Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why Are College Apps Due January 1?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Your holiday travel plans probably didn’t include Arlington, Virginia, but you should be really glad a few folks were in that bustling city this weekend.  About a dozen very loyal college access champions spent their New Year’s Eve at the headquarters of The Common Application, where they answered questions and resolved technical issues from the thousands—that’s thousands—of students applying to college just in time to meet the January 1 deadline.  It’s estimated that Common App processed 700 applications in one minute, just before the major deadline of midnight Sunday, January 1. That’s almost 12 college applications per second. (Full disclosure:  I’m on Common App’s Board of Directors, and can attest to the incredible commitment of the entire CA team.)

Of course, many counselors were also at work this holiday season, checking email and sending transcripts for last-minute applicants, even though schools were shuttered and counseling offices were dark.  It’s unlikely any of these loyal counselors clocked their work in at 12 applications per second, but like those very noble Common App workers, the result is the same—if it weren’t for their steadfast support of the college selection process, far fewer students would be thinking about college today.

The commitment of everyone who spent some time over the holidays poring over SAT scores and pdf files is cause for thanks and admiration, but it’s also a reason to ask an important question:

Why are any college applications due January 1?

At first blush, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Except for the stalwart Common App team, and a few counselors who can’t get enough of email, most support services for college-bound students are closed New Year’s Day, and have been for at least a week before that.  Many students apply to college before the holidays, but with so many colleges sounding the alarm on January 1, it’s easy to wonder how many students would be making better informed choices, and presenting better organized applications, if the deadline was moved to a time when high schools and college admissions offices are open. 

Some may suggest that the January deadline is actually there to help to students.  That argument goes something like this:
·         Students work hard on their classes when school is in session;
·         They need ample free time to write strong college applications;
·         December vacation offers them that free time.
I offered this opinion to a college admissions colleague, who suggested that argument is giving colleges too much credit, calling this theory “discarded bovine digestive material”.  It’s also difficult to assess the truth of this argument, since more than a few teachers fill this “gap of learning” with book reports or project proposals.  In addition, there is the argument that vacation isn’t a “gap of learning”; it’s a time to be with friends and family, time that’s in short supply for most high school seniors, who will be in a very different place, and on a very different schedule, a year from now.

There may have been some logical reason in the past to have January 1st as a college application deadline.  Still, given the advances in technology, and the lack of the presence of the Post Office in the current admissions process, it might be time to rely less on the goodwill of guilt-ridden school counselors and overworked admissions professionals, and consider moving the January 1 deadline to December 15.  Help for students is more readily available, college advocates gain some free time (and respect) by serving students on the clock, and everyone would get to use January 1 to rest, revel, restore, and resolve—kind of like, you know, a vacation.


  1. I agree that the January 1 deadline should be removed. We know colleges in our area are closed in mid December and don't open until mid January or later. It is difficult for students to contact counselors and counselors to access files (like rec letters) that are on school computers. Either December 15 or January 15 would be better.

  2. I'm not sure that my students would appreciate having the app deadline in the middle of finals week. Many of them actually use the break to finalize the apps.

  3. I agree that a January 1st deadline not only hurts kids, especially first gen kids who have lots of questions, but it also means that regardless of all the threats I make about them having to get recommendation requests to me by December 1st, do I want to be the reason a first gen/low income kid with a 3.8 goes to community college? So as a result, I am working pretty much everyday of my "vacation " every year. My family is used to me working late into the night, instead of some well deserved family time watching "It's A Wonderful Life". If the deadline was January 10 or 15, I would at least get to spend some time with my own son before he is off to his own college experience. Please, my college colleagues, consider this small change!

  4. I find that whatever the deadline is, students feel they have until then to do their applications. The later the deadline is the more they procrastinate. I feel that a deadline during December would be a lot more beneficial so students and staff members can enjoy vacation. I think deadlines of the past were best January 1 so mail can get there. That is not needed anymore.