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College Deadlines: Why so complicated???

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Anyone who has gone through the college application process in the past 10 to 20 years most likely understands that it is no small feat keeping track of all the various deadlines and what they mean. Need an example? Take a look at the below list, where I have tried to capture most of the terminology you might come across:

Regular Decision


Early Action

Restrictive Early Action

Single Choice Early Action

Early Decision

Early Decision 2


And if we bring into the mix FAFSA (Federal Application for Free Student Aid), all the various scholarships, and National College Decision Day, which is a day when most all colleges and universities around the country have agreed students must officially declare where they are attending, things become even more complicated. No wonder there are lots of people out there like me, consulting families on these topics for a living!

Going back to the topic at hand; the college admissions deadline, in its early days, was nice and straightforward, determined by a date which the admissions office felt allowed ample time to review all the incoming applications and subsequently deliver the admissions decisions. We can still refer to this typical date as regular decision. But then colleges began to see that competition and the growing trend of students applying to more and more institutions created uncertainties in fulfilling their targeted enrollment numbers. They needed to come up with ways to boost not only application numbers but ultimately their yield rate, which is the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll.

Welcome to the stage Early Action and Early Decision. These deadlines are intended to get students to apply earlier, thus ideally helping the college secure enrollment earlier by using specific incentives. Early Action, much more commonly used than its counterpart, is a deadline option that I often recommend families choose. The concept is simple: if you apply choosing EA, which is typically November 1, November 15, or December 1 of the student’s senior year, you will get a decision back from the school often by Christmas, but no later than early January. This gives families much more time to compare financial aid offers or research or visit more schools before ultimately committing to a place on National College Day – May 1st. Many students choose not to wait this long, however, as the college may have been their top choice to begin with, thus rewarding the college with a nice and early deposit, securing a spot in their incoming class. Restrictive or Single Choice Early Action are peculiar deadlines some schools offer, which restrict students to some degree, most often limiting them on the types or numbers (hence single choice), of EA schools they can apply to.

Most students who venture into the admissions industrial complex hear rumors of a scary deadline that should be avoided at all costs unless they one-hundred percent, without a doubt, want to attend that school. This is the infamous Early Decision deadline, which is essentially a binding contract stating that, if admitted, a student will attend a specific school and thus pull their applications at all other schools. Contrary to EA, where students can apply to as many schools as they like using this deadline, students can only apply to one ED school. Ultimately, this deadline favors the college as it guarantees a large portion of its incoming class and limits the student by requiring them to forgo any other college options. A relatively small percentage of colleges actually use ED, and most of them are highly selective. Oftentimes, however, the percentage of students being admitted under ED is greater than other deadline options for a specific school, which can ultimately benefit the student who really wants to attend that highly selective, lucrative school. Another thing to consider; part of the ED agreement is that the family is willing to pay full price to attend that college. So, in summary, ED requires you to commit to one school before the application is even reviewed and forgo comparing financial aid offers at various schools and risk paying full price. The reward is an increase in the chances of getting admitted to said college. Note that many schools also offer ED 2, which allows for another round of ED if the student was denied at their first choice ED school.

I could write all day long if my goal was to parse out all the nuances of these deadlines. But I will try and wrap things up by making a few more points. Many colleges offer multiple deadline options. For example, in 2021, Baylor University offers ED 1 (Nov 1), EA (Nov 1), ED 2 (Feb 1), and Regular (Feb 1). So, imagine applying to Baylor plus nine other schools, all with different deadline options, and you’ll quickly see that you need a spreadsheet to keep track of everything. But despite the multiple deadlines and terminology I just laid out, there are still plenty of schools out there that have tried to keep things simple by offering just one deadline. The University of California and California State University system, for example, have kept to their single, regular decision deadline of November 30th. And if you look around enough, you will quickly find copious schools that use rolling deadlines, which allow the student to apply anytime (prior to a hard deadline, usually very late in the season), and honor the student with a quick decision, thus rolling the process along.

All in all, there’s a lot to know. And this should remind those venturing into this process down the road that it requires a lot of planning and proactivity to ultimately find success and peace within the college admissions behemoth.

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