There are a lot of terms floating around related to the college application timeline. 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. COVID-19 has further complicated the timeline, as many colleges will admit a lower number of students into the class of 2024 in order to adjust for this year’s skyrocketing deferral rates.

Here’s a compilation of information regarding the application process that should clarify your options in relation to the novel challenges presented by the pandemic. We hope it helps you to 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 universities regular decision (RD). While not all schools offer early or rolling programs, all of them offer a regular decision option, making regular decision the most common application type. Most RD applications are due between January 1 and February 1, and universities will get back to you on or before April 1st. You then have just one month to decide which college to commit to between the colleges to which you’ve been accepted. 

You should apply regular decision to schools you aren’t 100% sure you would want to go to, but would have a strong interest in attending should you be accepted. Most likely, these are your match and safety schools. Given the rapidly changing conditions of COVID-19, receiving an acceptance or rejection in the spring may not be optimal for all students. Furthermore, choosing an earlier application timing option could fortify your application to the reach schools and dream schools on your list. We’ll get to that after rolling admissions! 

 

Rolling Admission

Schools with Rolling Admission: Purdue, Arizona State, Penn State, Michigan State

Rolling admission is mostly offered by 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. This admissions option is particularly advantageous this application cycle, as securing a noncommittal acceptance early in the process at a match or safety school will mitigate your stress and free you to apply to your reach schools with a bit more assurance. You can submit a rolling application as long as spaces remain available. 

Rolling admission is the most flexible application option, and a great option if you encounter a delay with your standard testing timeline. No strict deadline will confine your application, freeing you to submit your scores as you receive them without the pressure of a due date. For this reason, however, if you have a tendency to procrastinate, you would likely benefit from the stricter deadlines EA, ED, or RD offer. A mixture of rolling admissions with ED or restrictive EA would be optimal if you desire the peace of mind of an early acceptance while still utilizing an ED or restrictive EA option.

 

Early Action

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

Early action (EA) is a non-binding early application, meaning that if you apply early and get accepted, you aren’t obligated to attend. For most students, applying early action is appealing due to its higher acceptance rate than regular decisions applications. Keep in mind that the applicant pool in the early rounds tends to be more competitive, however. If you think you have high chances of getting accepted into a college and a strong desire to attend, then you should consider applying early. 

Applying early action is also appealing as it allows you to receive an admissions decision earlier than regular decision applications. Most early action applications are due November 1st, and decisions are released in mid-December and January. Additionally, a handful of schools such as St. John’s University and Austin College offer EA II, a chance to apply in early January with regular decision applications, but with the key advantage of receiving a decision 4-8 weeks later, rather than by April 1. 

However, because early action is non-binding, it will not have the same fortifying effect on your application as a binding ED application. Schools prefer the binding early decision option over the non-binding early action option, as it allows them to hand-select a portion of their freshman class. Accepting a student ED allows a school to know he or she will come to campus in the fall, while there’s a chance an EA student may enroll in a different school.

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 or early decision program, which will prevent you from applying to any other school early action. We’ll discuss this next. 

 

Restrictive Early Action:

Competitive Schools with Restrictive Early Action programs: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale

To clarify, Restrictive EA, Single Choice EA, and Restricted EA are all different names for the same type 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. They are restrictive in the sense that if you apply to a REA school, you can’t apply to any other college 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 3 months of waiting for Regular Decision. This option, similar to non-restrictive Early Action, will therefore not be an optimal tool for combatting COVID-19 application complications, as schools cannot secure a class early with non-binded applicants. However, 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. Some schools will allow you to apply to a public university at the same time as you apply to their restrictive early action program, but this isn’t the case for all schools. Be sure to double check restrictions that accompany your restrictive early action application. 

 

Early Decision

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

Early decision (ED) is the most restrictive application option, and therefore your most potent tool in making the most out of this particularly strenuous admissions cycle. Early decision is a binding application, meaning that if you get accepted to an ED school, you must withdraw any applications you have sent to other schools. In the event that you change your mind about wanting to attend the school, 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 another extenuating circumstance.

You should only apply ED if you are fully committed to attending that school, making it the perfect strategy for enhancing your candidacy for your dream school in the face of the pandemic. In a year in which admissions class sizes are rapidly declining due to unprecedented circumstances, an ED application will really help you put your best foot forward. If you’re 100% certain about the college you want to attend, then Early Decision is a wise path for you to take. If admitted, you will attend that school and you won’t even have to consider any other options. 

The ultimate 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 options. Regular decision gives you more time to get your application in tip-top shape, and allows you a lot of flexibility in choice. EA, REA, and ED programs typically have higher acceptance rates and allow you to hear back from colleges earlier than regular decision applications. 

Keep in mind that even though many early programs have 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 by the prospect of attending the school. We hope this helps! Good luck with your applications!!

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