All colleges offer high school seniors the option to apply through Regular Decision application plans, in which students typically apply by early January, are notified of admissions decisions by April 1, are not restricted by how many colleges to apply to, and are not bound to attend. Sounds straightforward, right?

But the last few decades have seen a proliferation of numerous “early” admissions options, each with its own rules. For high school students looking ahead to the college admissions process, the variety of early application plans may seem confusing! Should you apply to colleges through Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action, or Rolling Admissions plans? Here’s a guide to help you sort through your different options so that you can understand the impact of the different plans and decide which is right for you.

A few relevant terms for early application plans are:

  • Binding: the student is committed to attending the college, if accepted
  • Restrictive: the student may not apply to another admissions program. ED and SCEA are restrictive (applicants can only apply to one such program), while EA, RD, and Rolling plans are not.


The two main early admissions plans are Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA), including Single Choice Early Action (SCEA). Of the 3500 colleges in the US, about 450 colleges offer one of these early plans. Some colleges, like University of Miami, offer both ED and EA. Typically, early applications are due between Nov 1 – Dec 1, and decisions are given about one month later.

  • Early Decision (ED) applications are binding, so students should reserve this for their first-choice college. Students agree to attend if accepted, so they can only apply to one college through Early Decision. Typically students may simultaneously apply to EA or RD programs, but it’s best to check the colleges’ websites for their policies.
    • Examples: Brown, Northwestern, Rice, Williams
  • Early Action (EA) applications are not binding, so students can typically apply to multiple colleges through Early Action.
    • Examples: CalTech, Georgetown, MIT, Northeastern
  • Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) is a hybrid of Early Decision and Early Action in that students are restricted to one such application, but it is not binding. This plan is sometimes referred to as Restrictive Early Action (REA). Typically, students can apply to public institutions at the same time.
    • Examples: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford
  • Rolling Admission applications are reviewed as they are received, and students are accepted on a rolling basis until spaces are filled.
    • Examples: Columbia College Chicago, Eckerd College, Kings College London
  • Priority Deadlines are used by many large public institutions to try to identify which of the multitudes of applicants have the strongest interest in attending the school. Such colleges state that applying by the priority deadline (typically in November) will result in a quicker admissions decision, increase the student’s chance of being accepted, and boost the chance of receiving scholarships.
    • Examples: Ohio State University, Penn State University, University of Maryland


To add to the complications, there are a few college-specific deadlines in the fall that may affect RD applications. It’s critical to read the fine print on colleges’ admissions websites in order to keep informed of colleges’ policies:

  • For the University of California system, applications must be filed from November 1 – November 30 and students are notified of decisions in mid-March. So while the deadline is early in the school year, there is no corresponding Regular Decision process. In contrast, some colleges, such as University of Southern California (USC) offer only Regular Decision with no early application plans.
  • MIT offers both Early Action (November 1 deadline) and Regular Action (January 1 deadline), but has earlier deadlines for scheduling alumni interviews (October 20 and December 10, respectively); and your chances of acceptance are far greater if you interview.
  • The Emory University Scholars Program offers merit scholarships to students who apply by November 15, regardless of whether the application is ED or RD.

The college admissions process is constantly changing. To keep on top of trends and policies, contact Collegiate Gateway! As always, we’re happy to help!