How Long Does It Take to Finish a College Application?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Two people having a one-on-one talk

How Much Time Does It Take to Finish a College Application?

Applying to college requires a significant time investment, from the time you start thinking about enrolling. Most schools follow the same process for applying, so finishing a college application will take a similar amount of time regardless of where you apply.

If you’ve been wondering how long is the college admissions process and how long are college applications, we have done the estimated calculations for you. Read on to identify some considerations  you’ll need to take along with a detailed timeline for when you’ll need to complete some major checkpoints and reach major deadlines.

How long are college applications?

How long it takes you to complete your college applications depends entirely on how well you work toward a deadline. If you are a student who seeks to meet deadlines before they arrive, submitting ahead of time when possible, then putting together your college applications will be straightforward and easy to plan and implement.

a female student appears to be thinking intently

But, if you normally procrastinate, then applying for college may be a challenge. There are many important steps, overlapping and staggered deadlines, and potentially submissions for as little as one but as many as 20 or more schools. So, if you’re this type of student, you’ll need the support of a college admissions expert more than ever to navigate the process and stay on top of your due dates while also finishing up your final year of high school.

As a result, here are nine tips to consider as you work on finishing your college applications.

1. Narrow down your final college list.

For every school on your college list, you’ll have to submit a new application along with tweaking your essays and statements or writing completely separate ones for each school. Think of your time investments multiplying for each school you add to your list. As time dwindles, think about only applying to schools where you have the highest odds of receiving a favorable admissions decision.

2. Check for extensions.

If at some point you realize that you are behind with your college applications, you should seek out extensions immediately. You can check with each school’s admissions office to see if perhaps you can be granted additional time to submit materials that take time, like letters of recommendation and test scores. Keep in mind that any extensions are always at the discretion of the school’s admissions officers. If they say no, you’ll have to accept their decision and work overtime to make your deadlines or wait for later deadlines.

3. Keep a checklist of tasks to do.

There are numerous ways to keep track of tasks in a checklist or to-do list. You can use the reminders or notes apps on your iPhone, start and update a Google doc, or use an Excel or Sheets spreadsheet.

a group of high school gathered together looking at a note

You can also use a journal or notebook if you prefer writing by hand with colorful pens. The point is to have a system that you can regularly refer to and use to make sure you are keeping track of tasks and when they’re due. Knowing how long is the college application process can help you with prioritizing the most important tasks you’ll need to complete first.

4. Have a few reviewers pre-submission.

As you’re working on your college applications, make sure you have at least two or three reviewers who will look over your application materials before you submit them. This can be your parents, an older sibling, your college counselor, or your college admission expert. The goal is to have someone who is knowledgeable about college admissions to look over all the parts of each of your applications. Getting a second and third pair of eyes on your applications can help you with finishing them on time.

5. Submit early.

Every year, there are technical difficulties and glitches with the Common App website. Students report the website crashing as they were submitting their applications right before the deadline. The crash prevented many students from getting their materials in on time.

To keep this from happening, start early and aim to get your materials in before your deadlines if you can. Even if you end up having to wait for high school and college transcripts, submitting all the other materials will let the admissions office at each school know that you are serious about applying and only need time for a few parts of your submission to reach them.

6. Use spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets are a great organizational tool that you can take advantage of using Excel or Google Sheets. You’ll want to create a spreadsheet to keep track of the schools on your college list. This should include information about each school, such as their deadlines, required materials and fees, your progress toward completing each requirement, and whether your recommenders have sent letters and your high school has sent transcripts. You will also want to create a similar spreadsheet for scholarship applications and your progress toward applying to each one you identify.

Group of students working on a table in a library.

If you are applying for summer programs or internships, you can use spreadsheets to monitor your progress toward those goals as well. Staying organized through spreadsheets can help keep all of your information in one place and serve as a hardcopy of what you have done so far.

7. Plug important dates and deadlines into your calendar.

Along with spreadsheets, you’ll want to use your calendar to log important dates and deadlines. The iPhone has a calendar app that you can use to set notifications for deadlines that will alert you a week, a day, and an hour before your deadlines.

This feature can help you to free up memory for other more important information and ensure that you do not accidentally miss a deadline because you simply forgot. Having a regular calendar check-in and updating process will also be beneficial toward finishing your college applications and building life-long time management skills.

8. Create a detailed timeline.

Regardless of when you start applying for colleges, you will typically follow a set timeline for when you’ll want to complete action items and tasks toward finishing your college applications. Ideally, you’ll want to start in the spring semester of your Junior year to be sure you have plenty of time to take the standardized tests you’ll need and start gathering the other materials you’ll need. Below you’ll find a typical timeline that students follow when finishing their college applications.

 College application timeline

Junior Year (January-April)

During the spring of your junior year, you’ll want to begin the process of thinking about your own academic performance and where you might need to make tweaks before your senior year, if any, identifying schools where you’d potentially like to attend, and starting to take the necessary steps to put together the best application possible.

Meet with your college counselor or college admissions expert.

Most high school juniors and seniors have access to a school college counselor. Your counselor may be extremely busy dealing with a significant number of students, so having a college admissions expert who can work with you one-on-one will be beneficial for you throughout the process.

You should plan to meet with your counselor or expert to begin the process of reviewing your academic record, making a plan for your senior year, and being clear about your goals to apply for college.

Your college counselor will be a valuable resource, who can provide you with information, help you with researching, and provide you with guidance if you feel lost or need support. Plan to meet with your counselor or expert several times your junior year and more often during your senior year.

Time: 5 to 10 hours throughout your junior and senior years

Start building your college list.

It is a good idea to leave your junior year with the beginnings of your college list already forming. You may have had your dream school in mind since Kindergarten, or you may have had to research schools with programs in your intended major. It is recommended that students have 6 to 10 schools on their list to start out. You will cross out schools when you learn more about them, either through virtual tours or campus visits. You may add schools based on suggestions and recommendations.

Make sure to start off with safety schools that you know you have a high chance of being admitted and include some reach schools that are more selective but which offer programs and activities you’d really like to participate in. Don’t be too attached your list though, as you will go through many changes to it before you finish your college applications.

Time: 5 to 10 hours

Take SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject tests

If you are planning to submit test scores with your college applications, you’ll want to start thinking about taking a practice SAT and ACT exam, along with any subject tests that might be required. Plan to register, study for, and take at least one practice exam during your junior year. Then, during your senior year, you will have additional time to get your scores back, assess your performance, and determine if you’ll need to take the tests again before your application deadlines.

a female student studying inside a library

The latest time to take standardized tests for early action and early decision is in October and for regular decision is in December. Keep the test dates in mind when planning your registration and study time. Students typically spend about 4 to 6 months studying, reaching anywhere from 5 to 20 hours of studying each month.

Time: 20 to 60 hours of studying and testing

Junior Year (May-June)

From May to June, you’ll want to focus on finishing up your junior year with the strongest grades possible to set yourself up for success in your senior year. This is also when you might apply for summer programs, internships, and full-time summer employment.

Take AP exams

During the end of your junior year, you’ll want to take your AP exams, which are typically held from March to May of the school year. The AP exams are incredibly useful for earning college credit, so make sure you’ve assessed your academic record and your plans for future college admissions to select which courses you will take an AP exam for.

You’ll need to score at least a 4 or 5 to earn college credit. Doing this can help you bypass introductory level courses, earn up to a year or two of credits, and graduate early with credits you earned doing highschool coursework.

Time: 10 to 30 hours of studying and testing

Request letters of recommendation

The end of junior year is also a great time to request letters of recommendation from your teachers, coaches, and mentors. Make sure you make your requests with enough time to find alternatives if a particular recommender is not available or doesn’t feel comfortable writing you a letter. Make sure to pick adults who would agree to help you, who have enough experiences with you to describe your academic potential, and who will be reliable and follow-through on submitting the letter by your deadlines.

Time: 2 to 3 hours

Junior Year (June-August)

Research and visit colleges

During the summer of your junior year, you’ll want to spend some time refining your college list. The summer before senior year is also a great time to start visiting colleges. You can schedule a road trip or sign-up to participate in college crawls, which are regional college tours for high schoolers usually led by college counselors.

Time: 20 to 40 hours

Participate in summer programs and extracurricular activities

You’ll want to take your final summer before your senior year to participate in as many summer programs and extracurricular activities as you have time for. You might participate in a science workshop, an art camp, a college prep workshop, or any of the other numerous programs for every interest imaginable. There are also many prestigious summer programs at your school’s of choice, so participating in workshops offered by your desired schools is a good way to start demonstrating your interest.

Time: 40+ hours

Senior Year (August-September)

Decide on early action or early decision

At the start of your senior year, you should have your college list finalized and start logging your deadlines and due dates. This is when you’ll want to figure out if you should apply for early admissions.

a female student writing unto a piece of paper

The deadlines for early action, early decision, restrictive early action and single-choice early action are usually in December. The deadlines for early action 2 and regular decision are typically in January. For schools that offer rolling decisions, you’ll be able to apply at anytime throughout the school year. Knowing your deadlines can help you decide if you’ll have enough time to gather and submit all of your materials by the end of October to submit by November.

Time: 5 to 10 hours

Create application accounts (Common App, Coalition App, UC App)

For most of the schools you’ll apply to, you’ll be able to use the Common App. There are a few schools who use the Coalition App or their own applications on their websites. UC system schools use the UC App. During the beginning of your senior year, the new applications for the next school year will open, and you’ll be able to register for accounts before you can start your applications. It might be helpful to use an email account you create specifically for your college applications.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Finalize college list

Your fall semester of your senior year is when you’ll finalize your college list. By now, you’ll know more about the schools, will likely have gone on tours and visits, and been drawn to certain schools. Try to narrow your list down to a few reach schools, a few target schools, and a few safety schools. Experts recommend at least six schools to make sure you have time to finish your college applications and can afford the fees for each application.

Time: 5 to 10 hours

Write Common App essays

Many seniors participate in college application essay writing workshops during the summer before senior year. This can be a great way to get a headstart. Be sure you start writing your essays by October, so you have enough time to revise and edit and get feedback. You’ll also want to take your essays through enough drafts that you have time to catch typos and make sure you are presenting yourself in a way that piques interest and showcases your potential.

Time: 20-30 hours

Write Supplemental Essays

Many colleges and schools require additional supplemental essays. This might include diversity statements, hardship statements for scholarships and financial aid, and other essays that are specific to your chosen majors. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to address the extra essays that some programs require and go through the same revising and feedback process. You should take the supplemental essays just as seriously as the required essays.

Time: 5 to 20 hours

Financial Aid documents

The FAFSA is a document many students need to complete for financial aid, including access to scholarships. Be sure to speak with your parents about getting access to their financial documents to show their income and assets, which is how schools determine the amount of financial aid to offer you. Your parents will typically have to complete their own part of your FAFSA, and some schools may ask for tax verification forms as well. You’ll typically have more time to complete and submit financial documents after admissions offers are made, but be sure you know what documents are needed and how to get to them.

Time: 5 to 10 hours

Search and apply for scholarships.

You may be able to find funding from a variety of sources, including the colleges where you are applying, clubs and organizations you are a member of, as well as local and state government agencies. Once you know a general sense of your families financial needs, you’ll want to start researching and applying for scholarships.

Many scholarships require their own applications with essays and transcripts. The more scholarship funds you can earn, the less your family will have to spend. Finding scholarships is entirely up to your own investigation, but some students may get invitations to apply to scholarships as well.

Time: 10-40+ hour

Check in with recommenders. 

Make sure to follow-up with each of your recommenders to provide them with a final list of schools you’ll be applying to and your deadlines. Schools will typically send your recommenders email reminders as well. You should also get an update notification when you letters of recommendation are received. Stay on top of these if you notice a recommender hasn’t gotten your letters in if it has been some weeks since you last got an update.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Senior Year (October)

Submit early action or early decision applications

Be ready to submit any applications for early action and early decision by their deadlines in October or early November. This means verifying all the parts under your control have been submitted as well as the parts not under your control, like transcripts and recommendation letters. You don’t want your applications to be held up or miss the deadlines because of one missing piece.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Senior Year (November-December)

Submit regular decision applications.

For regular decision admissions, you’ll want to submit your applications by their deadlines in November and December. Some regular decision deadlines might also be due at the beginning of January.

This is your time to get your application materials in with enough time to relax before the deadlines. If you submitted any applications early, you’ll have experience with submitting application materials already. If not, make sure you leave some time for any troubleshooting that might be required.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Consider early action and early decision results.

If you sent any of your applications early, then you should be receiving your results by this time. Celebrate your successes and try not to be too hard on yourself with the rejections. If you were admitted to any of your schools that you applied EA, ED, REA, or SCEA, then you’ll be required to accept the admissions offer.

If you did apply early, but you did not receive any acceptance letters, then you will have another round of letters to look forward to. You’ll need to start weighing your offers and making plans to pay your enrollment deposit if you decide to accept.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Senior year (March-April)

Take AP exams.

In the final semester of your senior year, you may be scheduled to take additional AP exams not already taken in your junior year. At this point, any AP exams you take can be useful for racking up college credits. The better you perform on AP exams, the less college courses you may need to take. Taking AP exams in math, science, English, and foreign languages are a surefire way to decrease the number of years you spend on undergraduate courses.

Time: 20 to 40 hours

Consider regular decision results.

Regular decision results for out in March and April. Review your acceptance letters from the schools you applied regular decision and weigh your final options. If you were admitted to your dream school or reach schools, this is an accomplishment to celebrate. If you did not receive any admissions letters, try not to get too discouraged. There are still other schools with rolling decisions you can apply to and local community colleges that offer courses that are less expensive.

Time: 5 to 10 hours

Attend final campus visits.

While making your final college choices, you may want to schedule an additional campus visit. Seeing a campus with new eyes after receiving an acceptance letter can help you to make better judgements on whether the school will be a good fit for you. You can get a sense for the campus, talk with students and professors, and base your decision on a combination of your vision for the future and the vibes of the campus.

Time: 10 to 40 hours

Senior Year (May-June)

Make final decision and submit enrollment deposits.

You’ve selected your school of choice and have decided to enroll. Congrats! All your hardwork has paid off! Your next step is to pay your enrollment or admission deposit. This is usually a fee of anywhere from $500 to $2000 or more. The fee will tell the school you are planning to enroll and will save your spot. Whatever you pay will go toward your tuition payments.

Time: 1 to 5 hours

Meet your deadlines with AdmissionSight

Our college admissions experts at AdmissionSight are intimately familiar with college deadlines. We’ll work with you to develop strong time management skills, stay on track, and get your college apps ready for submission. Connect with us today to start meeting those upcoming deadlines.




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