Timing is everything, as the saying goes. And, that is even more true in the world of college admissions.
There are only so many things within a student’s control — grades, test scores, involvement in activities, to name a few. Many critical factors are out of a student’s control — how many applicants there are that year, the competitiveness of the other applicants, what a school is looking for and who is reading the application.
With this in mind, it is important that students consider all options and be strategic about the things they can control, such as when to apply to college. This month, we’ll address early action and early decision versus regular decision and rolling decision — what the various deadlines are and the pros and cons of each.
What are early action and early decision?
Application season stretches from about November to March. The University of California and California State University applications are due Nov. 30. Most public out-of-state school applications are due between the end of November and February. Typically, private college application deadlines vary from January to March.
Regular decision is by far the most common and straightforward way students apply to college. Applications are due in early winter and decision notifications occur sometime around April 1. Examples: All the California state schools except Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Rolling admission: When colleges offer this type of admission, there is a rather large span of several months within which a student can apply, often starting as early as August. Applications are reviewed as they are submitted so notification may be within weeks of submission. Students still have until May 1 to notify of intent to register. Examples: King’s College London, Eckerd College, University of Colorado, Boulder
Early action: Students apply earlier than the regular decision time, usually in November, and then receive admission decisions earlier as well, usually in December. This type of deadline is “nonbinding” because it does not prevent students from applying early to other early action schools nor does it require the student to attend if they are accepted. Some schools offer two rounds, with the only difference being that the second round has a later deadline. Examples: University of Michigan and Gonzaga University
Restrictive early action, also called single-choice early action: This is relatively rare compared to other options but still a possibility. A student may apply early, and the decision is not binding, but the student may apply only to other schools through regular decision. Examples: Yale and Stanford
Early decision: Similar to the other early plans, a student applies early, however, it is a much higher-stakes route since early decision is binding. A student must attend if accepted and is not allowed to apply early decision to other schools. Students should use this route only if they are positive the college is their first choice. If admitted via early decision, a student must then withdraw applications from other schools.
The only time a student may decline acceptance and go elsewhere is when the offered financial aid package is not sufficient. Some schools also offer two rounds of early decision. Examples: Pomona College and Carnegie Mellon University
Each early application plan has the same three potential outcomes: acceptance, deferral and denial. Deferral in this instance means that the college is not ready to make an admission decision yet and wants to reconsider the applicant in the context of the other regular decision applicants. (If this happens to you, be sure to notify the college of any pertinent changes in your academic situation, such as new test scores, grades, etc., as you await the final decision.)
Does applying early give students an edge in gaining admission?
This is the million-dollar question. There are too many variables and too many unique individual circumstances to predict conclusively the outcome of applying early. A good general rule is that it makes sense for students to do so if they have completed all the requirements and are within the top 50 percent of the college’s academic profile and this is a college they really want to attend.
While applying early to college is not necessary, it is always valuable to be informed about options and analyze what makes the most sense for you. Regardless of which application deadline you select, be sure to give yourself enough time to put your best effort into it. And, as always, remember there is a college out there for everyone!
— Jennifer Borenstein is an independent college adviser in Davis and owner of The Right College For You. Her column is published on the last Tuesday of the month. She lives in Davis with her husband and two daughters. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.therightcollegeforyou.org.
Pros and cons
Pros of early action: Early answer, unrestricted choice, enables better planning
Pros of early decision: Signals the college about how committed the student is about that school and schools want students who will be excited to attend; may reduce time and money spent on applications — if accepted by December to the first-choice school, then no more applications
Cons of both early routes: Influences the ability to compare financial aid packages; compressed time frame may cause students to cut corners; if rejected, may undermine confidence going forward; may be a more competitive applicant pool