Help your student decide when to apply to college.

Early Decision. Early Decision II. Early Action. Priority Deadline. Regular Deadline. Rolling Admissions. These are the college deadline options available to your student. Though not every school offers every one, read on to learn what each means.

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Early Decision Commonly referred to as ED, this deadline means acceptance is binding—if your student is accepted to a college where they applied Early Decision, they must attend and rescind their application to any other school. You can only apply to one college Early Decision. Demonstrated financial hardship is the only way to back out. Some colleges share their list of ED applicants and will know if your student has applied ED somewhere else, eliminating their chance of acceptance at either school.

The major appeal of ED is the higher acceptance rate compared to other deadlines. Applying Early Decision reflects strong demonstrated interest, which appeals to colleges. On the other hand, Early Decision is generally offered at the most competitive colleges, so a student needs to meet or exceed all admissions requirements for the best chance of getting in.

Other things to know about ED:

  • You can apply to other colleges, just not Early Decision.
  • Application deadlines usually fall between October 15 and November 15.
  • A decision can be expected around mid-December.
  • A student should be absolutely sure this is the college, which means visiting this and most of the other schools on their list before applying ED.
  • If a good financial aid package will factor into the college choice, ED is not the way to go.

Early Decision II This is still a relatively new deadline, but carries the same binding commitment as Early Decision. ED II deadlines are generally January 1, with a decision received by mid-February. Acceptance rates are higher than for Regular Deadline, but generally not as high as for ED. Colleges that offer an Early Decision II deadline are almost always private, though no Ivy League school currently offers one. This option does allow a student time to improve their SAT/ACT scores and/or grades, enhance their application with recent honors or activities, and take more time to decide which college they like best.

Early Action I’m a fan of Early Action (EA) for a student with solid SAT/ACT scores, a consistent or steadily improving academic record, a good mix of activities and honors, and who’s motivated to write and finalize their application essay by October. Early Action deadlines usually run from October 15 to November 15. The advantage of applying Early Action is that a student will receive a college’s decision as early as December (as late as January), but they don’t have to accept an offer until May 1, the same as Regular Deadline applicants. They can compare financial aid packages and visit, or revisit, the colleges where they’ve been accepted to help make their choice.

Early Action deadlines are often a college’s merit scholarship deadline. These are scholarships not based on need, but on a student’s academic record, SAT/ACT scores, community service, leadership skills, talents, etc.  (Check a college’s scholarship deadlines to help choose an application deadline.)

I don’t advise applying Early Action if a student needs to take the SAT/ACT again in late fall or has had a major grade slippage in junior year (not due to serious extenuating circumstances like an illness or death in the immediate family) and needs to show improvement the first half of senior year. Because all the pieces of an application have to be in by the EA deadline, including teacher recommendations and all test scores, this deadline works for a motivated applicant.

Priority Deadline Colleges, usually public ones, use this deadline to encourage students to apply earlier than the Regular Deadline. Students who send in their applications by the Priority Deadline generally have the best chance of acceptance.

Regular Deadline This is the latest application deadline set by a college. Depending upon the school, the deadline can be as early as January 1 or as late as April 1. This deadline allows a student to include midyear grades, improved SAT/ACT scores, additional honors/awards, a new highlight on the activity sheet (like running the Thanksgiving food drive) and other changes on the application.

Rolling Admissions Rather than waiting for a deadline to review applications, a college with Rolling Admissions reviews each application as it’s received and makes a decision in the same manner. These colleges generally stay open to applications until they’ve maxed out their acceptances, which can be earlier than for some Regular Deadline colleges. A student should apply to schools with Rolling Admissions as soon as they can.

No deadline There are some colleges that don’t list a deadline on their admissions page. From my experience, these colleges receive fewer applications or aren’t a top choice school for as many applicants as other colleges, but should not be dismissed. They present a good option for students who’ve had trouble making up their mind if they want to go to college at all or changed their criteria, like they now either want to live at home or board on campus. These colleges operate similarly to a school with Rolling Admissions, responding in the order applications are received, and closing when they meet their quota.

No matter the deadline Apply at least a week or two earlier to avoid the risk of the CommonApp site being overloaded with last-minute applications and to allow time for missing pieces, like test scores or transcripts, to arrive in time. Other than Rolling, colleges don’t look at an application until after the deadline, so don’t expect an earlier response than listed.

Keep in mind that if your student misses college deadlines or receives only rejections, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) offers a list of colleges that have openings after May 1 on their website. The list is usually available the first week in May.

Share your thoughts and experiences on helping your student choose a college application deadline in the comments section below.