When to Apply for College: Early Decision vs. Regular Admission

There are many important steps in the college application process. Like scheduling campus tours, choosing your top schools, and applying for financial aid. But one of the top questions high school seniors have is when to apply for college. There’s more to consider than just the regular application deadline as many college application deadlines will vary based on the admissions process. Some colleges offer early action and early decision, which have earlier deadlines and requirements.

Knowing the differences between early action, early decision, and regular admission will help you decide what admissions route you want to take and the timeline that works best for your college plans. With each application deadline, there are also some financial considerations to keep in mind.

Here are the key differences between the early action, early decision, and regular admission deadlines, and some helpful tips for choosing which one is right for you.

When to Apply for College: 3 Options

Early Decision

If you know which college you’d like to attend, and you would like to secure your spot as soon as possible, early decision (ED) may be the best choice for you. Early decision deadlines are usually in November and December. Because early decisions are typically made several months before regular admission, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to gather the required materials before applying. Decisions can be returned by the college in as little as one month after you apply. With early decision, the main advantage is that you get the application process out of the way, and you could possibly lock in your top pick sooner.

One very important thing to keep in mind with early decision: you’re expected to attend if you are accepted. In fact, by submitting an early decision application, you’re entering into a binding contract. You can only apply for ED with one school; although you can apply for regular admission to other colleges. However, you are expected to withdraw those applications if you’re accepted to the college you applied to for early decision. This will have a big impact on when you apply for college. Make sure you’re certain it’s the right school for you.

The financial side:

Keep in mind that when you’re accepted through early decision, you won’t typically get your award letter until several months later. That means you’ll need to do your research and make sure you can afford the cost of attendance. Talk with your family so you can be confident that you and your family can afford the school (even if you don’t ultimately qualify for financial aid) before you commit.

pros and cons

Early Action

Early action (EA) is like early decision with one critical difference: You are not required to attend a particular school if you’re accepted. When thinking about when to apply for college, you can choose to apply to multiple colleges for early action. If you’re accepted to more than one, you can wait and compare the different financial aid award letters before you make a final decision. Early action can be a good option for those who want to get the application process out of the way but don’t want to commit to a specific school right away.

For example, if you’re thinking about attending an out-of-state college and you’re accepted early, it can give you extra time to start researching moving costs, housing options, possibly find a job, and so on. In the end, it can be a good compromise between early decision and regular admission. Keep in mind, that you’ll want to gather your application materials a little earlier than regular admission application deadlines.

The financial side:

Unlike early decision, you aren’t tied to one specific college, and you can apply to multiple schools early. You’ll still have the flexibility to make your final decision based on various factors, including the financial aid packages that you’re offered from different schools. While you may find out earlier that you’ve been accepted, keep in mind that some schools don’t prepare their financial aid packages any sooner for early applicants; they may wait and prepare them all at once with the general applicant pool.

pros and cons

Regular Admission

Many students prefer to apply for regular admission (or regular decision). Deadlines typically fall in January or later, but they vary by school so be sure to check each school’s deadline that you apply to. Regular admission can be a good option if you need the time to decide which schools are right for you. Regular admission also makes sense if you’re applying to a college that will grant you automatic acceptance.  For example, if you’re applying to a local community college after graduating from high school or earning your GED, or if you’re transferring to a local state university from your current community college through a pre-arranged transfer agreement.

Regular admission has no limits on the number of schools you can apply to, but you’ll want to be thoughtful about the number of schools you apply to as some schools have application fees. Map out which schools are your top choice, and which may be your second, third, or fourth choices. Then when schools send out their acceptance letters, you will likely receive them all within the same time frame. Once you receive your financial aid packages, be sure to compare your options. There are few downsides to applying for regular admission—it’s just a matter of waiting a little longer to receive a decision.

The financial side:

When it comes to financial aid and scholarships, the process is straightforward when you apply for regular admission. You’ll just want to be sure to note any deadlines, as they can vary by school, and to complete the FAFSA as early as possible (even before you submit your school applications).

pros and cons

It’ll take some careful planning before you decide when to apply for college. Depending on your financial situation, your top college picks, and how prepared you are for the application process, you may choose an earlier or later timeline. Work with your family to choose the admission option that works best for you. If you do your research and prepare for each deadline, you’ll have plenty of time to get into the school that’s right for you.


Which product best suits you?

Interested in building your credit?

Set sights on a brighter financial future by establishing a positive credit history easily and safely with Ambition Card.

Ambition Card by College Ave
Find My Application