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Timing really means everything

Yes, most college applicants do understand the importance of timing.

However, usually not until it’s way too late.

If I had a nickel for every time a student contacted me in a panic with an eleventh-hour discovery that eluded them up until now, well, I’d have enough nickels to buy a penthouse on Central Park West!

At the end of every season, when the final application is submitted, I always like to survey my student-clients and ask them: “If you could mentor your younger self or a younger classmate and offer a valuable tip about this grueling, life-changing college application process, what advice might you offer that you wish you had known before your senior year started?”

Almost always, their advice falls under one of two categories:

  1. Get in a time machine to go back to freshman year to build a more purposeful high school profile.

  2. Finish ALL college research before the end of junior year because there’s really never enough time during senior fall to accomplish it all properly. (And follow the research tips that I gave them, so they don’t have to go back and re-research at the 11th hour.)

OK, so none of my STEM students have designed a DeLorean time machine (because that would certainly guarantee acceptance to their dream school)! [Note: students, if you didn’t understand the DeLorean time machine reference, please go watch the classic “Back To The Future” on Netflix!!!]

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from all those who came before you in this process. Learn from their mistakes. Please!

Today’s blog post will focus solely on their timing mistakes. [But guaranteed, in future blog posts, I’ll cover other college search & application mistakes for you to avoid!]

Timing Mistake #1: The first major mistake centers around students who treat the college search process and the application deadlines the same way they treat their typical homework and assignments for school. Most students simply calculate the time they traditionally have taken to complete a paper while still getting their usual “A” or “B”. But that’s just one paper for one class. For getting into their favorite ultra-competitive college, the criteria to succeed this time isn’t a standard rubric; instead, the criteria demands that they out-perform thousands of other high school seniors (whose backgrounds and qualifications you cannot see nor quantify).

Timing Mistake #2: The second major mistake centers around students who remain too stubborn to actually change their approach when it comes time to start the college application process. Along the way, students will discover that they don’t know the tricks, insights, and nuances that this entire process entails. This is especially true for a student without a perfect GPA and SAT/ACT test score to go along with a proven and purposeful track record of accomplishments toward a specific major.

Timing Mistake #3: The third major mistake centers around families thinking that their children will figure this out on their own with plenty of time left. I’ll get a lot of new clients who start with me about a week before the Early Decision deadlines because they think they just need a proofreader for their Personal Statements. Oftentimes, after inquiring about their full list of schools, I’ll discover that those same clients had no plans to apply to any of their Early Action-eligible schools–largely because they didn’t fully explore what “Early Action” even entailed. And so, with a week before those Early Action deadlines (which are usually the same day–or a couple of days after– the November 1st “Early Decision” deadline, many make the assumption that it’s too late to start writing supplemental essays for those Early Action schools.

Students and families make so many more mistakes like these. That’s why–by junior year–while exploring colleges, students should take a complete inventory on which different college application processes are actually offered by each school. Believe it or not, not every school offers “Regular Decision”; they may offer only “Rolling Admission” instead. Not all schools offer “Early Decision”; some may even offer “Early Decision II (ED II)” in January. Not all schools offer “Early Action”. Even fewer schools offer “Restrictive Early Action” or “Single Choice Early Action”; those are usually offered only by the super-competitive private institutions.

The chart below should better help summarize these application processes. Make note of which options are nonrestrictive vs. restrictive, as well as which options are binding vs. nonbinding. These distinctions are crucial to your decision-making!

Once a student knows all the application processes and deadline options available, it's best to begin strategic planning for the summer leading into senior year:

  • lock down your “walk-on-water” Personal Statement (Common App, Coalition App, ApplyTexas) no later than mid-July.

  • before the Common App platform becomes live (after the newest supplemental essays prompts are loaded for the upcoming season) on August 1 each year, you’ll want to already have started brainstorming potential approaches to the supplemental essays.

For instance, if you plan to apply to at least 10 Common App colleges alone whose acceptance rates are below 20%, then count on writing 20 supplemental essays at the bare minimum. (For instance, Stanford University requires 8 supplemental essays!). The number of different supplemental essays is always something that families don’t factor into their timing. And then by the second week in August, when the student has finally seen how many supplemental essays they will have to write, the panic and pressure all really kick in. On top of that reality check, sadly, many parents put an unrealistic deadline on their kids to complete all their college applications before school starts.

The time crunch is compounded for those students who feel that essay writing and self-awareness aren’t their strengths for demonstrating their uniqueness. That’s why I emphasize writing + storytelling to younger high school students; these skills can't be learned overnight the summer before senior year. (Yes, STEM-focused students, I’m talking to you.)

So, when it comes to presenting your college application persona to all the schools on your college list, I advise all my student-clients and their parents that this long process requires just as much strategic planning as it does strong essay writing skills.

Strategic planning extends well-beyond mere time management. Understand your goals and develop a plan of action well in advance of having to actually carry that plan out. You won't be rushed when it comes time to prepare your college applications if you equip yourself with all the necessary information and skills in advance. You will confidently click the 'submit' button, knowing that you did everything in your power to demonstrate to your dream school that you're the type of student they want as part of their next incoming class.


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