College application season is heating up, and we’re here to offer advice about when to apply.

Female making notes.

Wait, you ask, what do you mean when to apply? Don’t I need to apply by the deadline?

Many colleges offer several admission plans, each with their own deadlines. Colleges might offer regular admission, rolling admission, early action, restrictive early action, and early decision options.

Regular Admission

Regular admission deadlines are when the majority of students choose to apply. This is generally the final application deadline, and there are some students who should wait to apply via regular admission.

If you are expecting to still take additional standardized tests, such as the January or February SAT or ACT tests, these later application deadlines allow you to submit these later test scores. A higher standardized test score might offer you greater benefit than applying early would.

If you are hoping that your grades for this current semester of your senior year will bring your GPA up, waiting to apply via regular decision will make this semester’s grades a part of your application. That higher GPA could be useful if you’re currently unsure about your standing.

Rolling Admission

Some colleges utilize a rolling admission process in which there either is no deadline or the deadline is significantly later than other deadlines. With rolling admission, colleges make admission decisions as applications are received. As a result, the earlier you apply, the greater your chances of admission since there are generally more open spots available and admission officers are a bit less choosey.

Early Action Admission

Early action admission is non-binding, meaning that you don’t have to attend the school if you are admitted. These deadlines are early (thus the name), usually before mid-November, and students generally receive their admission decisions by December or January. This allows you to better plan ahead since you know whether you got in much sooner than you otherwise might. Another benefit of early action is that you can apply at other schools in the meantime.

Restrictive Early Action Admission

Restrictive early action admission is also non-binding, but you are restricted from applying to other schools via early application programs. In other words, if you apply to one school via restrictive early action admission, you can apply to as many other schools as you want through regular admission programs, but you cannot apply to any other schools via early action or early decision programs.

Early Decision Admission

Early decision is binding – if you are accepted at the school, you are obligated to enroll. You can apply to other schools via regular admission programs, but you may not apply early to any other schools. In addition to learning whether you were accepted early, you may get a boost in your chances of admission if you apply to a school via early decision. Early decision tells a school that it is your top choice school, which can make a slight difference in admission decisions. In fact, in 2013, the average early decision acceptance rate at U.S. colleges was 64%, compared to a 53% acceptance rate for students who applied via regular decision.

There is only one circumstance in which it is acceptable to not enroll in a school after being accepted via early decision, and that is if the school does not offer an adequate financial aid package. If you apply to a school via early decision, are accepted, and feel that the financial aid package offered is not enough, you can appeal to receive a revised financial aid offer that might make the tuition easier to afford.

Is It Worth Applying Early?

To answer this question, you’ll need to do a bit of research. Every school is different with regard to early versus regular acceptance rates. Check the past admission rates for the schools you hope to apply to in order to learn whether students who applied early saw significant benefits. At some schools, the admission rate for early action or early decision applicants might be as much as 20% higher than the rate for regular applicants; at other schools, the difference may be minimal or non-existent.

Think carefully about applying through early decision programs – it’s a big decision and a big commitment. Before submitting an early decision application, you must be 100% certain that this is the school you want to attend!