Should you apply early or regular decision to US colleges and universities?

It’s not enough to figure out how many colleges and universities you want to apply to and then tailor your applications to give you the best chance of getting into each one.

You also have to decide how you want to apply. Early decision? Early action? Single choice early action? Regular decision?

What do they even mean, anyway?

This guide will explain your application options and help you figure out which method of applying to US universities is right for you.

Applying to US Universities Regular Decision

Regular decision is what it sounds like – the standard method of applying to US universities and colleges. Most schools set a college application deadline on or around January 1, and you could receive a college acceptance letter around the middle of April.

Regular decision is the recommended way to apply to most US universities you are considering, especially if you are counting on your first semester senior year grades to help get you accepted.

Applying to US Universities Early Action or Single Choice Early Action

Early action means sending your application early during your senior year, usually October or November, and being notified in December or January. Early action is non-binding, so if you’re accepted early, you don’t have to commit to attending.

A lot of students choose the early action option because it gets the stress of applying to schools out of the way. Early action benefits international students because it gives you more time to prepare for your move to the US. It also gives you more time to compare and work out financial aid arrangements.

Single choice early action means you’re applying to only one school on an early action basis, and the school is aware of this. That’s good, because colleges like to have a high percentage of accepted students who actually wind up attending.

Applying to a US university single choice early action signals that you really want to go to that school, and it makes that school more likely to admit you. Like early action, it’s non-binding, so you don’t have to attend if you get in.

Single choice early action is recommended if you’re sure you know which university you want to attend and you think your grades through your junior year are strong enough to get you in, but you’re not sure if the university’s financial aid package will be good enough for you to afford to go.

You usually need to confirm by May 1 whether you’ll be attending your single choice early action school. By then, you should have heard from all the other universities you’ve applied to, so you get a little time – though not much – to weigh your options.

Applying to US Universities Early Decision: Pros and Cons

If there’s one university you’ve wanted to attend for years, and if you’ve visited and done your research and are 100% sure it’s the college for you, regardless of cost, then you should consider applying early decision.

Like early action, you turn in your application during the first semester of your senior year, but early decision is binding. If you get in, you must withdraw any other applications you’ve sent and commit to attending.

Early decision has its advantages. A higher percentage of students who apply using early decision are accepted into the schools of their choice. Because you find out earlier, you get more time to plan your move to the US. You also won’t have to worry about your second semester transcript.

The downside, however, is a big one. The only way to back out of an early decision school is if the financial aid plan doesn’t meet your needs. However, you have to prove financial hardship, which can be very difficult to do.

If you renege on your commitment without the school’s blessing, it will be extremely difficult to get in anywhere else. Universities take the early decision commitment seriously and will stick together on this issue, no matter how stellar your grades and test scores are.

What If You Apply Early and Are Deferred or Rejected?

If you’ve chosen one of the early options, you still may not find out your status until April. US universities defer early applicants just as they do regular applicants. In some cases, all you’ll find out in January is that they’ll let you know in a few months.

Early applications can work out best when you’re applying to a “reach” school you’re not sure you’ll get into. Applying early not only increases your chances of getting in, but because you hear from them earlier in the process, you can still send updates and additional materials to your regular decision schools if you wind up with early rejections.

Applying to US Universities with Rolling Admissions

If April has come and gone without acceptance letters to the schools of your choice, you’re looking for more options or you simply got around to applying late, hundreds of schools have rolling admission policies.

These schools look at your application when they receive it, be it in October or May, and keep on looking until their classes have filled up. You might think that such a policy benefits earlier applicants, since the earlier you apply, the more spaces there are. But even top-ranked colleges often have trouble filling their classes, and late applicants can benefit from a school that’s looking for students before classes begin.

It’s also a blessing for international students who decide late that they want to study in the US. (Note: We don’t recommend applying late – we’re just trying to give you a complete picture of your options.)

It’s become common practice for students to try to get a leg up on the competition by using one of the early application options, much to the dismay of admissions departments and high schools. Many seniors who have been admitted early essentially stop caring for the remainder of high school. As a result, many colleges, most notably Harvard, have eliminated early applications and use one deadline for all prospective students.

A majority of schools still have the early options, however. If you use them correctly, they’ll help make the application process more enjoyable, and maybe even help you get into the college of your choice.