How to Navigate College Application Deadlines in 2024

looking at different application deadlines

How to Navigate College Application Deadlines in 2024

Published April 26, 2024

looking at different application deadlines

Choosing where to apply to college is only half the battle. There’s also the question of when

Students must decide among different application deadline options offered by colleges. These deadlines can range from early fall to late spring, and it’s essential to understand exactly when they are and the pros and cons of each option.

What Is the Deadline for Most College Applications?

Jan. 1 is the most common deadline, but it varies among colleges. That’s what the college world calls the regular decision deadline. Some colleges also offer early decision or early action (or both), and those deadlines may come earlier.

According to 2023-24 data in our R2C Insights college comparison site, 485 colleges offer early decision or early decision 2, and 402 offer early action. Also, 373 colleges offer ED and EA. You can find each college’s application deadlines on their websites.

Comparing College Application Deadlines

OPTIONAPPLICATION DEADLINEDECISION BYFOR ACADEMIC YEAR
Regular DecisionJan. 1 for many colleges, later for othersMid-March to early AprilStarting fall of that year (about 9 months later)
Early DecisionMid-October to early NovemberMid-DecemberFall of the next year (about 8 months later)
Early Decision 2Early JanuaryMid-FebruaryFall of the next year
Early ActionMid October to early NovemberMid DecemberFall of the next year
Rolling AdmissionVaries by college2-3 weeks after applicationDepends on when you apply
Instant DecisionVaries by collegeImmediateDepends on when you apply

The 6 Types of College Application Deadlines

College applications typically open for the upcoming fall semester during the summer, often in August. To allow ample time for thoughtful essay writing and proofreading, students should start working on their applications as early as possible.

During the college admissions process, students have a choice of submitting applications based on different deadlines: regular decision, early action, early decision, early decision 2, rolling admission, and instant decision. It’s important to know the differences among these deadlines.

1. Regular Decision Deadline (RD)

Regular decision is the most popular choice due to its inherent simplicity compared to other deadlines. Regular decision applications do not have to be submitted until the beginning of the year, most commonly January 1.

This deadline allows applicants to apply by a specified date and receive decisions by a specific date, usually in the spring. RD offers ample time to perfect applications and compare multiple schools, but acceptance rates may be lower than ED or EA. Selecting the right RD college necessitates a careful balance between ambition and realism.

Students may apply to as many colleges as they would like through regular decision and it is a non-binding application, meaning if a student is accepted to one of the schools they apply to, they are not required to attend and are free to choose one of the other schools that accepted them.

One downside of applying to a school through regular decision is that since it is the most common time for students to apply, there will be many more people vying for a small number of spots as opposed to applying earlier when fewer students have sent in applications.

Key Points of Regular Decision

  • More time to work on applications and improve grades and test scores
  • Apply to as many schools as you want
  • Non-binding application
  • Harder to get accepted as more students apply
  • Students may be more stressed out not knowing where they’re going to school until the spring

2. Early Decision Deadline (ED)

Early decision is a binding application process wherein students commit to attending the college if accepted. While the ED option can increase chances of acceptance, it also limits a student’s ability to compare financial aid offers from multiple colleges. Therefore, choosing the right ED college involves a careful evaluation of the institution’s fit and affordability.

The opposite of regular decision, early decision allows students to commit to their top school much earlier in the fall, with most application deadlines either November 1st or November 15th.

Since the early decision application deadline is much sooner than regular decision, students may not have as much time to work on their application, or they would have needed to begin working on applications earlier in the summer.

Applying to a school’s early decision requires lots of thought and preparation from the student as it is a binding application, meaning whichever school you apply to, if accepted, must be the school you choose to attend. As such, students are only allowed to choose one school to apply to early decision.

Since applying for early decision is a binding commitment, fewer students apply compared to regular decision, and therefore, the acceptance rate during early decision is noticeably higher, even to top universities.

Some colleges get a large portion of their incoming class through ED. So the higher acceptance rate also comes from the combination of fewer applications and more acceptances.

Colleges With High % of ED in Incoming Class

NamePercent of Class Filled w/ EDEarly Decision Admit RateRegular Decision Admit Rate
Tulane University68%68%8%
Grinnell College67%53%8%
Emory University66%26%10%
Wesleyan University66%55%12%
Washington University in St. Louis62%27%9%
Bates College61%48%11%
Colgate University60%26%11%
Johns Hopkins University60%15%6%
Washington and Lee University58%42%14%
Franklin & Marshall College58%58%35%
Lehigh University57%66%34%
The Colorado College57%44%14%
Vanderbilt University56%18%6%
Smith College56%49%20%
Grove City College55%95%66%
Muhlenberg College54%80%61%
Haverford College54%41%12%
Colby College54%35%6%
Pitzer College53%40%16%
Bowdoin College53%26%7%

Finally, some colleges have what’s known as early decision 2, where the same rules of early decision apply, but your application is not due until the beginning of January. This may be the perfect option for students who still need time to work on their applications but are comfortable committing to a school.

Key Points of Early Decision

  • Requires more forethought and preparation in the summer
  • Apply early decision to only one school
  • Must attend the school if accepted
  • Higher acceptance rates
  • It may relieve stress knowing you have been accepted to college by early winter
  • Early decision 2 is an option at select schools
  • No incentive from schools to give financial aid packages

3. Early Decision 2 Deadline (ED 2)

Early decision 2 (ED 2) is a lesser-known but increasingly popular option for college applicants. It serves as a second chance for those who are ready to commit to a binding agreement but either missed the first early decision deadline or were not ready to make a decision by that earlier date.

The early decision 2 deadline typically falls in January, allowing students extra time to improve their applications, gather more information about schools, or recover from any early disappointments in the college admission cycle.

The fundamental rules of ED 2 are the same as the original early decision: if accepted, students must withdraw all other applications and commit to attending the institution. This binding nature makes ED 2 a significant commitment, as students are guaranteeing their attendance without the ability to compare financial aid offers from other schools.

One of the primary advantages of ED 2 is that it still demonstrates a high level of interest in a school, which can be a decisive factor in admissions. Colleges prefer committed students who have identified the school as their top choice, potentially leading to slightly higher acceptance rates for ED 2 applicants compared to regular decision applicants. However, the acceptance rates for ED 2 might not be as high as for the first early decision round, reflecting the increased competition and lesser degree of demonstrated interest compared to those applying in the first round.

Key Points of Early Decision 2:

  • Offers more time to prepare a strong application after the initial early decision deadline.
  • Still a binding commitment; accepted students must attend and withdraw other applications.
  • It can be beneficial for students who decide late in the application process that they have a clear first-choice school.
  • It may help students who were deferred or rejected from their first-choice school during an earlier application round.
  • Acceptance rates might be higher than regular decision, though typically lower than the first early decision.

4. Early Action Deadline (EA)

Early action is a non-binding process that allows students to apply early and receive admission decisions ahead of regular applicants without committing to attend. It offers the benefit of increased chances of acceptance and more time to plan for college. Still, EA may result in reduced preparation time. As with ED, choosing the right EA college requires a thorough investigation of what the institution offers.

Early action applications, like regular decision, are non-binding. Students are allowed, in most cases, to apply to as many schools that have early action as they want. Early action also gives students more time to look over and compare any financial aid packages they receive from schools.

Some higher-tier schools such as Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton offer what is called “single-choice early action,” which is the same as early action, but you are only allowed to apply to them and can’t send an early action or early decision application to any other school, except if applying to a non-binding early program at a public institution.

Similar to early decision, early action often has slightly higher acceptance rates, however, unless it is single-choice early action, the differences between regular decision aren’t much.

Key Points of Early Action

  • Requires more forethought and preparation in the summer
  • Apply to multiple schools
  • Non-binding
  • Slightly higher acceptance rates
  • It may relieve stress knowing you have been accepted to college by early winter
  • Single-choice early action is an option at select schools
  • More time to review financial aid packages

5. Rolling Admission Deadline

Under rolling admission, colleges review applications as they arrive and make decisions throughout the admission cycle. This flexible schedule can be beneficial for late applicants but may also lead to highly competitive periods. Finding rolling admission colleges usually involves searching college websites or contacting admissions offices directly.

For rolling admission, it is important to apply as soon as possible since the school will begin filling up spots and reject students purely due to space restrictions and not academic ability. A student’s chances of being accepted may also be greater than normal if they apply early. 

If your student has any colleges on their list with rolling admission, be sure your student prioritizes them first and submit them right away. 

Key Points of Rolling Admission

  • Requires planning ahead
  • Apply to multiple schools
  • Non-binding
  • Slightly higher acceptance rates if students apply earlier
  • Quicker turnaround times may relieve stress if you get accepted quickly
  • More time to review financial aid packages

6. Instant Decision

Many high schools and colleges hold “Instant Decision Days,” where representatives from various schools (generally not the most selective schools) meet with prospective freshmen and offer them the opportunity to sign up right there and then.

Even though this offering up of college admissions on the express lane can be looked at as a marketing tool, for students who are interested in any of the colleges that provide this option, we say go for it! For those students who do not want to wait and stress about admissions, this could be a good path as well.

Keep in mind there still can be deadline commitments for when your student needs to respond.

Pros and Cons of College Application Options

OPTIONPROSCONS
Regular DecisionNon-binding

Apply to multiple schools

Must wait until spring for acceptance

Acceptance may be harder
Early DecisionBetter chance of acceptance

Relieves stress of waiting
Apply to only 1 school with a binding decision

College has less incentive to provide aid
Early Decision 2More time to prepare than early decisionStill a binding decision
Early ActionApply to multiple schools

Non-binding
Only slightly higher acceptance than RD
Rolling AdmissionApply to multiple schools

Get decision sooner
Need to apply early in the cycle to improve acceptance chance
Instant DecisionGain immediate acceptanceOffered by only a few schools

Which Admission Deadline Should You Choose?

The number one factor in determining which admissions deadline to choose is simply which ones are offered by the schools you are interested in. 

Secondly, analyze the situation you are in. If you are hoping to get financial aid and need time to compare what each school offers, don’t apply during the Early Decision window. Instead, give yourself the time to look at all that’s being offered and the opportunity to apply to as many schools as possible. 

If you have your mind set on a single school and believe there is a chance you can get in, then try applying there during early decision or early action when the acceptance rates are highest.

There are numerous situations, each with its own outcome, but the key thing is to think of all the factors that are affecting you and make your decision based on that.

Admission Rates at 18 Colleges With EA or ED

NameOverall Admit RateEarly Action Admit RateEarly Decision Admit RateRegular Decision Admit Rate
University of Richmond24%28%44%14%
University of Virginia21%22%44%16%
Trinity University31%-57%30%
Rhodes College54%-58%54%
Reed College31%-33%31%
The College of Wooster56%78%56%40%
Case Western Reserve University27%32%33%23%
Union College47%60%70%37%
St. Olaf College56%78%48%57%
Macalester College28%43%53%17%
Kalamazoo College80%84%76%76%
Northeastern University7%-33%6%
Clark University50%-35%51%
Babson College25%32%38%15%
Tulane University11%-68%8%
Knox College73%-70%73%
University of Miami19%57%57%6%
The Colorado College16%14%44%13%

Source: Based on 2023-2024 data from R2C Insights

FAQ on College Application Deadlines

What If Your Student Misses a College Application Deadline?

In case a deadline slips by, options may include contacting the admissions office for possible extensions, looking into schools with later deadlines or rolling admissions. Enhancing your chances of admission post-deadline could involve highlighting any new achievements or providing compelling reasons for the delay.

Is Early Decision Really Binding?

Is early decision binding? Yes. Can a student get out of early decision once they’ve been accepted? Maybe.

A student applying via early decision must sign a paper, along with their parents and school counselor, indicating they understand that if the student is accepted, he/she will attend. This document isn’t necessarily legally binding, but it is ethically binding.

If your student “breaks” their commitment to attend a school that accepts them early decision, there’s a chance other schools may find out and not accept the student, too. Some high school college counselors may decide not to send high school transcripts to other colleges once a student has been accepted early decision.

The one exception to the above is if a family determines the financial aid package does not make it financially feasible for them to pay for the early decision school.

Families should be able to estimate their costs by using the net price calculators (NPC) on the college’s website, but if the financial aid offer is different than the results of the NPC or because of other financial issues the financial aid package is not sufficient, a family has the right to decline the early decision acceptance.

Can Students Apply Early Decision and Early Action at the Same Time?

In most cases, students can apply to only one college early decision and as many schools early action, all at the same time. 

The exception to the above is if a student is applying to one of the schools that only have single-choice early action. This would be the case for students applying to: 

  • Princeton University in New Jersey
  • Harvard University in Massachusetts
  • Yale University in Connecticut
  • Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
  • California Institute of Technology
  • University of Notre Dame in Indiana
  • Stanford University in California

_______

Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

👉 Looking for expert help on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List!

Other Articles You Might Like:

Early Decision Vs. Early Action: Ins and Outs, Pros and Cons, and How to Choose

The Best and Worst College Early Decision Results

Dear Roadie: My Son Told Me to Butt Out, Then Got Rejected by His Top Colleges. What Now?

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