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The College Admission ‘Deadline’

Brennan Barnard
Let us begin with the premise that nobody is getting shot over their college application. Despite what some students may think, when one applies to college is not a matter of life or death. Still, as with many things in life, there are basic expectations and rules to follow. The origins of the term “deadline” are unclear but it has been suggested that it came from Civil War prison camps where there was a physical line, which if crossed, prisoners would be shot. Again, despite perceptions, college applicants are not prisoners, nor will their lives be in jeopardy if by January 1 their application is not complete. Perhaps we need to strike the word deadline from the admission vernacular and instead focus on “due date” or another less violent term.

The timeline for submitting applications has changed significantly in the past two decades. Before the turn of the century, the majority of college hopefuls submitted their applications in January or early February. Often students prepared their applications over the holidays and recommendation writers spent their Thanksgiving, and winter vacation, feverishly drafting letters of support. But as Bob Dylan reminds us, “the times they are a-changin’.” With 2020 approaching, the proliferation of early action, early decision, and priority admission plans has shifted the whole culture of applying to college. In fact, in some high schools, it is rare for a student not to have submitted at least one application by early November. Several colleges and universities now open their applications in July and August to enable eager students to apply. While one benefit is a more peaceful holiday season for both students and educators, the negative implications outweigh this reprieve.  

I have not been shy about expressing my feelings towards this shifting timeline, nor about my criticism of colleges abusing early admission plans by enrolling over half their class early. It is an equity issue and one that feeds the frenzy and anxiety around college admission. At the same time, we must recognize the herculean task that some admission offices face, reviewing tens of thousands of applications in a condensed timeline with limited staff. This is a reality that is hard to avoid. What can be more easily averted, however, is the messaging, clarity, and timing of specific deadlines...sorry...due dates. Let us unpack the application calendar, when students can apply, and some of the unintended consequences.

Summer: Yes, you read that right. There are some colleges and universities that open their application in July or early August, meaning a student could be admitted before their senior year has even begun. This is troubling for two major reasons. First, it sends the message that the final year of high school is inconsequential. Second, many high school counseling offices are closed during the summer and so supporting documents—high school transcripts, profiles, and recommendations—are hard to obtain, causing anxiety and frustration for students and creating rifts between families and schools. Other colleges and universities also have rolling admission plans but often open the application for submission at the beginning of the academic year, a much more humane approach.

October 15: Most high schools in the country have only been back in school for about a month by the beginning of October. However, there are some state universities, predominantly in the southeast, that have early action deadlines of October 15. This has caused much consternation among high school counselors who argue that this condensed timeline puts undue pressure on schools and students. What is important to acknowledge is that in many of these southern states, like Georgia, school children start the year in early August, often more than a month before Labor Day and well before their peers around the nation. Because the mission of these universities is first to serve students in their state, they assert that this early timeline is appropriate. Maybe, but the unintended consequences for students and schools elsewhere should also be considered. 

November: Every Halloween (October 31) at school, I wear a t-shirt that has a red heartbeat with a flatline ending—the next day—on November 1st (see photo).

The idea is that I am a deadline. While this bit of college admission humor is lost on many—and annually elicits dad joke eye-rolling from my children—it is a very real and scary costume for the seniors with whom I work. College deadlines on the 1st and 15th days of this month for early action and early decision applications have become the new norm and the cause of great angst. Sadly they are unlikely to go away, but colleges can limit the percentage of their class enrolled through these plans and consider the ways they pressure applicants to make premature decisions. 

January: A quick quiz: how many high schools or colleges would you guess are open for business on December 31 or January 1? If you guessed zero, you are probably close. In fact, many admission offices and high schools are closed for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Why do some colleges and universities continue to use this deadline for regular decision when nobody is available to support the students applying? There is a growing chorus of high school counselors expressing frustration with New Year’s Day due dates and some colleges and universities are responding. This year, Georgia Tech decided to move their regular decision deadline from January 1 to January 6. Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission, says “it’s best to have our team here to answer last-minute questions, triage issues, and calm anxiety.” He warns students that this “DOES NOT mean procrastinate intentionally and wait until Jan 5th or 6th just because you now have that time. It DOES mean we hope you enjoy your break and New Year’s Eve. Don’t let us get in the way. Have fun and stay up late.” Always the educator and father, Clark adds, “but be safe and don’t do anything stupid.” Pitzer College is also among a growing number of schools that have recently extended their deadline to the 6th, writing to counselors: ”We hope this will give your students more time to thoughtfully engage with their applications before they submit.” Their admission office went a step farther and assured counselors that “as long the Common Application and Pitzer supplement are submitted by the January 6 deadline, it is okay if other application materials (i.e. letters of recommendation, transcripts) come in over the following week.” Bravo!

February: Demonstrating the wide range of options for students, there are schools with regular decision due dates in February, and many that accept applications on an ongoing basis well into the spring. Typically only a little over a third of all institutions of higher education have met their enrollment goals by the May 1st National Candidate Reply Date. This is to say that all is not lost if by the first day of senior year a student does not have a final college list and has submitted all applications. Every spring, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) publishes a list of all the colleges and universities still accepting applications, often with higher acceptance rates and doing great work educating leaders of tomorrow and today. While there are schools with fluid due dates, the wise applicant still plans thoughtfully and heeds the milestones in the process that colleges have identified.

Colleges and universities have every right to set specific due dates based on their institutional needs and timelines. Students are and should be, expected to meet these requirements, but we also know that admission is an imperfect system and things go wrong. And yes, teenagers (and adults) procrastinate. When a deadline falls on a holiday or weekend, one might argue that applicants should just plan ahead. Those arguing this probably don’t work with, or have, 17-year-old children of their own. Hopefully, admission offices will continue to examine their deadlines and the implications on students, parents, and schools. 

Georgia Tech’s Clark argues that “colleges should model learning and adapting since that’s the higher education paradigm.” He adds, “hopefully, schools will continue to look for ways to both meet institutional priorities and make logical choices that recognize student needs and well being.” Colleges and universities should be able to articulate why they adhere to specific deadline placement. While they are at it, it would go a long way in calming panicked families if colleges refrained from sending alarming emails the day after (sometimes even before) the deadline notifying applicants that their materials have not all arrived. Remember, at an anxious time, deadlines feel like life or death, so please do not pull the trigger on document requests prematurely. 

Students have a voice in this process and should not be afraid to use it. They can advocate for themselves and future applicants by asking questions, especially of their state flagships, about deadline choices. Don’t underestimate your voice and the power of questioning. While this process is not deadly, your advocacy could make change happen for future generations of college applicants. Regardless of when students apply, admission to college should be an experience of opportunity and freedom not of limitation and captivity, so we must look for ways to make it more humane. Hopefully 2020 is the year of clear vision and both colleges and applicants will strive to see the full landscape and have perspective.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project
for www.forbes.com
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The Derryfield School

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