The short answer to that question is… longer than you think.
Ultimately, it does not just take weeks or month—it takes years. The answer really depends on what part of the application process you are working on.
To clarify, let me break down the timing.
The Timing for Various Parts of the College Application Process
We will progressively go in order of what takes the least amount of time in the college application process to what takes the most time.
A matter of hours or minutes
While these are simple things that do not take a lot of time, they are important and must be done.
Ordering your transcripts and official test scores – In order to send them to the colleges to which you want to apply.
Asking your teachers or counselors for letters of recommendation – Remember to do this early enough in the process so as not to rush them.
A whole day or up to a week
The timing for these matters often depends on how focused a student is and how they intend to pay for their education.
Filling out application forms – This may include financial aid forms and scholarship applications.
Taking the time to make sure the information entered is correct – That covers making sure that spelling, punctuation, and the capitalization of proper nouns like names of people, high schools, and organizations you have been involved with are accurate.
Having someone check and edit everything on the application – Everything except the essay (see details in the next section).
Many students misjudge just how long it truly takes to prepare well-written personal statements and essays. It is important to leave ample time to handle these tasks.
Writing your college application essay(s) – While the personal statement is typically the one essay you probably will use for all college applications, many colleges (especially the well-regarded ones) ask for supplemental essays which are unique to their schools.
That means, aside from the personal statement, you may be looking at preparing up to 6 or 7 additional essays for each college. And when you consider how many colleges you may apply to and multiply that with how many essays you may need to write, the number of essays can add up very quickly.
Individualizing essays – There may, at times, seem to be considerable overlap in supplemental essays. For example, some colleges require a supplemental essay called an activity essay, which is generally short and asks the student to elaborate on one of their extracurricular activities in more detail. While this essay can possibly be used for several different colleges, you should not take the idea of overlapping too far.
For instance, the fact that you cannot use one essay for all colleges is most prominently obvious with the “Why us?” essay. This is a supplemental essay which many colleges require that essentially asks, “Why do you want to go to our college?” I would never recommend that you simply repeat the same things for every college in this essay—you have to individualize.
Estimating sufficient time for essays without rushing – There is a big difference between a high school essay and a college application essay. In high school, you may have been able to knock out an essay in one night and still receive a good grade. Writing a really good college application essay, however, is completely different. It requires a lot more attention to detail. In fact, it generally involves writing 3-5 drafts (the longer the essay, the more drafts are needed), which takes a lot longer than just a night… or even a day.
Typically, you have to write a draft, then get it reviewed, revised, and edited. With that feedback, you work on a second draft and a third… and so on, repeating the process several times. All, while you are attending to school work, extracurricular activities, family responsibilities, and anything else you choose to do in your free time.
Therefore, when you get to the stage of working on your essay, I recommend you leave yourself at least a month for two college applications. That means, if you are applying to 10 colleges, you need to allow for some 5 months to complete the essays involved. Of course, that is just an estimate, but I really suggest not trying to do this in any less time. While it may be possible, it will only stress you out.
At least a year
While these tasks generally take about a year, it should not take a lot more. But it is also unwise to go to the other extreme and start it years ahead.
Building your list of colleges – This is one of the most important things to handle in the college application process. If you want to build a good list of colleges—one that really fits you—starting a month before the deadline will not suffice. You need at least a year, possibly more.
That includes sufficient time to read about colleges online and even potentially visit these schools. It also involves talking with trusted advisors (family, friends, counselors) about their own experiences, their impressions about you as a student, and whether one college or another would be a great fit for you.
Allowing time for a thoroughly thought out decision – Ultimately, building a college list requires more than just sitting down and reading a list of statistics. You need to give yourself time to think and let all the data you are gathering sink in. If you really want to do this step properly, let your heart and your mind work on the information, filter it, process it, and internalize it. And allow yourself some time to compare and weigh your decision carefully.
All four years of high school
Being at the peak of whatever you do well is a slow and steady process that will require all of your high school years.
Building your extracurricular profile – Colleges look to see what you have engaged in outside of the classroom. So, if you want to give yourself the best opportunity to apply to a great college and increase your chances to be admitted (especially to more a selective college), the longer you need to have been involved with extracurriculars. The more skills you build and the more challenges you meet, the more impressive your extracurricular activities look to a college.
Giving yourself time for the exploration process – Developing this extracurricular profile is not a linear process. You will not just start grade 9 and suddenly win awards or be the captain of a team. Achieving goals takes time. At times, you may fail. Other times, you may start an activity, realize you do not like it very much, and end up backing out to find a new interest.
If you give yourself plenty of time to discover your strengths, the means by which you approach challenges, and the way you explore interests and passions, you will know exactly what kind of person you are (an artist, a scientist, an athlete, a journalist, etc.)by the time you begin the college application process.
Paying attention to the length of time different parts of the college application take is crucial for meeting deadlines. In my next post, “When Should You Start Applying to College?,” I will focus on the chronological timetable for the college application process, starting from the moment you enter high school.
I am an Independent Educational Consultant with years of experience. If you are looking for assistance with navigating the many aspects and tasks of the college application process, please contact me.