Applying to College: When Should I Start?

When should you apply to college? It seems like such a simple question. I mean, obviously you’ll apply by the application deadline, right?

But which deadline?

Many colleges offer more than one application period: An early application process where applications are generally due between September and November and a regular application process where applications aren’t due until December, January, or later.

What are all these early application designations?

Colleges have different early application policies, and the differences between them can be pretty important.

Is it binding? Can you apply early to other colleges? Can you apply regular decision to other colleges?
Early Action No Yes Yes
Single-Choice Early Action (Restrictive Early Action) No No Yes
Early Decision Yes Maybe Yes, but if accepted, you’ll need to withdraw all other applications


Early action programs are the most flexible. They are not binding and they don’t restrict you from applying elsewhere. Some colleges have instituted single-choice or restrictive early action programs; these are also not binding, but they allow you to apply early to only one school.

By contrast, early decision programs are binding: If you are accepted, you have to attend. In most cases, this agreement is simply based on the honor system. After all, colleges can hardly force students to attend. But colleges can (and often do) contact a student’s guidance counselor and admission officers at other colleges if a student backs out of early decision acceptance, effectively blacklisting the student.

Is there an advantage to applying early?

In general, yes. According to the 2015 NACAC State of Admissions report, colleges with Early Action (nonbinding) plans admitted 73% of students who applied early compared to 66% of students overall. Similarly, colleges with Early Decision (binding) plans admitted 62% of students who applied early compared to 51% of students overall.

These numbers are just averages and may vary significantly from school to school. Some schools have early admission rates that are double the rates for regular applicants; others have admission rates that are about the same for both pools of applicants.