You — or someone you know — has decided to go off to college. Hurray! Whether you or your kiddo are headed off to a university, liberal arts college, community college or elsewhere, you might learn that a college’s application process involves “rolling admission.”

What is rolling admission? It simply means that the college(s) you’re interested in will review applications as they receive them.

What Do I Need to Know About Rolling Admission?

Rolling admission means that colleges accept (and deny) students on a continuing basis. For example, you can get an admission decision whether you apply to colleges in October or April — you’ll usually find out whether you’ve been admitted within approximately two to four weeks.

But does that mean you should wait until April of your senior year to apply to schools? Probably not. Some schools have a priority deadline for rolling admission. Your application should be in earlier so you can increase your chance of acceptance. Beyond the priority deadline, the school will accept applications until all spots are filled.

Rolling admission is different than early decision or early action. Early decision schools are binding, which means that you apply early to a school and then you must attend that school when you’re accepted.

Early action schools are non-binding, which means that you can apply to several early decision schools and then make a final decision on May 1 — just like you can with rolling admission.

The major difference between early decision and early action schools is that they have a firm application deadline — unlike schools with rolling admission.

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Steps to Apply to a College with Rolling Admission

Rolling admission offers a lot of benefits — particularly when you’re a busy high school student. Let’s say you (or your kiddo, if you’re a parent) must balance play rehearsal, cross country practice, homework and more every night of the week. It’s tough to find time to apply, so rolling admission can offer a little breathing room.

Step 1: Visit colleges so you know where you’d like to apply.

Visit several different types of schools. Call up the admission office at each college or university and talk to an actual person. For example, you might talk to the campus visit coordinator at a liberal arts college and a state university and plan to visit each school’s engineering department.

Visit schools early on in your high school years — don’t wait until April of your senior year and then go on a college visit frenzy. Start sophomore or junior year and ease into it. Sprinkle a couple of visits throughout summer break after sophomore year. Add one to spring break junior year. Hit even more colleges during the fall of your senior year. 

Think you’re behind on college visits? It’s okay — that’s why rolling admission is a major benefit. Treat this as an adventure. Visiting colleges can be so much fun!

Step 2: Ask colleges about their application processes.

Ask multiple questions about the application processes and admission requirements at every school (in detail!). The admission counselor is the best person to ask when you’re on your college visits. Here are five great questions you can ask your admission counselor: 

  1. When does your application process open?
  2. When must my application be complete?
  3. What does your application involve (essay, letters of recommendation, resume, etc.)?
  4. What are your best tips for filling out the application?
  5. How long will it take me to complete?

Step 3: Apply for admission.

You’re ready to apply? Yesssssssss! So exciting. Read the application form in depth. (After all, it’s not a good feeling when you submit something as important as a college application and you realize that you’ve forgotten to include, say, a critical part of your college essay.) Your application form, which is almost always done online but could be done on a paper version in some cases, may include: 

  • An essay or another type of writing sample: Get help with this! This must be your very best work. It’s worth it to have an English teacher or other savvy adult work through the components of the essay or writing sample. 
  • Letters of recommendation: Some schools require you to submit letters of recommendation. Others do not. Check with each individual school for more information. Be sure you select people who can speak to your academic strengths — in other words, steer clear of athletic coaches or others who cannot comment on your performance in the classroom. Choose teachers from core subjects — math, English, science and history.
  • List of activities: The application will ask for a list of your activities — both in school and outside of school. Be sure it’s a comprehensive, chronological list that highlights your interests. Schools will take your activities into serious consideration when they assess your application.
  • Creative work: Schools might require you to submit creative work for additional scholarships or as a requirement for admission.

Another quick note: The application may ask you whether you plan to file the Free Application For Student Aid, or the FAFSA. Don’t plan to file the FAFSA? You might need to indicate that on your application.

Your application might allow you to apply to several schools at once — the Common, Coalition and Universal applications can allow you to apply for over 800 schools at once!

Step 4: Send in your transcripts and test scores.

Each school may ask for your transcripts and test scores, but make sure you’re sending the right information.

  • Transcripts: Ask your high school to mail in an official copy of your transcripts. Some colleges and universities don’t require official transcripts at the time of application and may just need them when you officially graduate. Ask the school to be sure.
  • Test scores (ACT or SAT tests are the most common): Have you taken your ACT or SAT? If not, take them — pronto — and have the scores sent directly to the schools you’re applying to. Learn about testing dates and fees on the ACT and SAT websites.
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Step 5: Pay the application fee and submit.

Some applications require an application fee and others offer a free application — especially when you do a college visit at that particular school. You can pay the application fee via check, money order or credit card. Double-check to make sure that you included everything that’s required for the application and take a deep breath — and hit submit. Hurray!

Step 6: Wait for an official acceptance.

You’ll receive notification of your acceptance via regular mail within two to four weeks — do a happy dance! You might often receive a couple of other notifications from a school, possibly via email and maybe even communication from your admission counselor or other admission personnel at the schools you applied to. 

Now, you know that there’s also the possibility of a denied application. What happens if you’re not accepted? You can file an appeal. Every college handles appeals differently, so do your best to learn everything about the appeal process first.

Be sure you have a good reason for an appeal — not just being upset with the admission office’s decision. Write an appeal letter that points to specific reasons for lackluster performance, such as a death in the family or a long-term illness that you suffered from during your sophomore year. Be explicit. And whatever you do, don’t be accusatory toward the admission office for denying you.

Get an alternative plan ready to go at a different college, because appeals often don’t succeed — particularly if you’re denied admission from a highly selective school. Also remember that just because you’ve been denied admission at one point, it doesn’t mean you can’t reapply as a transfer student someday.

Why Opt for a School with Rolling Admission?

Rolling admission shouldn’t be the only reason you apply to a school. There obviously must be other compelling factors. Rolling admission should only be one of the “extra perks” that can help you make your best decision ever. Other factors that are arguably more important include: 

  • Fit: Does the school feel “right” to you?
  • Location: Is the college in the right city, state or even the right country? 
  • Academics: Does the college excel in the major you’ve selected — or even better, have an overall excellent academic reputation? Remember, you don’t need to have your major selected prior to attending college. 
  • Athletics: Is the coach for the sport you play the one you can envision playing for over the next four years? Are your teammates people you know you can get along with?
  • Social: Is the social atmosphere the right one for you? What do students do on the weekends? A great way to gauge that is to do an overnight visit on campus before you make your final decision.
  • Career opportunities: Does the school offer an excellent career center that can help you make connections over the next four years? Can the career center offer you leads to internships and alumni connections that can make it possible for you to get a job after you graduate?

Can you think of other factors that will make it on your list? Of course you can. Maybe a school makes it onto your list because it has an outstanding knitting club — or a championship bowling team. 

Find the Right Fit College No Matter What

One more thing to remember: A college’s specific admission type doesn’t indicate the caliber of the school at all. Just because a school is an “early decision” school doesn’t mean it’s “better” — just like rolling admission doesn’t mean it’s a “B” school. A lot of great schools require rolling admission. In short, don’t base your assessment of a school on the type of admission it uses.

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