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What Is The Earliest I Can Apply For College?

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

No two paths to higher education look exactly alike. Most students choose to apply to college during their senior year, though in rare instances, some hypermotivated juniors proactively apply as a junior.

While the latter scenario comes with a unique set of challenges, it is not impossible or unprecedented. The accelerated route can certainly be successful for academically advanced students if broken down into manageable steps and aggressively planned.

It is crucial for any 11th grader who wants to pursue college early to:

  • Set realistic expectations.

  • Know what admissions teams will look for in your application.

  • Prioritize your time and energy during your remaining time in high school.

If you are exploring an early application and entrance to university, read on to learn what is possible and how you should prepare. If ultimately you decide to apply on the normal timeline, rest assured that it is never too early to start thinking about and preparing for your college application—in fact, the earlier, the better.

Can You Apply For College In The 11th grade?

In short, yes, 11th graders can apply.

Most schools do not have policies against this. However, schools do not necessarily offer clear and separate routes for reviewing these applications, nor are there any explicit advantages.

So, while you could conceivably apply as a junior (assuming you were academically qualified and equipped with a strong application), keep in mind there is a clear distinction between simply doing it and doing it well.

The fact is, gaining admission into your dream school(s) will not be made any easier by applying a year early.

If, however, you have defensible reasons for pursuing early acceptance to college and (ideally) have gained the support of your parents/guardians for doing so, then there are several next steps to consider.

1. You Will Be Considered Alongside Seniors

Your competitors will have had more time to prepare, strengthen and finalize their materials. They will also have had an extra year to more deeply pursue their academic and extracurricular interests to gain maximum angularity.

This means they’ll have had one more year to gain expertise in a unique area that will help them stand out amid a hyper-competitive admissions space.

2. Some Schools Require An Academic Minimum

Your college of choice might require a high school diploma, GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma), and/or confirmation that you have completed a set number of academic classes.

Depending on your specific circumstances and the resources offered at your high school, you may need to seek online courses at a nearby community college or another program to ensure you meet these requirements. For any school you’re interested in, always check their website to learn if they have specific policies and requirements for prospective students.

3. You Need Support From Your High School

While not a formal requirement, ideally you will have support from your guidance counselor and any teachers whom you will ask to write you a recommendation letter.

"You can apply to college without the support of these people, but it will be more difficult to do so if they don’t think you’re making a good choice."

You Will Need To Take Tests Early

In order to allow yourself plenty of time to take and retake the SAT and ACT, you will need to take these during your sophomore year spring and anticipate retaking either or both to improve your scores during junior year fall. This means you will have to start your test prep the summer before a sophomore year or sophomore fall at the latest.

Even if you ultimately conclude that the early graduation application route is not right for you, then you can (and absolutely should!) think about how to best use your junior year to make sure you can have the strongest application possible when the time comes.

How Early In High School Can I Apply For An Ivy League School?

While there is no formal rule for this, you can only apply as early as you are able to meet the requirements. And as outlined above, those take time.

Take Columbia University for example. They note that

"Early admission is occasionally granted to students of special promise who are completing the junior year of secondary/high school and who meet the following requirements:"

Columbia goes on to advise its applicants for early admission to follow the normal application procedure and to indicate they are applying for early admission under the "Additional Information" section of the Common Application or Coalition Application.

Alternately, well-prepared students who have the credentials to apply to an Ivy League school can explore applying to their school of choice via Early Decision (binding) or Early Action (non-binding) during the fall of their senior year.

In some cases, an Ivy League school reaches out to select juniors, in what is called an early invitation. As reported by the New York Times in 2018, Harvard assesses P.S.A.T. scores and annually sends out thousands of recruitment letters inviting high-performing high school juniors to apply. According to the article, students who accept the invitation are about twice as likely as other applicants to be admitted.

Moreover, Harvard has historically dropped the P.S.A.T. score cutoff for rural white students to qualify for an advanced invitation if they live in what the school calls “sparse country” (i.e., the 20 largely rural states where relatively few students apply).

While you can certainly consider applying to an Ivy League during your junior year, it is worth expanding your perspective about which school is best for you.

You might explore applying to a smaller, less competitive college that will provide an equally strong education. Once there, you could then consider the option to transfer to a larger, more prestigious university after you have successfully completed your first year.

As you weigh your options for which application timeline to follow, consider asking yourself these questions to make the most informed decision:

  • What academic and professional opportunities would the early graduation application route give me?

  • What logistical challenges would I have if I pursued this path?

  • What colleges make the most sense for me to consider as an early applicant given my high school record, course rigor, test scores, academic strengths and weaknesses, and extracurricular experiences?

  • Am I ready and willing to commit to the additional workload and accelerated timeline this path would require?

  • Do I have the support of the adults in my life? If not, what are their primary concerns and questions, and how might I holistically take those into consideration?

  • What additional preparation and resources would I need to ensure I submit the strongest application possible as a junior?

By reflecting on these questions, seeking support and guidance as needed, and entering this process with full awareness of what it entails, you have every opportunity to find success as a junior applicant.

Our team at Bentham is prepared to work with students across the spectrum of pre-college preparedness, including those advanced students ready to make the leap from high school to college a bit sooner than usual.


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