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Guide to Applying to Online College or University

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 7/8/2022

Whether you're a high school student planning for your next chapter or an adult returning to college, getting accepted into the school of your choice can be a daunting process. Yet it's also an exciting time, filled with the prospect of studying fascinating subjects and meeting new people as you earn an undergraduate or graduate degree.

The process begins with researching programs, identifying your preferred schools, and reviewing the college admission requirements before filling out your college applications. Completing an application for an online college is nearly identical to the process of applying to a bricks-and-mortar campus, and there is much to learn about how you apply to college, admissions criteria, and application deadlines.

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Application Terminology to Know

Most online schools require an application, but requirements can vary. Before you start working on your college applications, research the type of enrollment process and application requirements of the schools you're considering attending. Virtually all schools will employ one of the following enrollment policies. However, there are a few situations in which you can attend online classes without having to submit an application. These include individual extension courses or nonacademic professional development programs.

What Is Open Admission?

For the most part, open admission schools are inclusive, admitting most people who apply, as long as students have graduated from high school or have taken the GED. Many two-year schools, including community colleges and academic certificate programs, fall under this category, as well as some four-year institutions. You must submit an online application, but the form is relatively simple and there are few admission requirements.

What Is Regular Admission?

Most four-year colleges and universities are competitive, admitting only a portion of applicants each year. You must meet a number of admission requirements, and you must submit an application package, which includes an online application form and several other required items. For most schools, the deadline for submitting an application falls between November and February in the school year preceding the fall term when a student hopes to begin classes. Applications are reviewed simultaneously, and a school notifies all applicants of their admission decisions at the same time.

What Is Rolling Admission?

Similar to schools that utilize regular admissions, colleges and universities with rolling admissions set standards and require application packages to be submitted within a set timeframe for each school year. However, in this case, applications are reviewed when they’re received, and individual applicants are notified of the school’s decisions on an ongoing basis as soon as they are made. Once a program is filled, the school will no longer admit additional students for the next school year, even if they are qualified. If you're set on attending a school with rolling admissions, you should submit your application as early as possible.

Online College Application Deadlines

Prospective college students often wonder when to start applying for college, and the answer is probably sooner than you might think. Below are timelines for current high school students as well as adults who've already completed high school but now want to pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree.

College Application Timeline for High School Students

Generally speaking, application deadlines for online schools are the same as for on-campus schools, and establishing a timeline for submitting applications is extremely important, especially if you would like to attend a competitive four-year college or university. The following timeline is appropriate for most college-bound high school students:

  • Junior year: This is typically the time when you'll research your options, including studying rankings lists of affordable options, nonprofit online colleges, military-friendly schools, and most popular schools. Drill down to make sure you understand each school’s admission standards, programs, faculty, resources, and any other relevant factors to ensure you're applying to schools that are a good fit. You can use OnlineU’s request forms, accessible by clicking on a school in a rankings list, to obtain more information directly from schools. You may want to ask your school counselor for input on this stage as well. If possible, take your admission exams, such as the SAT or ACT, during this time frame, preferably earlier rather than later to allow time to retake them if needed.
  • Summer before senior year: This quieter period before the final school year gets underway is an ideal time to start working on college applications. It may seem early, but there is much to do to complete the application process, including writing college essays, which can be a challenging and time-consuming task.
  • Beginning of senior year: According to the College Board, about 10% of all U.S. colleges and universities offer early decision (ED), early action (EA), and early evaluation (EE) enrollment. Applying to highly competitive programs early could improve your chances of getting accepted. However, keep in mind that ED decisions are binding, meaning that you can only apply to your first-choice ED school early, and you must attend that college if you're accepted. EA decisions, on the other hand, are not binding, so you'll still have the option of choosing another school. EE decisions are not binding either, so you'll still be able to apply to other schools if you're declined.
  • Middle of senior year: In general, this is when most colleges and universities that practice regular enrollment start accepting application packages. Make note of the deadlines for each school you want to apply to and submit your applications as early as you can, rather than waiting until the last minute. An application package often has many components, including transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays, and it’s best to get these pieces submitted as soon as possible.

College Application Timeline for Returning Adults

If you have taken some time off between high school and college, you will still follow a similar college application timeline as college-bound high school students. Especially if you would like to attend a competitive four-year college or university, it’s helpful to establish a plan for completing the process and meeting application deadlines:

  • Twelve to eighteen months in advance of the intended start date: It may seem early, but this is the right time to begin researching possible options. Study each school’s admission standards, programs, faculty, resources, and any other relevant factors to ensure you’re applying to schools that will meet your needs and help you achieve your goals. Rankings of affordable options, nonprofit online colleges, military-friendly schools, and most popular schools will help you get started.
  • Twelve months in advance: Some of the more prestigious and competitive colleges and universities allow prospective applicants to submit their applications early, approximately one year in advance of the intended start date. According to the College Board, approximately 450 schools offer early decision (ED), early action (EA), and early evaluation (EE) enrollment. Before pursuing these opportunities, you should be aware that ED decisions are binding. This means that you can only apply to your lone, first-choice ED school, and if you're accepted, you must agree to attend that college. By contrast, EA decisions and EE decisions are not binding, which means that you can choose whichever one of the schools you've been accepted to and will still be able to apply to other schools if you are not accepted. Consult schools’ websites for early submission policies and deadlines.
  • Six to twelve months in advance: For most colleges and universities employing a regular or rolling admissions policy, application deadlines generally fall between November and February of the school year preceding the start of the next school year. Check the websites of each school you want to apply to for specific deadlines, and submit your applications as early as you can. Submitting an application involves far more than simply filling out a form, so give yourself plenty of time to order transcripts, request letters of recommendation, and write personal essays. This is also the appropriate time to apply to any open enrollment programs.

College Application Deadlines 2022

Applying these timelines to the current calendar, we can establish when to apply for colleges in the fall of 2022:

  • Summer 2022: High school students who've just completed their junior years and are about to start their senior years should already be working on college applications. This is also true of returning adults. If you haven't selected a pool of possible schools yet, it's time to complete your research, assemble the materials you'll need to complete your applications, and write your personal essays.
  • August-September 2022: If you plan to apply to highly competitive programs, consider submitting early applications. Just make sure you understand the terms of early decision applications.
  • November 2022-March 2023: The deadlines for most colleges and universities that practice regular enrollment fall into this period. This is also an appropriate time to submit your application to schools with rolling admissions.

Steps to Take if You've Missed the Deadline for College Applications

If you've missed a school’s application deadline — for example, you now realize you'd like to start in the fall term this year — the first step is to contact the school’s admissions office and speak to a counselor. Often, if you have missed the deadline for a legitimate reason, such as a serious illness or family issue, the school may be willing to accept a late submission. However, if the missed deadline was due to poor planning or forgetfulness, you'll likely have to make alternate arrangements. Options include applying to start school in the following spring term, taking a gap year, or attending a school with an open enrollment policy, such as a community college.

Wondering when to apply for financial aid? Discover how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA.

How to Fill Out an Application for Online College

For online schools, the application process begins by filling out a formal application online through the school’s website or an application service. Since most applications ask similar questions, it’s a good idea to gather all of the information in advance, such as:

  • Personal contact information
  • List of classes taken and grades earned
  • List of extracurricular activities (sports, jobs, school activities, volunteer work, etc.), including dates
  • List of awards and other examples of recognition, including dates awarded

With this information in hand, it’s time to go through the application one question at a time, answering each as accurately and thoroughly as possible.

Make sure you're consistent with all of the names, titles, and dates you input on your application. For example, if you're named Katherine, avoid listing your name as “Katherine” in one place and “Katie” in another, even if you prefer to be called “Katie.” Consistent with all of the names, titles, and dates you input on your application. For example, if you're named Katherine, avoid listing your name as “Katherine” in one place and “Katie” in another, even if you prefer to be called “Katie.”

Some applicants — such as students without a permanent address or undocumented students — may find themselves in circumstances that make it challenging to fill out and submit applications. Undocumented students are eligible to attend college in the U.S., but may be subject to individual college policies and should review the policies of schools ahead of time. If you're in either of these situations, contact the admission offices at the schools you wish to attend for specific instructions on submitting an application.

Application packages usually require some additional supporting documents, which can be submitted separately as they become available, even after the initial college application deadline. Application materials typically include:

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

Unsure how to pick which colleges to apply to? Explore our guide to choosing the college that's right for you.

College Application Costs

Many colleges and universities offering online programs will charge a fee ranging anywhere from $25-$90 to process an application. In many cases, this fee is nonrefundable, regardless of whether the student is accepted into the program. Some schools, however, only charge the fee after the student has been admitted, and some will waive the fee for eligible applicants. You may check directly with the admission offices of the schools you're interested in to determine each school’s application fee policy.

How to Save Money On College Applications

There are several ways you may be able to save money on your college applications. Whether you're applying directly to schools or to multiple schools through an online tool like the Common Application, you may qualify for fee waivers if you can demonstrate a financial need or meet one of several other eligibility criteria.

FAQs About Applying to Online College

Do I Have to Take Standardized Tests to Apply to Online College?

The need to take standardized tests before applying to a college depends on the college itself. Many fully online schools and other colleges that offer online degree programs do not require standardized test scores as part of their admissions criteria, while others do. You can check a school's website for admissions criteria to determine whether you need to take one of the standardized exams, such as the SAT or ACT.

Is Online College Worth It?

By attending college online, you will earn the same degree as your on-campus peers, which means that you'll be equally eligible for higher paying jobs that require a college education. Some students prefer online classes because they are more flexible, making it easier to integrate them into your weekly schedule, and they may cost less. However, some online students find that distance learning requires greater self-discipline and time management.

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

According to the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, you should apply to six to eight colleges. After researching schools and narrowing down your possible selections to those schools that are a good fit for your goals and budget, you should apply to three "safety" schools that you're certain you'll be accepted into, two "match" schools that you're fairly sure you'll get into, and one "reach" school that may be a long shot for you. If there's a school you'd like to attend but you don't quite fit their typical student profile, you should still submit an application, as admissions counselors usually strive to select a diverse pool of incoming students.

How Long Does It Take To Hear Back From My College Application?

A college's response time depends on the school's admissions format. Schools that accept applications on a rolling basis generally respond in six to eight weeks, while schools that accumulate all applications before making admission decisions typically notify accepted applicants six to eight weeks after the application deadline, regardless of when applications were submitted. Schools with an open admission policy inform new enrollees very quickly, sometimes immediately upon application.

Trust the Process

Once you've hit that final “Submit” button and received a confirmation email, there’s nothing left to do but sit back and wait patiently for a decision. This is the time, experts say, to trust the college application process. Admission counselors know their schools inside and out, and they’re specially trained to recognize those candidates they believe will be a good fit and successful in their programs. If you've completed your submission packages to the best of your abilities and met the application deadlines for colleges, you can trust you'll be accepted into the right programs for you.

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