Early and Rolling and Regular…Oh My! Breaking Down the Different College Application Processes

Learn what it means to apply Early Decision (ED), Early Decision II, Early Action (EA), Restrictive Early Action (REA), Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), Rolling Admission, and Regular Decision.
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Early, Regular, Rolling, Action, Decision: five common words which, on their own, seem fairly innocuous. But used in the college admission vernacular, they often become heavy, loaded, and confusing. As you engage in your own college search, you will likely become familiar with these terms that connect to the different decision plans under which you might apply for admission.

We'll start with Early Decision (ED). Early Decision deadlines are generally in November. Applicants, a parent, and a guidance counselor must sign a contract stating that if admitted, not only will the student enroll, but will: withdraw applications pending at other institutions, refuse any other offers of admission granted prior to the ED school's acceptance, and agree to not send more applications to additional institutions. College admission offices usually notify students of their decisions by mid-December, with a few exceptions that wait until January or early February. Applying ED is essentially like telling a college, "I'm a sure thing for you," which, in many cases, can boost your chances of acceptance. Making the determination to apply under this plan should not be done lightly, however, and ought to take into account cost of attendance, as well as whether this is the place a student would be willing to forsake all others to attend. Some academic institutions also offer Early Decision II, a second round of ED, with deadlines falling in the first two weeks of January 1. The same rules apply to ED II as they do to ED.

What if you still want to apply early without committing to the school just yet? Enter our good friend Early Action (EA). Under this plan, applicants can apply earlier in the process (usually November) and hear their decision sometime between December through early February, and then have until May 1 to accept that offer. Because students are not contracting with the colleges to enroll if accepted under EA, they can apply to multiple schools under that plan, and can receive multiple offers of admission to consider. This is a win-win in many ways: Applications are submitted sooner, you get earlier answers, and you have more time to weigh your options before deciding which offer to accept. Note that some colleges and universities use an early plan called Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), stipulating that you may not apply to other schools using ED, or in some cases, EA.

You may have heard of high school seniors sending in applications to some colleges and receiving a response within only a few weeks. This phenomenon is brought to you by a plan called Rolling Admission. Basically, colleges and universities using a Rolling plan will decide upon applications when they are complete (meaning, all required components of the application have been received by the admission office). Since there isn't technically a deadline (or, if there are is one, it's very late in the spring or even summer), readers of Rolling applications don't have to wait for the deadline to pass to begin making decisions. As applications come in, they are reviewed and decided upon, and applicants are notified of their admission decisions relatively quickly. At the early stages of the application review process under a Rolling plan, applicants are compared against a smaller number of other applicants. The later it gets in the process, however, the fewer spots there are to offer to applicants. It's generally wise to plan to get your Rolling application in sometime in the fall, and not wait until the second half of senior year, when fewer offers can be made.

This all sounds great for students who are sure of the places they want to apply, and for those who can get their applications together on time to meet earlier deadlines, but what if you're just not ready to do this yet? That's when Regular Decision would be an appropriate choice. Regular Decision deadlines usually range from January 1 through March 1. Students applying under these deadlines will receive notifications from colleges by April 1.

When it comes to choosing which decision plan to use for each of the colleges you're considering, there is no "one-size-fits-all" answer. You'll want to take into account factors like: are you willing/able to commit early? Would you like to have multiple offers to consider, and would you like to have those answers earlier than later? How does cost of attendance at each institution dictate which decision plan you might use? These are things to take seriously, and discuss as a family.