).

Now here is a more detailed answer.

It’s complicated

It seems that the college admissions process has evolved into a state of mass confusion. I’m not saying for students, I mean for parents.

Under the current system, colleges and universities push most of the information about the application process to students and to high school counselors. The counselors are responsible for getting the information to families. The problem is that many school counselors in high schools are swamped with a variety of administrative tasks and other responsibilities that take them in multiple directions. Too often, they only have time to work with students, mostly in groups, right before the students begin the application process.

So how do parents learn about the college application process if the information arrives so late in the process and is often directed to everyone but them?

Parents, not knowing where to turn, typically rely on a combination of what they remember from their own schooling, what they hear from friends who have children in the application process, and what they can find on the internet.

student walking on college campus

Seek out information from your child’s school

Unfortunately, when things are left until the end there is a lot of room for error. Ideally, parent workshops should be plentiful at your child’s school and information should be readily available upon request for parents to access. This gives parents the choice to attend sessions and ask questions or to review information at their own convenience. I encourage families to set up individual meetings with the counselor to discuss your child’s interests and have an opportunity to ask any questions you may have. This meeting should be no later than the end of the student’s third year of high school and ideally much earlier.

Types of applications and timelines

University application portals typically open in the fall (August) of a student’s senior year. Many universities open application sites before the applications can be officially submitted so that students can get them started. However, these dates can be quite different depending on the country, or countries, your child is applying within. Therefore, it is important for students and families to research colleges and universities and to narrow the list almost completely before the start of the student’s last year of secondary school.

Applications although they vary from school to school and country to country, tend to fall into one of three categories: Early Action (EA), Early Decision (ED), and regular applications. Some universities may have all three of these options, others may only have one way to apply.

Early action

With the early action (EA) application the student is required to apply by a date that is earlier than the regular application deadline. They will then in turn receive acceptance notification earlier than the regular application notification date. This application process has one big advantage; the student finds out if they are accepted very early in the application process but does not have to make a formal commitment until much later. This allows students to both know that they have acceptances and to make additional applications if they are not getting into their top choices. In the U.S., EA application deadlines for submission are typically around early to mid-November and students have until around May 1st to commit.

Early decision

With the early decision (ED) application, the student is also required to apply by a date earlier than the regular application deadline and will also receive notification much earlier, but with one major difference from early action. If the student is accepted, the student has already agreed that this is the college or university that he or she will attend (unless there are some extenuating circumstances that would prohibit the student from accepting). Once the student has been accepted by the university, the final steps of the admissions process follow immediately, and the student is obligated to withdraw their applications from all other colleges and universities. The normal ED applications are due early to mid-November.

Note: There may be a small number of schools that will have alternate dates for both EA and ED in December or January.

Regular applications

Regular application deadlines are for the general student population who are applying to a university through the standard application process. These dates are typically in the months of January and February; however, dates will vary depending on each university and the country to which your child is applying. These students will receive a decision within several weeks of submission. The deadline for rendering a decision to the university is normally May 1st in the U.S., early June in the U.K., and varies greatly in other countries. At some universities, students may only have a few short weeks to commit.

happy college students jumping

In summary

To summarize, let’s keep it simple:

  • Applications normally begin in the fall of a student’s senior year
  • Some early applications will be due on different dates from regular admissions
  • Students and their families should research and understand these dates and their implications
  • Most final admissions decisions will occur before mid-April
  • The major student decision deadline to accept admission in the U.S. is May 1st. Other countries will vary.

Though the college application process is complicated, understanding some of these terms and deadlines will go a long way in assisting your family through the process.

Mr. Michael J. Wagner

Michael Wagner, MAED is a founder and the Knowledge Pilot for Launch Education.  Mr. Mike has assisted hundreds of students around the world on their college pathways.