Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Admissions: When Should I Apply?

Posted: September 28, 2015

As if college admissions wasn't confusing enough, at many colleges you have your choice of dates to apply. This sounds like a good thing, until you realize your first application deadline might be in October or November of your senior year!

​Don't panic! With a little bit of knowledge, you got this.

Early Decision: If you apply Early Decision (ED), you are agreeing that, if the college accepts you, you will attend. No questions asked. This is a binding agreement that can only be undone if your financial aid award is not sufficient. Many schools accept a higher percentage of students from their ED applicant pool because they know they can count on them to show up in September, which is not the case for regular decision applicants.
  • Pros: Your college admissions process can be done by January, leaving the rest of your senior year to goof off. (Not really, still have to keep those grades up, but you will save a lot of work and worry going ED.)
  • Cons: you have to know exactly what you want right away. Starting your college planning junior year helps a lot if you're considering ED. If you're 80% sure you want College A, but kinda also want College B, early decision is not for you. Also: you cannot apply to more than one college early decision, but you can apply to other colleges at the same time. The catch is that you promise to withdraw those applications if the ED college accepts you.
Early Action: Like Early Decision, Early Action (EA) is also really early. The difference is that early action is a non-binding agreement. You can apply to many EA schools and not agree to attend until May. This helps with financial aid, because you'll know exactly what the school will cost you before you agree, unlike Early Decision. College usually accept a greater percentage of Early Action students than of the regular application pool, but not always. Check the individual college you're thinking of because assuming you have a better chance going EA. ​
  • Pros: You'll know by January if you've been accepted to your dream college, or any college. You can apply to as many EA colleges as you like, unless your school has Single-Choice Early Action (see below). If you're not accepted EA, most schools will roll your application over to their regular application pool; kind of like being waitlisted but without the anxious summer wait.
  • Cons: You still have to be ready to apply by November, sometimes earlier. 
Single-Choice Early Action: This variant of early action requires you to apply to only one college early. You are still not obligated to attend, and you get the benefit of early admissions, but the school has less competition in this scenario. Applicants who are not accepted SCEA will often be rolled over to the regular admissions pool.

Regular Admission: Most colleges have application deadlines in January and February, otherwise known as the Dark Night of the Soul. Don't put off applications until winter break or you'll ruin your vacation.

Rolling Admissions: Many state colleges have rolling admissions, which means you can apply anytime before their final deadline (frequently in March). Be aware that these schools may have financial aid deadlines that are earlier than their last-chance application deadlines. Apply for financial aid early to get the best chance at a good award.

Open Admissions: Open admissions schools will take anyone who applies. You generally find open admissions at community colleges or very small state schools. Apply anytime.

The Bottom Line: There can be good reasons to start your college planning in your junior year, especially if you want to apply to a highly-selective school. Being ready to apply in October or November can give you a leg up in the admissions process. Be aware that its unethical for a college make you apply before October 15 or accept admission before May 1.

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