Drawing up your schedule

This article is part of a series sharing a decade of experience supporting you to run open calls.

Laying out timelines

Timing is everything – opening your submissions at the wrong time or for too long could negatively impact the number of candidates who apply. Find out more on what to watch out for when crafting the schedule of your programme.

This article covers:

  • Planning your schedule effectively
  • Giving candidates and judges the right amount of time
  • Understanding when to launch your programme
  • Preparing for the unexpected

The Basics

The process of creating a schedule is simple.

  1. Map out key moments in your programme
  2. Associate dates to them

Which key moments you choose to include in your programme is heavily dependent on your process and I would recommend you read this article first before proceeding any further.

Example key moments could include:

  • Publish programme
  • Submissions (Open / Close)
  • Selection Round (Judging Starts, Judging Ends, Selection)
  • Other Key dates (e.g. Exhibition Opening, Award Ceremony etc.)

Plan today, save time later.

Making sure you plan your schedule early is vital for running an efficient open call. 

Changing dates halfway through running your programme can lead to a domino effect. This holds especially true of moving dates earlier in your process as they will push all subsequent dates. So if you’ve invited lots of judges to score entries on future dates, you’ll need to re-organise everyone again, which could lead to judges dropping out due to conflicting diaries.

Spending a little time planning your schedule and making space between steps will ensure your programme runs smoothly for everyone. 

Impact from the Pandemic

Things can take a little longer in isolation. Try and give people more time than you would usually.

Using Zealous

Map draft dates directly on Zealous. Publish once you are ready.

Start with days, not dates

It’s tempting to use dates when you first start planning your schedule (e.g. opens on the 28th of February, closes on the 31st of March). However, using dates can lead to miscalculating the amount of time you have between steps (e.g. judging between the 28th of February and the 2nd of March would only give your judges less than two days). 

To know exactly how much time you have to undertake those specific actions calculate your schedule using days instead (e.g. submissions open for 21 days, then we judge the shortlist for seven days and announce winners nine days later).

Once you are happy with the amount of time between steps, establish your starting date and calculate the dates for each step. Or to save time by downloading our amazing scheduling template which will calculate all the dates for you automatically!

Using Zealous

Key dates are automated, letting stakeholders know when submissions open, judging starts etc.

The big picture

No one likes having to swap a festive period with a lengthy application form.

Check your timeline against relevant holidays (bank, school, religious etc. ) to ensure no one misses out on a festive meal.  If you are working with candidates and judges globally, be sure to account for local holidays.

NOTE. Bank holidays with no specific celebration could be good before your submissions close since they might give candidates a chance to submit during that time.

Also, be mindful of other days of rest. Closing on Shabbat will impact submissions coming from the communities that do not work on those days.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

The key dates you take into consideration should match the communities you wish to serve.

Impact from the Pandemic

Things can take a little longer in isolation. Try and give people more time than you would usually.

Rules of thumb

How long you give candidates and judges to perform their tasks depends on what you want from them. Asking artists to submit existing works will take less time than artists creating work based on a brief. 

Every open call is unique, but on average, we have seen the following timelines work well.

  • Publish your call at least a week before submissions open so you can begin getting people excited about submitting. If you expect candidates to create something for you, publishing it earlier will give them more time to prepare.
  • Submissions should open for a minimum of 4 weeks; and a maximum of 3 months. If you host a big call with early bird entry fees, 6 to 8 months is perfectly acceptable.
  • Extensions should never be longer than 15% of the total length of your call (opening for 20 days would lead to a three-day extension). Extensions should be a maximum of two weeks and not be extended again. Long extensions will make you look like you are struggling to get submissions and is unlikely to help.
  • How long you give judges is heavily dependent on your process and how many submissions you are expecting. 

Note that having short timelines for specific actions will make those periods more intense for those taking part in them. For example, the smaller your submissions period is, the more effort you will put into your marketing during that period. 

Last-minute rushes

Humans are notorious for waiting until the last minute. No matter how long you open submissions for, it’s likely that more than 50% of all entries will come in on the final 2-3 days.

Graph of the last minute rush on Zealous

Opening submissions for eight months is unlikely to get any engagement at the start since the deadline is too far in the future for the candidates to care. However, you can inspire candidates to submit earlier with incentives such as early bird fees, feedback on early entries etc.

Be sure to add these dates to your schedule and market them the way you would your submissions closing. 

Fostering diversity & inclusion

If you are taking fees, having early bird packages may allow people with fewer means to participate.

Using Zealous

Zealous servers will scale for those last-minute rushes, meaning the site will be up even during large surges.

Simplify your submissions in minutes

Experience our submission management platform with a customised online tour.

Making space

There will always be a disappointed candidate who just missed the deadline.

We’ve seen two equally valid responses to this eventuality. A statement of fact – “you had two months to submit” and one of empathy “we have extended our submissions by two days”. 

Putting an extension in your planning will give you the option, later on, to have one without impacting future dates (or ignoring it and proceeding with the next step).

With proper marketing, extensions also give you the chance to grow submissions with two last-minute surges.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

If you know people will struggle with the tech (e.g. older generations), consider an extension to allow you to support them during that time.

Impact from the Pandemic

With the uncertainties of the pandemic, it’s worth adding buffer time to your schedule, even if you end up not using that time.

Using Zealous

You can edit the closing date of your submissions at any time (before you have started to make your selection!)

Evenings & Weekends are sacred.

When we pick dates we tend to gravitate to the ends of days (midnight) and weeks (Sunday). It’s tempting to close submissions at midnight on a Sunday night (or Saturday if you’re working the Islamic workweek).


Having submissions close when no one is there to support candidates is likely to lead to frustration. Ensure your closing dates happen during work hours, ideally in the afternoons (closing submissions on Monday at 16:00 is a much better choice).

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Some of the communities you wish to reach out to may need a little extra help; being there to help them will increase their chance of submitting successfully.

Using Zealous

Our team is on LiveChat to help anyone on how to use Zealous during business hours.

… but always include at least one Weekend

You may be inadvertently locking out candidates/judges who have punishing workweeks if your submissions or judging starts on a Monday and ends on the Friday of the same week.

Having at least one Weekend, if not two, allows external stakeholders to use their “free time” to get involved with your programme. 

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Days off are different for everyone (working in a supermarket, working an Islamic workweek etc.). But if you have a minimum of 7 days to undertake an action, you’ll likely be supportive of a majority of your communities.

Impact from the Pandemic

Working from home doesn’t mean people have more free time. Being in lockdown with kids could lead to having no free time at all. Extending timelines will increase the probability of you supporting specific segments of society.

Using Zealous

Our support team may not always be present, but the platform and help files are available 24/7. We’ll answer any raised tickets as soon as we log in during business hours.

If you take a fee

If you require a fee, make sure your submissions (and any early bird deals you have) close when candidates have the means to pay you. 

Look out for other expenses your candidates will have throughout the year. Make sure your submission does not compete with being able to buy Christmas/Diwali/Eid presents. 

Consider closing submissions and special deals just after payday. Employees in the UK get paid on the last Friday of every month (freelancers are harder to model due to sporadic cash flows). This makes the first Monday after payday an ideal date for closing any special deals you might have.

You might also want to research any other calls like yours taking a fee and making sure you don’t both take payments at the same time. This could put candidates in a position where they can either submit to your open call or a competing one. 

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Taking a payment will automatically mean some people won’t be able to afford to submit. Being mindful of their cash flow can help.

Using Zealous

Create special deals directly on the platform. Enable and disable them as you wish.

Expect the unexpected

Once you’ve planned your dates, ask yourself whether your system will work if the unexpected happens. Will a day and a half for your long list be enough if 10,000 people apply? What do you do if your only judge catches COVID?…

Create space in your schedule by adding an extra week between each selection round. That means if one of your judges cannot complete scoring entries on time, you will have seven additional days to allow them to finish their task without impacting future rounds.

Fostering diversity & inclusion

Stress links directly to people’s mental well-being. Catching potentially stressful situations early will allow you to safeguard those on your project.

Impact from the Pandemic

People can fall sick at any time. If you are dependent on one person, be sure to extend your timelines to suit the critical question of “what if they catch COVID?”

Using Zealous

Zealous is online, which gives you a lot of flexibility. In a physical context, a sick judge could lead to the whole panel catching it. Keeping your distance where possible helps you directly combat the spread of COVID.

Making changes midway

No matter how hard you try, sometimes you may need to change the dates of your programme whilst you are running it. 

Making changes to your timelines is fine so long as you are transparent about it and keep all your stakeholders up-to-date with any changes as soon as you can.

For example, moving the results of a round two weeks later will lead to candidates bombarding your inbox for results. Emailing everyone before they start asking will save you time managing your inbox and build credibility with your candidates.

Impact from the Pandemic

COVID means things need to be agile, especially when organising an exhibition. Transparency in communications will make the whole process easier.

Using Zealous

Update your dates directly on Zealous, and add a message at the top of your guidelines. This will ensure candidates don’t email you.


Your schedule is the backbone of the relationships you build with your candidates and judges. Crafting it as best as possible before your programme launches will save you countless hours later.

Time is sacred, and the additional work you put in planning your timeline will translate directly to giving your stakeholders a great experience they will remember. 

About the author


Guy Armitage founded Zealous to simplify access to opportunities in the creative sector. He was voted Guardian’s Creative Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013, has discussed the world-changing potential of creativity at TED and in Forbes; and is a proud trustee of Firstsite (Colchester) and Arebyte (London). Prior to Zealous, Guy kept the London Stock Exchange open during the 7/7 bombings and founded a creative startup in Cairo. Contact Guy