Unfinished College Applications: The Importance of Planning

White male in button up shirt, standing in front of a bookcaseThis article first appeared in the December edition of the American College Application Campaign newsletter. 

There is a sprint every fall semester. It’s not at the cross-country meet beneath a beautiful canopy of fall foliage, nor is it an athletic sprint on one of the many playing fields as fall winds turn to a cold winter blue. It’s the college application sprint to meet early decisions and priority deadlines. 

College counselors and students feel the stress and can agonize over each piece of the application. Meeting early deadlines with a fully completed application is a heavy lift that requires a careful plan and intentional communication.  

It takes time. A lot of it. Much care and attention are dedicated to college applications submitted early but are those the bulk of college applications? For students who are not submitting early decisions and early action, are their college applications getting completed?  

It might be time to look at the incomplete college application data for students at your schools.   

Last month Higher Ed Dive published, “Federal data change means colleges can’t count unfinished applications in admit rates” which made me think about all the incomplete college applications. The article discusses how colleges can no longer count an incomplete application as an application when reporting institutional data for the purposes of admission rates.  

It goes on to explain the importance that this new rule indirectly plays in college marketing materials, selectivity ranking, and students’ perceptions of a college based on this data. This is good information for the college counseling community, but not what made me lean in.  

For me this article sparks other questions about all those unfinished college applications. 

  • Do we track and monitor our student’s college application status beyond just starting it?  
  • What is the cadence on how we monitor college application status? 
  • What barriers do students face in completing college applications?  
  • Do schools have a data dashboard to visualize students that have incomplete applications?  

This is the right time of year for college counseling teams and college access organizations to take a data walk across the status of all their students’ college applications. By now students have started one or several applications. But some students may only fully complete one to three applications and leave the balance unfinished.  

Some of the reasons students may not complete the applications vary and may include the challenges of affording college application fees, writing admissions essays, securing teacher recommendation letters, submitting test scores, and getting their transcripts.  

When it comes to helping a student complete their college applications it is important to have a plan for the entire senior class and a plan for individual students. It is also important to leverage your college application management platform and generate a weekly or daily report during this time to closely monitor and manage individual follow up with students. Some college counseling departments display and visualize college application status by counselor and school to keep a close pulse on progress towards college application completion targets.  

But why is this so important? Behind all those incomplete college applications are students’ futures. This simply means that if a college application is not finished the student will not be considered for admissions at that college. And if they do not complete the application on time or by a priority deadline, and they are admitted, they may not be considered for university scholarships. So, students ultimately limit their options by not completing college applications.  

The other reason this is important is from a programmatic perspective. This is where the data walk becomes necessary. If teams track and monitor all their student’s college applications closely, then it is possible to disaggregate to better understand: 

  • number of applications incomplete and complete; 
  • applications submitted by priority deadline and/or on time;  
  • which students are not completing their applications? Is there an equity gap; and 
  • a breakdown of the entire graduating class tells you: are there specific student profiles that need support? 

With data and questions like these, program leaders and department heads can begin to develop and implement an action plan to address this issue. Teams might consider a school or district target (percent of total college applications started with a status of complete). This type of goal will help drive other initiatives like decreasing summer melt rates, increasing college matriculation rates, and ultimately increasing college completion rates.  

Our team recognizes that most students are deep in their college application season, but if there is still a need for students to explore and research colleges, they can download our free college and career planning app, Encourage 

We can also help college counselors and advisors connect with their students’ plans through our in-school postsecondary planning program. If you want to get started with our free program, check us out at Encourage for Educators.