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College Application Options and Deadlines

Suzanne Shaffer

I’ve never liked deadlines. Or rather, as Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

My own personal motto related to deadlines is that I work best under pressure. But when it comes to the college admissions process, deadlines are everything.

Miss a deadline, miss a chance to take an important standardized test. Miss a deadline, you aren’t part of the early admissions pool. Miss a deadline, your financial aid is compromised.

The college application itself is no exception.

Colleges offer a variety of application/admission options, each with its own deadline: Early Decision (and ED II), Early Action, Priority Deadline, Regular Decision and Rolling Admissions. It’s crucial for your student to determine which option(s) will improve their chances of acceptance and which deadline best suits their timeline.

And even though your student may have their heart set on one college and choose to apply ED or EA, it’s best to have other schools ready for application if they are not admitted early to the first choice school.

Early Decision

The earliest college application deadline is Early Decision. The vast majority of students who opt to apply Early Decision to their first-choice college get an answer before January 1.

Not every school offers the Early Decision option, however. You can see the complete list here: Early Decision Schools: Complete List of ED Colleges.

Early Decision (ED) is the most restrictive of the early deadlines. ED application deadlines are typically November 1 or November 15. It is a binding agreement between the student and the institution, meaning that a student must enroll if offered admission. The key point to remember is that a student may apply to only one college ED.

An ED application can have multiple possible outcomes. If your student is admitted ED, the college process is done. They must accept their offer and enroll at the school. If they are denied or deferred, they have several options.

  1. They can apply to another college via ED II which typically has a January 1 deadline, and receive notification sooner than Regular Decision applicants. If they apply and are admitted in the ED II pool, their decision is also binding. Not all colleges offer the ED II option, however.
  2. If their application is deferred, it will be placed in the Regular Decision application pool along with other regular applicants and your student is released from the binding ED I agreement. They can take a wait and see attitude as they complete other Regular Decision applications.

Early Decision students have a significant admission advantage at many colleges. You can check out how much by visiting a college’s page on the College Data website. For instance, overall, 23 percent of Bates College applicants were offered admission. But when you look only at the Early Decision applications, 50 percent of those applicants were admitted.

Early Action

If your student isn’t interested in schools that offer Early Decision (ED), or does not feel ready to commit to a single school, they may want to consider Early Action (EA).

Schools generally offer either Early Decision or Early Action — not both. You can see a complete list of Early Action schools here. Some colleges offer EA II options with later application dates but which still provide earlier notification in the spring.

The most common EA deadline is November 1; however, some colleges have EA deadlines in October and a few are November 15. Decisions on EA applications are usually posted in mid-December. Students can apply to multiple colleges/universities that offer Early Action.

EA applications are non-binding, meaning that if you are admitted to an institution Early Action, you are not obligated to enroll. With ordinary EA, students can apply as EA candidates to several colleges at the same time. Early Action Single Choice or Restricted Early Action works much like Early Action, but the student is limited in the number of other colleges where they can submit early applications — and that number is often zero. Colleges do this for a number of reasons, but they most often want the student to show a special commitment to their college without having to promise to go there.

EA applicants will either be offered admission, denied or deferred to the Regular Decision application pool.

Priority Deadline

Priority is often misinterpreted as just another name for Early Action. While Priority deadlines can be similar in timing to other early deadlines, they are not the same.

Colleges and universities that utilize Priority give the most consideration to applications received by this deadline. It is in a student’s best interest to apply by a Priority deadline when offered.

Mostly public universities offer this option. Applying by a Priority deadline will increase your student’s chances of being accepted, receiving financial aid, and/or winning scholarship money. Some schools reserve certain scholarships for students who apply by the Priority deadline.

Universities may also require students applying to special programs, such as an honors college, to apply by the Priority deadline.

A student can be accepted, denied or deferred; if the latter, their application will be reconsidered with the Regular Decision applicant pool.

Regular Decision

The majority of students submit their college applications for Regular Decision. Every school offers Regular Decision and students can apply to as many colleges as they cho­­ose for Regular Decision. However, keep in mind that each application adds to the overall workload, and application fees to multiple colleges can be costly. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity in the application process!

Students applying Regular Decision will turn in their applications between mid-December through mid-January and hear back regarding their admissions status by March or April.

Although the majority of schools set January 1st as their deadline for Regular Decision, other schools have deadlines of January 15, February 1 or even an earlier date, such as December 1. It’s important to keep track of each college’s deadline.

Regular Decision applicants can be denied, admitted or wait-listed. If your student is wait-listed, they still have a chance of being accepted after the May 1st deadline for committing to a college. Students who were offered admission at a school but don’t accept their spot leave an opening to be filled by wait-listed applicants.

If your student is wait-listed, it’s smart to look at the other colleges on the list that have accepted them. With competitive colleges and universities, the wait list can be long, and your student will be in a holding pattern until the college makes a decision to go to their wait list.

Rolling Admissions or Late Applications

Even if your student is not admitted to any of the colleges on their list, all is not lost. There are more than 200 colleges that accept late applications. Every year the National Association for College Admission Counseling publishes a list of institutions still accepting applications. Using the list, you can search for member colleges and universities — both public and private — that are still accepting applications.

There are also colleges with a rolling admissions policy, meaning that students may apply for admission at any time. Schools with rolling admissions offer a much wider window for students to apply; this window can be as large as July through April, although individual application periods at different schools vary. For a complete list of rolling admission colleges, click here.

Applying late or using the rolling admissions option doesn't disadvantage students regarding their odds of being accepted. However, students who apply late or via rolling admissions may have fewer options for things like housing and may be awarded less financial aid.

Your student has many options when applying to college. The key to deciding which approach is best is to do the research in advance and understand the implications of each kind of application and deadline while keeping their options open.

As a parent, you can help your student stay organized as they plan and complete their applications, and help them minimize stress by keeping perspective. This year of all years, during a pandemic when record numbers of incoming first-year students opted to take a gap year and defer starting college, it's going to be harder than usual to predict how a school will evaluate applicants.

With a balanced college list and a calendar that gives them time to craft a solid and thoughtful application, your student is sure to have choices when all the decisions have been rendered.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.

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