Which College Application Deadline is Right for You? (Choose Wisely!)

Like much of the college admissions process, college application deadlines can be hard to decipher. Early decision…. Early action…. Rolling admissions…. Even though each option has significant consequences, it can be hard to know which to choose. Here’s a quick guide to sorting out which choice is right for which student.

Early Decision Seals the Deal

For those who don’t want to endure the torture of waiting for a college admissions verdict, the early decision college application deadline seems like a godsend. The student applies to the college early – usually in November – and receives their decision by the end of the year. But there are serious strings attached that should give students pause.

When a student applies to one of the more than 200 private universities that offer early decision college application deadlines, they also sign a statement that binds them to enroll in the school if they’re accepted – and to withdraw any other applications. That’s a pact that the student’s family may come to regret. Not only does it shut the door to other colleges that the student might discover later, but it also means that the student is committed to attend regardless of the financial aid package the college may (or may not) offer.

If a family is prepared to pay sticker price for the university and the student knows in every fiber of their being that this is the school for them (and has the grades, test scores, and class rank to be admitted), then the early decision college application deadline is a good fit. Otherwise, not so much.

(A word of warning to students who think they can game the system: some elite colleges share their lists of admitted early decision students to prevent those students from being considered elsewhere. The Atlantic has an insightful article about the Department of Justice’s antitrust investigation into this practice.)

It should be noted that a subset of schools with a November early decision college application deadline also offer a second round early decision deadline, which is typically in January.

Early Action Delivers Breathing Room

For students who are anxious to get a decision but who aren’t ready to sign on the dotted line, an early action college admission deadline could be the right fit. Approximately 450 schools have an early action option, meaning that the student can apply earlier (again, usually in November) and receive a decision earlier – typically by January or February.

Unlike the early decision option, a student can apply to multiple colleges via early action. In addition, an early action acceptance isn’t binding. The student doesn’t have to commit until the normal college decision date of May 1. Because there’s no downside, early action is a great default for students who are a good fit (as far as grades and test scores go) for the college and who want to know sooner rather than later.

As with early decision schools, a subset of schools with a November early action college application deadline also offer a second round early decision deadline, which can range from December to February.

Restrictive Early Action Reins Students In

Students who want the best of both worlds – early decision but without the commitment to enroll – may opt for a school that offers a restrictive early action college application deadline. Also called single choice early action, restrictive early action means that a student cannot apply to any other private university using early decision or early action. Applications to other private colleges must be under the regular decision process.

There are only a handful of schools that offer restrictive early action: Baylor, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Notre Dame, and Yale. Those schools don’t offer an early decision option.

Students often choose early decision or early action because it can give them an edge. There’s strong evidence that that a greater percentage of early decision and early action applicants are granted admission than regular applicants. According to Ivy Coach, Ivy League acceptance rates for early decision and early action applicants who graduated from high school in 2017 ranged from 14.5 percent (Harvard) to 27.8 percent (Dartmouth). This is in contrast to Harvard and Dartmouth’s regular decision acceptance rates of 3.4 percent and 8.5 percent respectively.

Regular Decision: The Default Choice

The regular decision college application deadline is useful in many different scenarios. If a student wants to apply to an elite school but doesn’t want the binding commitment that comes with early decision, then regular decision is the only option. If a student applied early decision or restricted early action and was denied admission, then they can apply to other schools through the regular decision process. If a student has their eye on a particular college, but needs to pump up their grades during the first semester of their senior year, then the typical January regular decision deadline makes sense. Finally, if a student needs more time to put together a strong application packet and essay, the regular decision route is likely the way to go.

Rolling Admissions: Just in Case

Some colleges offer a rolling admission college application deadline. This means that a school continues to accept applications until all slots have been filled. Schools with rolling admissions can be a windfall for students who applied too narrowly and were denied admission. Rolling admission schools can also be helpful to students who need the extra time during their last year of high school to meet GPA or testing requirements. They are also a great last-minute option for students who are late in deciding that a four-year college is the right next step.

College Application Deadline: The Bottom Line

When it comes to college application deadlines, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Different circumstances dictate different approaches. If money is no object and a student has their heart set on a particular school, then early decision is the way to go. On the other hand, if a student wants to keep as many doors open as possible, a combination of early action and regular decision applications might be in order. For those students needing to throw a Hail Mary pass, schools with rolling admissions can be their saving grace. Knowing which options are available is key to developing a student’s college application strategy.

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About the Author:

Sally Smith is a college and scholarship coach who helps families navigate the path after high school. She facilitates in-person and online group workshops, and provides one-on-one coaching on a variety of topics. Sally can help families gain an understanding of the college selection, application, and decision process; pinpoint scholarship opportunities; write effective college admission and scholarship essays; decipher the FAFSA and CSS Profile; gather stellar letters of recommendation; and develop strategies for college entrance testing and test preparation. To learn more about the services she provides and to schedule a free 30-minute consultation, visit https://www.pathwayscollegecoach.com.

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