A Comprehensive Guide to Applying to Online College or University

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Essential Vocabulary for the Application Process

Online educational institutions typically require applicants to go through an application process, although the specific requirements can vary. It is crucial to conduct thorough research on the enrollment procedures and application criteria of the schools you are considering before embarking on your college applications. While most schools adhere to standard enrollment policies, there are certain instances where you may be able to attend online classes without submitting an application. These exceptions include individual extension courses or nonacademic professional development programs.

Target Dates for Online College Applications

Prospective college students often wonder when is the right time to begin the application process. The answer is sooner than you may expect. Below are timelines for current high school students and adults who have already completed high school but now wish to pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree.

Timeline for High School Students Applying to College

In general, the application deadlines for online schools align with those of traditional on-campus institutions. Establishing a timeline for submitting your applications is crucial, especially if you aim to attend a competitive four-year college or university. The timeline below is applicable to most college-bound high school students:

  • Junior year: This is typically the stage when you research your options, including exploring rankings of affordable institutions, nonprofit online colleges, military-friendly schools, and popular schools. Delve deeper into each institution’s admission standards, programs, faculty, resources, and other relevant factors to ensure that you are selecting schools that align with your goals. OnlineU features request forms that allow you to gather more information directly from the schools listed in the rankings. It is also advisable to seek input from your school counselor during this phase. If possible, schedule your admission exams, such as the SAT or ACT, during this time frame, preferably earlier rather than later, to allow for retakes if necessary.
  • Summer before senior year: This period before your final year of high school commences is an ideal time to start working on your college applications. It may seem early, but there is much to accomplish in the application process, including writing college essays, which can be both challenging and time-consuming.
  • Beginning of senior year: Approximately 10% of all U.S. colleges and universities offer early decision (ED), early action (EA), and early evaluation (EE) enrollment options, as reported by the College Board. Applying to highly competitive programs early can enhance your chances of acceptance. Keep in mind that ED decisions are binding, which means that you can only apply to your first-choice ED school and must enroll if accepted. In contrast, EA decisions are not binding, allowing you to choose another school if desired. EE decisions are also non-binding, providing the opportunity to apply to additional schools if rejected.
  • Middle of senior year: This is generally the period when most colleges and universities with regular enrollment practices start accepting application packages. Take note of the deadlines for each school you are applying to and submit your applications as early as possible, avoiding procrastination. Application packages often consist of various components, such as transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays, so it is advisable to submit them promptly.

Timeline for Returning Adults Applying to College

If you have taken a break between high school and college, you will generally follow a similar application timeline as college-bound high school students. It is beneficial to establish a plan and adhere to the process and application deadlines, especially if you aspire to attend a competitive four-year college or university. The following timeline is recommended for completing the application process:

  • Twelve to eighteen months prior to the intended start date: Although it may seem early, this is an appropriate time to embark on your research. Study admission requirements, programs, faculty, resources, and other pertinent factors for each school to ensure that they align with your needs and goals. Begin your research with rankings of affordable institutions, nonprofit online colleges, military-friendly schools, and prominent institutions.
  • Twelve months prior to the intended start date: Some prestigious and competitive colleges and universities permit applicants to submit their applications approximately one year in advance. Around 450 schools offer early decision (ED), early action (EA), and early evaluation (EE) enrollment options, according to the College Board. Before pursuing these opportunities, familiarize yourself with the binding nature of ED decisions. This means that you can only apply to a single, top-choice ED school, and if accepted, you must attend that college. By contrast, EA and EE decisions are non-binding, allowing you the flexibility to choose from the schools that have accepted you and still apply to other institutions if desired. Consult the schools’ websites for their early submission policies and deadlines.
  • Six to twelve months prior to the intended start date: For most colleges and universities that follow regular or rolling admissions policies, application deadlines generally fall between November and February of the school year preceding the next academic year. Visit the websites of each school you intend to apply to for specific deadlines and aim to submit your applications promptly. The application process entails more than simply completing forms, so allocate enough time to obtain transcripts, secure letters of recommendation, and craft personal essays. This is also the appropriate time to apply to open enrollment programs, if applicable.

College Application Deadlines in 2022

Applying these timelines to the current calendar year, we can determine the recommended application periods for fall 2022:

  • Summer 2022: High school students who have completed their junior year and are entering their senior year should already be working on their college applications. The same applies to returning adults. If you have not yet compiled a list of potential schools, it is time to conduct thorough research, gather necessary materials, and begin writing your personal essays.
  • August-September 2022: If you are considering highly competitive programs, it may be prudent to submit early applications. Familiarize yourself with the conditions and requirements of early decision applications.
  • November 2022-March 2023: Most colleges and universities with regular enrollment practices have deadlines during this period. It is also an opportune time to submit applications to schools with rolling admissions policies.

What to Do if You Missed the College Application Deadline

In the event that you miss a school’s application deadline, such as realizing your desire to start in the fall term of the current year, the first step is to contact the admissions office and speak with a counselor. In some cases, if you have a legitimate reason for missing the deadline, such as a serious illness or family matter, the school may be willing to accept a late submission. However, if your missed deadline was due to poor planning or forgetfulness, you may need to explore alternative options. These options may include enrolling in the following spring term, taking a gap year, or considering schools with open enrollment policies, such as community colleges.

How to Complete an Online College Application

For online schools, the application process typically begins by completing a formal application online through the school’s website or an application service. Since most applications ask similar questions, it is wise to gather all necessary information in advance, including:

  • Personal contact information
  • List of completed courses and corresponding grades
  • List of extracurricular activities (sports, jobs, school activities, volunteer work, etc.) and dates of involvement
  • List of awards and other forms of recognition along with the dates received

Armed with this information, carefully work through the application form, addressing each question with accuracy and thoroughness.

Certain applicants, such as those without a permanent address or undocumented students, may face unique challenges when completing and submitting applications. Undocumented students are eligible to attend college in the U.S., but individual college policies may apply, so it is crucial to review the policies of each school beforehand. If you find yourself in either of these situations, contact the admission offices of your desired schools for specific instructions on submitting your application.

In addition to the application form, you will likely need to submit supporting documents, which can be sent separately as they become available, even after the initial application deadline. These materials typically include:

  • High school transcript and/or diploma
  • College transcript (for transfer, graduate, or postgraduate applicants)
  • Admission exam reports detailing SAT or ACT scores
  • Personal essays or statements
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Lists of extracurricular activities and awards
  • Portfolio of work (particularly for art and design students)

College Application Fees

Many colleges and universities offering online programs require a nonrefundable application fee ranging from $25 to $90 to cover the cost of processing applications. However, certain schools only charge the fee after applicants have been accepted, and others may waive the fee for eligible students. To determine the application fee policy of each institution you are interested in, it is best to contact their admission offices directly.

Tips for Saving Money on College Applications

There are several ways to potentially reduce the cost of your college applications. Whether you are applying directly to schools or using a tool like the Common Application to apply to multiple institutions, you may be eligible for fee waivers if you can demonstrate financial need or meet specific eligibility criteria.