You’ve finalized your applications, completed the last edits to your essays, and made sure your recommendations and test scores have been sent in. As you click the button to submit, your college application journey has been completed. Now the long wait begins.
January 1st, the deadline for many schools to submit the Regular Decision application, is seen as a terminus, the last step in a student’s college application journey. It is, however, a midpoint, with more to come. While the student’s work is complete, the application process itself has just begun, and now the work done by admissions officers kicks into high gear.
But why is the wait so long? When do admissions decisions come out? And what will happen when the results go out?
Why the Wait
Just as you spent hours poring over your activities, choosing the perfect prose for your essays, and working to make sure you had the right recommenders, the schools you have sent applications to will need time to go over all of the applications. Not every school processes applications the same way, and not all applications are treated the same. We’ll go over how they are reviewed, and what will happen to the files you sent out.
The first thing to understand is that not every school reviews applicants in the same way. Many elite schools use what is known as Holistic Admissions, wherein a student’s entire application is read and weighed as a whole. How each school weighs each aspect varies, but we discuss this more in our article, “How Colleges Judge Applications.” Not every school has the resources to do this, however, and many larger state schools will base the majority of their admissions decisions solely on students’ test scores, grades, and class rank.
Holistic admissions take far longer, as there are more factors the school must examine, and reading through an application in its entirety takes time. This is compounded by the number of applications most schools receive. With many schools receiving applications numbering in the tens of thousands, they are hard-pressed to get them all to read as fast as many students would want.
That said, not every file has the same amount of attention paid to it, even at schools which practice holistic admissions. It is the files on the edge who receive the most attention. Some students are clear admits, and their files breeze through admissions. Other students are clearly not cut out for an institution, due to insufficient academic preparation or other concerns, and their applications are quickly discarded. The applications which take the longest to sort out are the students who are qualified, but not to the extent where they are clearly superior to the rest of the students applying. These files are read multiple times before a decision is reached, and this is where the bulk of the time spent in admissions goes.
When Will You Hear Back?
So that’s why it takes so long, but when will students hear back from schools? This too depends on several factors, most importantly how and where they applied. Each school handles applications differently, and different kinds of applications are processed at different speeds.
The decisions processed first are those of students who applied Early Decision or Early Decision II. The schools are eager to get these done quickly, as the students they admit are committed to attending, which will limit the number of spaces they have to offer to other prospective students. These are usually finished within a month, though some are handled faster than that.
Early Action applications are processed slower than Early Decision on average, though schools who only offer Early Action will get them out faster than schools who offer both forms of early admissions. These decisions will usually (though not always) come out before Regular Decision applications are due. Many top schools will admit up to half of each class early, so they want to confirm which slots they’ve filled in this manner before they begin processing the pool of Regular Decision applicants.
Regular Decision applications are processed the slowest, as they are far more numerous than either of the other categories. It will take one to several months for students to hear back from some schools. Schools which do not process admissions holistically will respond far faster, as their review process is much less time-intensive. Schools which do use holistic review may get back to different applicants at different times, although some schools are committed to sending out all applications at the same time on the same day. This is especially popular with the Ivy League. Some non-Ivy schools also announce admissions decisions on this day, and many top schools will endeavor to release all admissions decisions at the same time, so that students aren’t kept wondering once their friends have heard back from the same school.
This process may be delayed this year due to Covid-19, as the admissions meetings normally held in close quarters and long hours in the admissions building have been banished to virtual space, as has so much else. Schools are playing it safe, and are as-of-yet unsure if this will cause major delays or disruptions in the admissions process, but they have pushed back announcement dates in many cases.
What Happens After?
Once decisions have come out, you will have the exciting and difficult decision of deciding which college to attend. Check out our article on what to do if you’re waitlisted for advice and next steps if you’ve in fact been waitlisted by your dream school.
There are many factors that go into deciding which college you should attend, and there is no advice that uniformly applies to all cases. Many schools offer events on campus for admitted students who are on the fence about where to attend college, although many of these will likely be virtual this year. These are a good way to get a feel for each school and the environment they offer if you are undecided.
Once you do decide where to attend however, make sure you get in contact with the other schools which admitted you which you aren’t attending. By letting them know, they are better able to track their admissions numbers, and this can provide a boon to students on the waitlist for those schools.
Once you’ve decided on a school, there’s the exciting process of finalizing: paying your deposit, finalizing financial aid, and making decisions for housing. At this stage, your journey of college admissions is over, and you’re ready to begin the great adventure of college itself.
You don’t always hear the news you want from schools and may get rejected or waitlisted from your top choices. Options remain here, and many students will attempt to transfer into their top-choice school after spending some time at another institution.
If you want help planning for a transfer, or in petitioning a school you were waitlisted, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a free consultation. We strive to be experts in every step of the college admissions process and are always eager to help students realize their academic dreams.