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For some prospective college students – particularly non-traditional students – meeting the most common January application deadline is difficult. This could be due to work or family obligations or maybe you realize mid-year that you want to make a career change and going back to school will help you achieve that goal. Whatever the reason, there are ways to ensure you keep track of all the moving pieces and don’t miss an upcoming deadline. This guide offers tips on how to stay on top of things as well as a list of schools with late application deadlines. Read on to find a school and ensure you submit your application on time.

Meet the Experts

Erin Goodnow Co-founder & CEO of Going Ivy Read bio
Neha Gupta Founder & CEO of College Shortcuts and Elite Private Tutors Read bio

Written by…

Jeff Benson Read bio

Options for Applying to Colleges

It used to be that all colleges accepted applications in the winter, sent admission letters by mail to students a few months later, and allowed applicants to take until later that spring to decide where they would officially enroll. These days, however, college application season starts earlier and stretches later, giving students multiple routes in which to apply. Here are the most common application options for college-bound students, along with the pros and cons of each type:

Regular decision is the most common way of applying to college. The traditional deadline is in the first half of January, although for some colleges it’s earlier (e.g., November 30 for schools within the University of California System) or later (see the College Application Search Tool below).

Pros
  • Students have time to weigh their options.

    With regular decision, high schoolers can apply to 10 different schools if they wanted to, wait to hear back from all of them, and put off the decision until the deadline for submitting a Statement of Intent to Register (SIR).

  • It’s possible to compare financial aid offers.

    Regular-decision students also have time to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools, which is an important factor for many students when deciding which school to attend.

Cons
  • The holidays may cause additional stress.

    The application deadline is usually right after the winter holidays, so students may spend their breaks finishing applications.

  • Results take a while.

    Admission decisions don’t come back until late March or April, which means students have to play the anxious waiting game for two to three months.

This would be ideal for:

Students who are interested in several schools and whose decisions significantly depend upon financial aid packages.

Some colleges offer early action, which means students can receive the school’s decision earlier than usual. In this case, the application deadline is typically in November instead of January and admission decisions are sent out before the new year.

Pros
  • Results come earlier.

    A student can learn of a college’s decision early, typically in December. If they weren’t admitted, or the student isn’t happy with the financial aid package, there’s still time to send in regular-decision applications to other schools.

  • There’s no obligation.

    Students who are accepted through EA plans don’t have to enroll in the school.

  • There’s no rush to decide.

    Colleges give students until the regular decision date to accept, so there’s no rush.

  • Students can compare offers.

    Students can apply to multiple colleges using early action (with some caveats), which means they’ll be able to compare multiple financial aid offers.

Cons
  • Less time to create a strong application.

    Students must submit everything a few months before the regular-decision deadline that usually occurs in January or February. Most colleges that offer early-action plans have deadlines between November 1 and December 1. That means students must have already taken the SAT or ACT, gathered recommendations and finalized their essay(s).

  • Some schools use restrictive early action.

    Restrictive early action means that students can’t apply to other private universities through early action or early decision (see below). However, the decision is nonbinding, so students can still apply to public schools via regular admissions.

This would be ideal for:

Organized students with clear first-choice colleges who are confident in their GPAs and test scores prior to fall of senior year.

Early decision sounds like early action, but it’s very different. While the application deadlines are also in November and decisions are sent in December, those decisions are binding. This means students who apply through early decision must attend that school if they are admitted.

Pros
  • Students receive earlier results.

    ED I students learn of a college’s decision in December. If the school accepts them, they are done with college applications before most students have started.

  • It boosts your chances.

    The Washington Post compared early admission rates to regular admission rates at 13 colleges and found that students who apply early decision may be more likely to be accepted than regular applicants.

Cons
  • Students lose some time to work on applications.

    Students must submit everything several months before the regular January deadline. That means students must have already taken the SAT or ACT, gathered recommendations and finalized their essay(s).

  • It’s a binding commitment.

    Students who are accepted through early decision must enroll, even if the financial aid package isn’t what they were hoping for.

  • There’s no way to compare financial aid offers.

    Since students can only apply to one school via early decision, there’s no way to compare offers they might’ve gotten elsewhere.

This would be ideal for:

Students who have first-choice schools they want to attend no matter the cost.

Some schools use two early-decision deadlines. ED II is a slightly newer option that’s offered at select schools only. In this case, the deadline is typically in January – the same as the regular deadline – but students receive decisions in February instead of March or April. ED II is usually binding as well, so if a student is accepted they must attend that school.

Pros
  • Admission decisions come back quicker.

    Students learn whether they’re accepted in February rather than having to wait until spring.

  • The application deadline is later than with ED I.

    Students can send an ED II application at the same time as their regular applications.

Cons
  • The commitment is binding.

    Students must commit to enrolling if accepted and withdraw all other applications to other schools.

  • Students can’t shop around for the best financial aid.

    The student will be able to see financial aid offers from all schools they applied to, but it doesn’t matter because they’ll have to attend the ED II school, even if the financial aid package isn’t the best. (It should be noted, however, that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) does state that if an early-decision school’s financial aid package is not high enough to make it possible for a student to afford attendance, the school must release the student from the binding agreement.)

This would be ideal for:

Students who have first-choice schools that they want to attend no matter the cost.

Although not offered at all colleges, rolling admission offers students a longer timeframe for submitting applications. Students can submit at any point during the stated window, and some schools accept them throughout the year. The admissions committee considers each application as it comes in rather than waiting until they are all in to review at once. However, some colleges still use a priority deadline. That means the college waits until the deadline to review applications but still considers applications that come in after that.

Pros
  • Students may apply anytime.

    Rolling admissions give students a much longer window in which to apply so the process may be a little less stressful.

  • It offers hope to those who have been rejected elsewhere.

    Students who have yet to be accepted and don’t want to wait another year to try again have another opportunity for acceptance with rolling admissions, thanks to the extended deadlines.

  • It benefits students who are on top of things.

    As the year progresses, there are fewer spots available. Although students can apply anytime during the stated window, those who submit their applications more quickly, are more likely to get accepted (if they meet the requirements) for the simple fact that there are several spots open.

Cons
  • School financial aid may already be used up.

    Students who wait too long to apply then get in may find that most of the scholarships and grants have already been allocated to students who applied earlier.

  • The likelihood of acceptance depends on when one applies.

    Again, just because the admissions committee considers applicants throughout the year doesn’t mean they accept them at the same rates. Those who apply later are competing for fewer seats.

This would be ideal for:

Students who can send their applications early in the fall or non-traditional students who weren’t able to meet other application deadlines because of other obligations.

College Application Search Tool

If you’re looking for a college that accepts applications later than the usual November through January dates, these schools might be right for you:

I’m looking for application deadlines in:

10 Ways to Keep Track of Multiple Deadlines

Compiling all the required documents for a college application is important, but none of that will matter if you don’t submit everything by the stated deadline. Missing a deadline is a sure way to miss out on the college of your dreams. “The sooner you learn to be organized with deadlines, the better,” says Erin Goodnow, co-founder and CEO of Going Ivy. But don’t forget there are deadlines beyond the college’s main application deadline – students don’t only need to meet due dates for submitting their applications; they also should observe target dates for completing standardized tests, starting their essays and asking for letters of recommendation. Here are 10 tips for keeping all the plates spinning:

It’s never too early to pay attention to deadlines

“The deadlines don’t change dramatically from year to year, so look at them now,” advises Goodnow. “You know you’ll need to submit many of your applications by January 1 of your senior year, and earlier if you plan to apply Early Decision or Early Action. You know the Common App will be available to start on August 1. You know many of the essay prompts months before that. Get mentally prepared for the work that needs to be done and start doing it during your junior year.”

Treat applications like you would any other class

“The one who is most organized usually wins in this process,” says Neha Gupta, founder of College Shortcuts. Gupta recommends that students who are disorganized start by creating a checklist but also seek outside help. “I recommend creating an Excel document, getting a filing box and taking good notes. It’s just like an added course on a typical high school course load.” However, she points out that, unlike a typical high school class, there is no teacher reminding you of upcoming deadlines or pushing you to stay on track. “That’s why most students procrastinate,” she says.

Start your essay early

“When I work with students, they work on their essays junior year — not a lot changes after that, so it is better to start early,” Gupta says. “The essay topics rarely change, so you can do this in advance.” Starting early also means you’ll have plenty of opportunities to have other people proofread your essay and give you feedback.

Goodnow adds, “Your goal should be to have your main essay finished before August 1, and start as many of the applications as you can before school starts senior year. You’ll be a much happier senior if you do, with time to enjoy your family and friends without the stress of looming deadlines.”

Allow time for creative sparks

Writing an essay is easy. Writing an impressive essay – that takes more effort and time. Goodnow says to brainstorm and talk to family and advisers about which essay prompt best suits you. “There are so many directions to take the essays, but it is critical to be unique, creative and mature and to demonstrate why you are someone a school wants to have as part of its community,” she says.

Collect recommendations throughout high school

Don’t wait to collect application components, says Gupta. “Recommendation letters should be considered as early as ninth grade — many of the students that have great experiences with teachers and organizations should collect them while it’s fresh.”

On top of that, Goodnow points out that students can assist with the reference process. “A resume or sheet of activities and goals is helpful for references to add detail to their letters, and you can offer to share that sheet with them over summer or any time that is convenient.”

Plot out deadlines and go in order

Goodnow thinks keeping things simple can be a big help. “Research what each school’s deadline is and put them in order. You may only apply to one school for Early Decision, so that should be your top-choice school and the first application you work on. Look at your chances of acceptance and the requirements in the applications to set a calendar of which ones you’ll finish in what order.”

Show up early

“Students should know that the real deadline is actually when applications open, not when they close,” says Gupta. And there’s good reason for this, explains Goodnow. “By the end of the process, the admissions officers might be tired of reading essays and less likely to fight for a student on the bubble. By simply showing up early, you’ll position yourself to get first consideration when the admissions officers have fresh eyes and are excited to build their classes.”

Apply Early Decision or Early Action

“If you have a clear top choice, it is to your advantage to apply early decision or early action,” Goodnow says. “There are higher chances of acceptance, you’ll have the applications submitted and out of your hands; you’ll be able to relax. The rub is you usually have to submit the applications by November. Make a plan and start those applications first.”

Keep in mind, though, that ED locks accepted students into whatever their financial aid offer might be so this may not be the best tip for students who need to rely heavily on financial aid.

Set phone reminders

“Keeping track of deadlines can be as easy as setting a reminder on your phone and putting it in your calendar,” Gupta says. Apps such as CollegeHunch add admission dates to iPhone calendars.

Use a printed calendar to visualize approaching deadlines

Digital reminders are great but nothing beats a physical calendar. “I recommend students get a printout of what the year looks like in order to see how quickly deadlines approach,” Gupta says. “And they should know that applying on the deadline is considered late.”

What to Do If You Missed a Deadline

Sometimes deadlines get missed. When it comes to college admissions, though, you’d better have a legitimate reason — like an act of God. “Hurricane Harvey was a big factor in this year’s college admissions deadlines, and it softened some hearts to offer extensions,” Goodnow says.

Here’s what you can do if you find yourself on the wrong side of a deadline.

  • Consider community college

    Community colleges’ purpose is to make higher education possible for a larger swath of the population. One way of doing that is by giving students plenty of time to apply. Applications for fall enrollment at public two-year colleges are often due in July or August, well past when students have heard back from four-year colleges. Community college credits also are frequently designed to transfer to four-year universities, so students need not commit to attending for two years.

  • Seek out schools with late or rolling admissions

    If starting in the fall is more important than getting into a first-choice school, then check out our College Application Search Tool for some options. Keep in mind, however, that at crunch time, you may be out of luck in terms of securing on-campus housing or financial aid.

  • Apply for a spring start

    Not every college enrolls freshmen in the spring. But many community and some four-year colleges have spring starts. Waiting just a single term to enroll can be beneficial if colleges have separate financial aid deadlines for that term — in other words, some colleges set money aside specifically for spring starts, rather than giving away all their funds in the fall.

  • Take a gap year

    The gap year — a year off from school between high school graduation and college enrollment — is becoming more and more common. And for students who choose to volunteer, intern, travel or work in their desired fields, these experiences can actually strengthen their applications going forward.

  • Call the admissions office (but only if you have a great excuse)

    Some websites recommend calling the admissions office, but Gupta says, “Honestly, this is a big no-no. They could call the office, but it will not make a good first impression.”

    Goodnow concurs. “And what’s your excuse? You’ve known about the deadline for a year, so there is fair warning that you might not get a lot of sympathy. However, if you were recently in a car accident or had emergency surgery or you had to move out of your home due to a flood, make sure the admissions department knows that. Communicate not only the details of your circumstance, but also how much you want to apply to the school.”

  • Ask for the extension before the deadline

    Keeping in mind that missing the deadline won’t endear you to an admissions committee, students with valid excuses should not wait until after the deadline has passed to contact the school. “If you’re close to the deadline and think you can’t make it, call the admissions office before the deadline passes and ask for an extension,” says Goodnow. “Your chances are better if you ask before that deadline.”

  • Check out College Openings Update

    Every May, the NACAC publishes a list of schools who are still accepting applicants for the upcoming school year. Students who see schools they like on the list can apply without getting the side eye from admission committees.

  • Transfer your energy elsewhere

    “If you missed one school’s deadline,” says Goodnow, “look for another school that you can make your priority and put all effort in. Transferring to that first school is always an option, though you should try to be positive about the schools that are still accepting students and focus on your chances with them.”

  • Plan for the next round

    Students who miss a deadline have a head start on the next admission cycle. “They should look into making sure their essays and resumes are strong, and they may want to add a college or two to their lists,” says Gupta. “But don’t forget the next deadline — that’s for sure!”