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When Should I apply to College? Understanding Early Decision, Regular Decision, and Rolling Admission 

There are a lot of terms floating around related to the timeline of college applications. Between early action, restrictive early action, early decision, rolling admission, and regular decision, it’s hard to keep their similar yet critically different definitions straight. To save you some time and stress, we’ve compiled all the information you need to know about different application timelines so you can make the wisest decision about when and how to apply to college. 

Regular Decision

Let’s start with the most basic route. The bulk of applicants apply to any given university during the regular decision period. Additionally, while not all schools have early or rolling programs, all of them will have a regular decision option. That makes regular decision the most common path and, in part because of that, the lengthiest. Most RD applications are due between January 1 and February 1, but you won’t find out your colleges’ final decision until April 1. You then typically have one month to decide between the colleges to which you’ve been accepted. 

You should apply regular decision to schools you aren’t too excited about getting into, because you won’t hear back from them until later. You should also apply RD to schools you aren’t 100% sure you would want to go to if you were to get accepted, but you have a strong interest in if you do. Most likely, these are your match and safety schools. 

Rolling Admission
Schools with rolling admission: Purdue, Arizona State, Penn State, Michigan State, Rutgers

Rolling admission is mostly offered at larger public universities, rather than Ivy League schools or small liberal arts colleges. Applications for rolling admission are accepted and evaluated in the order in which they are received, rather than all at once. You can submit an application as long as there are spaces available. Since rolling admission is the most flexible program, it’s a great option if you’re behind with your standardized testing. However, if you have a tendency to procrastinate, you would likely benefit more from stricter deadlines. On the other hand, if you want to get all of your applications off your plate as soon as possible, you can submit an application as early as you want for rolling admissions, and still apply to another more restrictive early program. 

Early Action
Schools with early action programs: MIT, University of Michigan, Villanova, Notre Dame

The most appealing aspect of early applications to most students is the higher acceptance rate compared to regular decisions, but this isn’t always as straightforward as you might expect. The applicant pool in the early rounds tends to be more competitive. If you think you have high chances of getting into a college and a strong desire to go there, then you should consider applying early. Early action is a non-binding early application, meaning that if you apply early and get accepted, you aren’t obligated to attend. Every school is slightly different, but in general, there are two phases of  early action: I and II. You can apply by either apply EA I in mid-November to find out December, or EA II in early January to find out by February/March. As long as you have your test scores ready to send on time, there really isn’t a downside to applying EA, unless you plan on applying to a restrictive early action program, which will prevent you from applying to any other school early action. We’ll discuss this next. 

Restrictive Early Action:
Schools with restrictive early action programs: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale

The first thing that needs clarification is that Restrictive EA, Single Choice EA, and Restricted EA are all different names for the same style of early action program. All of these programs are non-binding early applications (just like early action, meaning that you can apply and get in but choose not to attend), but they are restricted in the sense that if you apply to a REA school, you can’t apply to any other colleges early. Like Early Action I, restrictive early action applications are due early-mid November, and your waiting time is only about a month (compared to up to three months of waiting for Regular Decision). If waiting makes you anxious and you’re already pretty sure of your top choice school, but not certain enough to apply Early Decision, then REA is a good choice for you.

Early Decision
Competitive Schools with Early Decision programs: Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn, Duke, NYU

Early decision is the most restrictive application process. Although, unlike restrictive EA, some early decision programs allow you to apply to other EA programs, they are actually less flexible. Early decision is a binding application, meaning that if you get accepted to an ED school, you must withdraw any applications to other schools. In the event that you change your mind about wanting to attend there, you’re pretty much out of luck; you can choose not to go to college, but you can’t accept an offer from a different college. There are only a few reasons you can back out of an early decision acceptance: the college doesn’t offer you enough financial aid, and your family can’t afford the tuition, or a major life event that significantly changes your circumstances, such as a death in the family. 

You should only apply ED if you are fully committed to attending that school.

If you’re 100% certain about the college you want to attend, then Early Decision is a wise path for you to take, because if admitted, you will attend that school and you won’t even have to consider any other options. 

The key to applying, whether early, regular, or later through rolling admission, is knowing yourself and understanding which timeline works best for you. There are definitely benefits to each of these programs. Regular decision and rolling admission give you more time to get your application in tip-top shape, and allow you a lot of flexibility in choice. EA, REA, and ED programs typically have higher acceptance rate, as well as provide you with a chance of deferral. (Unlike being waitlisted, when your application is deferred, the college reconsiders it again in the pool or regular decision applicants, and any new information they receive, i.e. midyear transcripts or new SAT scores, can influence their decision.) 

Keep in mind that even though many early programs reflect higher admittance rates, numbers aren’t always an accurate way to judge the ease or difficulty of getting into a college. The students who apply early to competitive universities tend to have stronger applications than the average RD applicant. Especially in the case of restrictive early action and early decision programs, the limitations imposed on the applicants ensures that the only students who apply are relatively confident that they will be accepted, and thus tend to be a self-selected group of high-achieving students. Remember that, while the potential benefits are great, you should only apply in an early admissions cycle if you are genuinely thrilled with the prospect of attending the school. 

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