Bucknell student on first day of classes.

When to Apply for College

July 21, 2020

by Bryan Wendell

Photo by Douglas Kilpatrick

You've narrowed your list of schools to a manageable number, gathered the necessary application materials and started drafting your essay. There's just one thing left to do: actually apply.

But when should you start applying for college? What is the typical timeline for the application process? And what's the difference between early decision, early action and regular decision?

Let's demystify the college application timeline — and help you stress less in the process.


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When Should You Start Applying?

While some high school students begin exploring college options as early as their first year of high school, the actual application process begins in the fall of your senior year. 

So while you can start filling out your application during your junior year, you won't be able to click that all-important "submit" button for a specific school until that school's application window opens. 

Most colleges, including Bucknell, begin accepting applications in early August.

It helps to break down the process of submitting your application into two primary steps: 

  1. As soon as you're ready, input your information into the website for the Coalition App or Common App. This means creating a free account and beginning the essential but time-consuming process of adding basic information like: 
    1. Your high school transcript (though some colleges do not allow a self-reported transcript)
    2. A list of your activities, work and family responsibilities 
    3. Test scores (though this is optional for many schools, including Bucknell)
    4. Parent/legal guardian info
    5. Academic honors/achievements
  2. Once the application window opens, submit your application to your chosen schools. This means understanding each school's specific application requirements, including:
    1. Deadlines
    2. Application fees
    3. Personal essay requirements
    4. Courses and grade requirements
    5. Test policies
    6. Portfolio requirements
    7. Writing supplements
    8. Letters of recommendation

To reiterate, you can begin Step 1 at any time by creating an account at the websites for the Coalition App and/or Common App and filling out as much as you can in advance. You can even start adding specific schools to your list — with the freedom to add or remove these choices later on.

Doing lots of work in Step 1 will save you valuable time when you're ready to begin Step 2.

Timeline for Applying to College

Keeping in mind the two steps above, let's look at a typical timeline for applying to college.

Throughout high school

  • Take challenging courses, especially in subjects you enjoy and that might be particularly relevant to your future major.
  • Be aware of each college's specific high school course requirements (for example: some schools, including Bucknell, require at least two years of one foreign language). Plan ahead so you have plenty of time to meet these requirements.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities, choosing them based on what you enjoy — not what you think colleges want to see.
  • Expand your résumé through volunteer opportunities, jobs or internships.

Junior year

  • Start narrowing down your list of schools. These days, most students apply to seven to 15 colleges — though that decision is highly personal. 
  • Prepare for and take the SAT and/or ACT, but keep in mind that these standardized tests aren't the make-or-break moments they once were. Many top schools, including Bucknell, have moved to a test-optional admissions policy, meaning they only look at your test scores if you provide them. The choice is yours.
  • Begin looking for scholarships, including those offered by the specific schools on your list, scholarships tied to your extracurricular activities or student clubs, and scholarships offered to high school students in your city or town. Keep in mind that some scholarships require a separate application and have their own due dates. (Find Bucknell-specific scholarships here.)

Summer before your senior year

  • Visit your top colleges to get a feel for life on campus, talk to students and see how it might feel to be a student there.
  • Complete some of the "Step 1" activities mentioned above. That includes gathering application materials and starting to add them to the website for the Coalition App or Common App. Remember, anything you accomplish during the slower summer season will be one more thing you won't have to do when school resumes in the fall. Your future self thanks you.
  • Start drafting your college essay. You can see the specific questions your selected schools will ask by starting your application on the Coalition App or Common App sites. (See some essay-writing tips here.)
  • Approach teachers who might be willing to write letters of recommendation. It's a good idea to prepare a list of "talking points" that these teachers might want to include in their letters. While the teachers you approach should know you well, they're also likely writing many other letters of recommendation. They'll appreciate your help in remembering specific ways you stood out in their classes.

Fall of senior year (August to December)

  • Complete the "Step 1" activities listed above.
  • Submit your application if you're applying early decision or early action. (See more about these types of applications below.) The application window for many schools opens in early August.
  • Submit your CSS PROFILE when you submit your application, to ensure you receive any financial aid for which you qualify.

Note: Bucknell's applications open on Aug. 1. Our Early Decision I deadline is Nov. 15.

Spring of senior year (January to March)

  • Submit your application if you're applying regular decision or Early Decision II. For most colleges, the deadline to apply regular decision is between Jan. 1 and March 1. 
  • Submit your CSS PROFILE when you submit your application, to ensure you receive any financial aid for which you qualify.

Note: Bucknell's Early Decision II and Regular Decision deadlines are Jan. 15.

What's the Difference Between Early Decision, Early Action and Regular Decision?

If you have a top school in mind and would like to have your college application process wrapped up before New Year's Day, consider applying early decision (ED) or early action (EA). If you have several top schools in mind or need more time to select which college is your first choice, apply regular decision.

ED and EA appeal to students looking to erase one significant stressor from the final months of their senior year. Some schools offer both ED and EA, while others (like Bucknell) offer only ED. All other deadlines fall under regular decision (RD). 

Here's a look at each of these options, including their typical deadlines.

Early Decision (ED)

Early Decision is for your top-choice college or university — the one school you most want to attend. When you apply ED, you're making a binding commitment to that school. If you're accepted as an ED applicant, you agree to attend. Colleges appreciate the opportunity to secure top students early in the application season. And students enjoy knowing they have a guaranteed spot at their top school months before regular decisions are released. 

  • You'll apply to one (and only one) college under an ED plan. You can still apply to other schools under RD plans.
  • The ED application deadline is typically in November with decisions released in December.
  • If you are accepted ED, you agree to withdraw your applications to other schools.

Note: Bucknell has two ED options: EDI (deadline Nov. 15, decisions released mid-December) and EDII (deadline Jan. 15, decisions released mid-February).


Early Action (EA)

Unlike ED, early action plans aren't binding. You'll receive an admissions decision earlier than other applicants but won't have to commit until the normal reply date, which for most schools is May 1.

  • You can apply EA to more than one school, while still applying RD to other schools on your list.
  • The EA application deadline is typically in November or December with decisions released in December or January.
  • If you are accepted EA, you can still consider other schools until the RD deadline (typically May 1).

Note: Bucknell does not offer an EA option.

Regular Decision (RD)

Regular decision has no limit on the number of applications you can submit, requires no commitment and gives you the most amount of time to apply. 

  • You can apply RD to as many schools as you choose.
  • The RD deadline is typically in January or February with decisions released in March or April. 
  • If you are accepted RD, you'll need to commit by the school's decision day (typically May 1).

Note: Bucknell's RD deadline is Jan. 15, with decisions available no later than April 1.

Other Types of Applications

  • Restrictive Early Action is a nonbinding option, meaning you aren't required to attend if you're accepted. Restrictive Early Action applicants can't apply to other schools in the early rounds.
  • Rolling Admissions is the term for schools that review applications as they are received, meaning there's no official deadline. For the best chance of acceptance at a school with rolling admissions, it's still a good idea to apply early.

How to Manage Your Time

Even if you're the type of student who thrives under the pressure of a deadline, you won't want to wait until the last minute to apply for college.

By starting to compile application materials, draft your essay and secure recommenders in your junior year or summer before your senior year, you'll make your senior year much more enjoyable. 

And you can take this lower-stress approach to another level by applying early decision to your top school. If you do, you could be accepted into college before some of your fellow students have even submitted their applications.

All that hard work has led you here. All those group projects, all-night study sessions and extracurriculars have been building toward this moment. Be confident and feel prepared as you enter the final step of your college search: applying to college. And good luck!

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