Understanding the 4 Different Types of College Deadlines

Submitting your application within the deadline is the single most important part of the admissions process. Taking the time to put together an outstanding application, complete with a brilliant personal essay and impressive recommendation letters is futile if you do not send in your application on time. Very few colleges if any will even bother to look at any applications that come in after the deadlines.

Talking about college application deadlines is easier said than done, however. Most colleges have four different types of college application deadlines and it is important to understand what each one means and whether or not it applies to you.

Four different colored clock icons on a navy background.

Regular Decision Deadlines

This is the most common type of deadline that applies to most applications. Regular decision deadlines are typically around the beginning of January. Colleges send the acceptance letters sometime in March. You have until the end of April to accept (May 1st is known as College Decision Day).

When applying through regular decision there is no limit to the number of schools you can apply to.  If more than one college accepts you, you can choose which one you want to go to. You are under no obligation to enroll in any one particular college.

Pros of Regular Decision

  • Plenty of time to complete your application.

  • Apply to as many schools as you’d like.

  • Time for test retakes.

Cons of Regular Decision

  • May be a lot to tackle in the final months of your senior year with scholarships, finals, and other responsibilities.

  • Less actual time to prepare for college.

    • Meaning you also have less time to choose a school.

Early Decision Deadlines

Early decision deadlines allow students to apply early. The school reviews these applications early and students also receive an early response from the college. This is a great option for applicants who have their heart set on one particular college.

However, if a college is not first on your list or if you have any hesitation whatsoever, it is not advisable to apply as an early decision. When you apply through an early decision deadline and a college accepts you, you cannot break your contract. The college contractually obligates you to attend. If you decide to back out because you’ve changed your mind, most colleges will charge you a steep fine, which could be as much as a full year’s tuition.

The deadlines for early decision are usually somewhere between the 1st and 15th of November.

Pros of Early Decision

  • Shows school you’re set on attending there and it’s your first choice.

    • This shows commitment.

  • You get a faster response.

    • So if you’re declined, you have plenty of time to apply to other colleges.

  • There can be higher acceptance rates at some colleges.

Cons of Early Decision

  • It’s a binding contract that comes with a huge fee if you try to cancel.

  • Your application is due sooner.

  • You can apply to only one college.

Early Action Deadlines

Early action deadlines also allow you to send in your college application early but unlike early decision deadlines, it is not binding. You may apply to multiple colleges under early application. Thus, expect an early response from all colleges that you apply to.

There are a couple of differences between early decision and early action.

Firstly, with early action, you are not obliged to attend any one particular college. You can apply to multiple colleges and choose any one from among those that have accepted you.

Secondly, you do not have to pay any deposit while sending in your application. You only pay the deposit at the same time as the regular decision applicants.

Early action deadlines are usually set at the same time as early decision deadlines, which is generally between the 1st and 15th of November.

Pros of Early Action

  • Unlike Early Decision, Early Action is not binding.

  • You receive an early response.

    • So more time to decide on a school.

  • There can be higher acceptance rates at some colleges.

Cons of Early Action

  • Your application is due sooner.

  • It’s easy to let your financial grades slip when you know you have been accepted.

Rolling Admission Deadlines

With rolling admissions, the deadline is the same as the regular decision deadline. The only difference is that colleges that offer rolling admissions do not wait till after the deadline to send out acceptance letters. They start evaluating the applications as they come in and send out letters as soon as they’ve made a decision.

When applying to a college that has a rolling admissions system, it is always a good idea to apply as early as possible.

Pros of Rolling Admission

  • There is plenty of time to complete your application.

  • You know quickly if you turn in your application quickly.

Cons of Rolling Admission

  • Turning it in later could hurt your admission chances.

  • Not all colleges have rolling admission as a choice.

How to Know Which One is Right For You

Not all admission choices will work for students. Here are some examples of when a college admission choice is the right option for you.

Regular Decision: This is a good choice if you’re not 100% sure where you want to attend just yet. You also should choose this option if you want a bit more time to complete your application or if you’d like to retake your ACT or SAT a few more times.

Early Decision: You should only choose Early Decision if you are absolutely sure you want to attend a specific college. Opting to not attend can have negative consequences as it is a binding contract. If you’re not sure, opt for Regular Decision or Early Action.

Early Action: If you’re pretty sure you want to attend a particular school but not 100% positive, you can apply through Early Action. You can also apply to multiple schools through Early Action, so if you’re on the fence about two in particular, this can be a strong option.

Rolling Admissions: This is a good option if you find another school you’d like to apply to after completing Early Action applications. You can also choose this route if you finish your application early and the college gives you the option of rolling admissions, so you can find out quickly if you were accepted.

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