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Early, Rolling, and Regular: Understanding Application Options

Hopefully, rising high school seniors have been busy the past few months researching colleges and finalizing a balanced college list. Now that you’ve narrowed down the list of schools to which you will apply, it’s time to create your application strategy – deciding when and how you will apply.

As students work on their college applications in the summer leading up to their senior year, it’s important to consider how to actually apply. Throughout your research, you’ve likely come across terms such as Early Decision, Early Action, and Rolling Admission, among others. These are application options that differ based on the application deadline, response date, and your commitment to attend the school if accepted. It is important for students to understand the different application alternatives, the potential outcomes, and the choices that are available. As senior year approaches, students need to have a solid application strategy in order to maximize their chances of admission at their top-choice schools and ensure they’re ready to apply by the appropriate deadlines.

Early Options
Does the early bird really get the worm? Usually, but it depends. While there can be an advantage to applying early, you should only apply early if you’re ready. Being ready means you have visited and researched all schools on your list extensively, your grades through junior year are indicative of who you are as a student, you have taken all necessary standardized tests and performed well on them, and you have completed all application components, including essays. There are quite a few different early application options, all with different levels of commitment. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that every school is different. Not all colleges offer early application rounds, and some might offer only Early Decision or Early Action, both, or only a restricted Early Action option. Students need to do their research in order to understand the application rounds offered at the schools on their balanced college lists. Here are the early options that some schools may offer:

Early Decision (ED)
Application due: The application and all supporting documents must be submitted early in November, usually between November 1 and 15 of your senior year.
Notification: Applicants usually find out about ED decisions in December.

Early Decision is ideal for students who have identified a college as a definite first choice. We encourage students to apply ED only if they are ready and if they will definitely enroll if accepted. You may only apply to one school ED and the application is binding. If a student is accepted under ED, they must withdraw all applications to other schools as they are now committed to attending that school. Applying ED is often the best way to demonstrate interest, as it tells the school that it is your top-choice and you will attend if admitted.

With ED application deadlines falling prior to first semester senior year grades, junior year grades are extremely important for ED applicants. Colleges will eventually receive your first semester senior year grades, but often not until after decisions have been made. When considering whether to apply ED, take a look at your transcript and junior year grades. If they’re strong and show an upward grade trend, then applying ED might be a good fit for you. However, if your grades could use some improvement, holding off and applying in a later round once you have first semester senior year grades might be a better strategy for you. The same applies to test scores.

If you’ve already reached your goal SAT or ACT score and don’t plan to take the exam again, then ED could be right for you. But if you need more time to improve your scores, consider sitting for the SAT or ACT in August or September in order to have your scores back in time for early deadlines. If you need even more time to prep, you should hold off and apply in a later application round.

Early Decision II (ED II)
Application due: Usually between January 1 and February 1 of your senior year.
Notification: Applicants usually find out about ED II decisions in March.

Some universities provide two ED rounds, ED I and ED II. ED II deadlines are usually closer to the regular decision deadline. ED II is for students who are sure about the school being their first choice, but aren’t ready to apply by the November deadline, or for students who were denied from a different school to which they applied ED and learned of their decision in mid-December. Like ED I, ED II applications are binding, and students may have an advantage by submitting an ED II application. Because students are committed to attend if accepted, the college can more easily determine their yield, which is the percentage of accepted students who enroll. Yield is extremely important to colleges, and since ED rounds have high yields, they want to admit a good portion of their class in the ED rounds. Again, students should only apply ED II if they are 100% sure this school is their top-choice, as you are committing to attend if accepted.

Just like when applying ED, grades and test scores are very important in ED II rounds, as these applicant pools tend to be very competitive. Before applying ED II, meet with your college counselor to go over your grades, test scores, application materials, and more to ensure you’re submitting the strongest app possible. If not, consider applying in the regular round.

Early Decision III (ED III)
Application due: Usually by March 1 of your senior year.
Notification: Applicants usually find out about “ED III” decisions in March.

While not an “official” application option, many schools have a lesser-known option to change your regular decision application to ED II, often known as the “secret” ED III option as students end up applying after ED II deadlines have passed. In this case, students who have already submitted a regular decision application can change their application designation to ED II as long as they submit the proper paperwork by a certain date, usually by March 1. Just like ED II, this application option is binding, meaning you are committing to attending if admitted, and you can’t apply “ED III” to a school if you’ve already applied ED II elsewhere and have not learned of your admission decision yet. Again, your application needs to be strong to have the best chance of admission in this application round. Double check that your application is flawless before changing it to “ED III.”

Early Action (EA)
Application due: The application and all supporting documents must be submitted early in November, usually between November 1 and 15 of your senior year.
Notification: Applicants usually find out about EA decisions in December.

EA is similar to ED but you are not required to attend the school if accepted. This option is great for students who have decided their EA school is one of their top choice schools (if not their number one), and they are ready to apply, but do not want to be obligated to attend the school if accepted. Like ED applicants, EA applicants receive acceptance decisions in December, though they have until May 1 to decide if they will enroll. You can apply to more than one EA school, even if you are also applying ED to another university.

Again, you need to be ready to apply in this round! Just because it’s not binding doesn’t mean it’s any less competitive. You need top grades and test scores, and a solid application in order to have the best chance of admission in the EA round.

Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) or Restricted Early Action (REA)
Application due: The application and all supporting documents must be submitted early in November, usually between November 1 and 15 of your senior year.
Notification: Applicants usually find out about SCEA decisions in December.

SCEA is similar to EA in that you are not bound to attend if accepted. However, with the SCEA restriction, you cannot apply early to any other school, be it EA or ED, until you have heard back from your SCEA school. After you receive the school’s decision of acceptance, deferral, or denial, you may apply to other schools before deciding where to enroll by May 1. This is a good option for a student who is ready to apply to a school they really like but doesn’t necessarily want to be bound by the decision of the school. However, be 100% sure you do not want to apply early elsewhere, as you will not be able to do so. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have SCEA or plans, while Stanford University has a REA plan.

Since hyper-competitive colleges and universities tend to offer SCEA or REA options, your application and grades and test scores have to be in tip-top shape when applying in this round. SCEA and REA rounds are extremely competitive, and if your application isn’t quite ready you could be on the receiving end of a not-so-favorable decision.

Other Options
In addition to early application options, there are also the “regular” options, where students apply either by the general application deadline or any time during the admissions cycle while schools are still accepting applications.

Regular Decision (RD)
Application due: Regular Decision applications and supporting documents must be submitted to the school by a set date in your senior year, which varies from November 30 to March 15. Applications to most selective schools are due January 1, 15, or February 15.
Notification: Applicants usually find out about Regular decisions by April 1.

RD is one of the most common application options, as you can apply to as many schools as you want under this option. Once the college has received all applications, they are reviewed and all applicants are notified at the same time, during the spring of senior year. If accepted, you must notify the college by May 1 of your intent to accept or decline their office of admission. Applicants who are deferred in the early round will be reconsidered during the RD round. RD acceptances are non-binding, which means you can choose to enroll in that school or another school that has accepted you.

RD is a great option for students who need more time to put together their applications and reach their goal test scores. Students can also apply RD after applying to a number of schools EA, or even after applying to their ED choice. However, if they are accepted to their ED school they must withdraw their application from their RD schools.

Rolling Admission (RA)
Application due: Usually anytime between September 1 and May 1, though it is best to send in your application as early as possible – in September or October of senior year – as RA schools continue to accept students until they reach their enrollment capacity.
Notification: Applicants are notified of admission decisions as soon as the file is complete, usually within a few weeks of receiving the completed application and all supporting materials.

Want to have a few acceptances in hand before even early decisions are out in December? Once the RA school receives your completed file, they immediately review and act on your application. The college generally notifies the applicant with an admissions decision within several weeks of receiving the application. This means if you submit your RA application in early September, you could receive a decision as soon as October. You can applying to as many RA schools as you want, and there is no commitment to attend if admitted. Just like with RD, you have until May 1 to decide where to enroll. Schools such as Rutgers University, Purdue University, and Baylor University use rolling admissions.

RA is a good option for students who have gotten a head start on their college applications and want to get a few out of the way before applying EA or ED to their top-choice school. Again, if they’re accepted to a school ED they will need to withdraw their RA applications if they have not yet received a decision, or decline their acceptance if they’ve already been admitted to one or more RA schools. RA is also an option for students who got a late start on the process and missed RD deadlines, or want more college options after receiving a number of rejections in the early or regular rounds.

At IvyWise, we work with students to craft the best application strategy possible, using a combination of early and regular options in order to maximize students’ admissions outcomes. Our team of expert counselors knows how your student will be read in the admissions process, and how utilizing application options like EA and ED can help them gain admission to their top-choice schools. For more information on how our team can help your student develop the best application strategy, including ensuring your student’s test scores are competitive, contact us today for more information on our college counseling and test prep services.