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You're applying to college when?

College application season is soon revving up, and sorting out deadlines – from early decision and early action to regular decision – can be daunting.

“There are a lot of choices students are facing, so it's not surprising they'd be confused, especially since students only go through this once,” said Christoph Guttentag, Duke University's dean of undergraduate admissions.

Not all application deadlines are created equal, and schools' policies and stipulations vary. Here's a guide to demystify the options.o

Early Action

Early action happens when a student submits an application by a specified early deadline. That application gets reviewed before regular deadline applications, and the student receives the school's decision earlier, too, usually in winter. If students are accepted under early action, they're not obligated to attend that school.

Having an early action acceptance can be a source of relief. “They know they've been admitted to at least one place,” Guttentag said.

“The primary benefit is they get their decision by the end of January rather than the end of March,” said Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions at UNC Chapel Hill (although schools' decision announcement dates vary).

Applying early is a bonus, agreed Cheryl Robinson, school counseling specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, because that's not the only thing seniors have to do. “Once the college application process is done, then there are scholarships, students are still trying to work hard to maintain or improve GPAs, they're involved in extracurricular activities, the college admissions process – and with that comes a lot of angst for students and parents.”

Applying early action also means that students and their parents have the time to compare which schools would offer the best options financially. And some scholarships – like, at UNC, the Morehead-Cain and Pogue – are only available to incoming students who have been accepted early. Students who are interested in participating in the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC also have to apply by Oct..15, Memory said.

“Better kids tend to apply earlier,” said Lloyd Scott, director of admissions at Appalachian State University. Like UNC, prospective students at Appalachian State have to meet the first application deadline to be considered for merit-based scholarships.

Generally, schools expect to see early applications from strong candidates. “It is true that some of our better-credentialed applicants tend to apply by the first deadline,” Memory said.

Scott said admission chances are better for students who apply early. “The bulk of students ... admitted come out of the first group of people who complete the application process,” he said.

Pros:

You find out the school's decision sooner than spring.

It shows admissions officers you have a heightened interest in their school.

You gain eligibility for some scholarships and programs.

You have time to compare financial aid packages with those of other schools.

You're not obligated to attend if you're accepted.

Cons:

If there is an early decision option and you choose early action, admissions officers won't necessarily know if that school is your first choice.

You're not as competitive – and don't have the chance to re-take tests or raise your GPA – if you didn't do well on SAT/ACT tests or in junior year academics.

Early Decision

Early decision applications have an early deadline, and by applying this way, students agree to attend that school if accepted and to withdraw any other applications.

The word “binding” is often used, and if a school discovers you've also applied early-decision elsewhere, it may consider that an honor code violation and not accept you, or rescind acceptance. Finances are typically the only legitimate reason to back out.

Applying this way is “sending a very strong message to the school, and that message is, ‘I really want to go to this school, and if you accept me, that's where I'm going,'.” Robinson said. She said applicants should be strong because the competition will be tough.

Tamara Blocker, senior associate dean of admissions at Wake Forest, recalls a student saying he was applying early decision somewhere, but didn't know where yet. She said that's a mistake. “You need to be 110 percent sure,” Blocker said. “Some students can get there and some students don't – which is perfectly fine.”

Guttentag and other experts said early-decision applicants tend to have higher acceptance rates. “Universities like that level of commitment. … I don't want to say we ‘prefer,' but we ‘appreciate' (those) applicants.”

Melissa Cline, an admissions counselor for Furman University, agreed.

“This is the best for students who know without a shadow of a doubt,” Cline said.

Aside from having to attend if accepted, the experts said there's a risk if financial aid is a factor in a student's decision. Some schools offer website calculators to help determine what need-based aid a student may qualify for (before the FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid – results are in). But if merit-based aid is key to affordability, they shouldn't apply early decision. “They won't have that information before they've said yes,” Cline said.

Pros:

It shows admissions officers you want to attend their school above all others.

You receive the school's decision sooner.

You gain eligibility for some scholarships and programs.

Cons:

You can't change your mind about attending if accepted.

You can't find out what merit-based financial aid will be offered before accepting, and can't compare complete financial aid packages among different schools.

Regular Decision

With regular decision, students submit their applications for the school's last deadline, and typically find out the school's decision in the spring. As with early action, there's no obligation with regular decision.

“Some students may want us to see their first-semester senior grades, and that's perfectly fine if they want more time to get their information together,” Chapel Hill's Memory said. “We strive to give equal consideration for both deadlines.”

At Appalachian State, Scott said fewer slots are open by the time the school's third deadline arrives, so chances of acceptance are slimmer than with the first two deadlines.

Robinson said seniors who aren't happy with SAT/ACT scores from their junior year have opportunities to take them several more times in the first half of senior year so they can send better scores.

But regular decision means students have less time (about a month) to compare options and make a final decision on the schools they choose.

Pros:

You have time to present improved fall semester senior grades.

You have time to compare financial aid packages with those of other schools.

You're not obligated to attend if you're accepted.

Cons:

You have less time to make a final decision on the school you choose to attend.

You might face smaller chances of acceptance if the school has already accepted the bulk of its incoming class.

The demonstrated level of interest in the school is less than an early decision or action application.

You might not be able to apply for some scholarships and programs that have deadlines before regular-decision announcements are sent.

Strategies

Regardless of the choices students make in the application process, the experts said there are some things every student should do before applying to schools:

Research what precisely early action and decision mean for each school.

Robinson said to do this even if it involves calling the admissions office to find out. She also said students should research schools' majors, extracurriculars, costs and graduation rates.

Visit.

“After research, another big piece is students must visit the school,” Robinson said. “I want to emphasize how important that is.”

She recommended walking the campus, talking to students and professors and going to the library and student union. Cline advised staying overnight with a student and sitting in on a class.

If a student doesn't have a clear first choice, Guttentag said, he or she simply shouldn't apply early decision.

Applying to three to five schools is beneficial, said Robinson.

Of those, one should be a “reach” school, which would be very competitive for a student. Another should be an “ace in the hole” option, which means the student is a strong applicant, feels confident about acceptance and would be happy to attend there. The other school or schools should be what Robinson said is in the “50/50” category: schools where the student is a strong applicant but has decent competition.

“I always encourage students to reach out to their admissions counselors,” Cline said. “We're here as their advocates in this process.”

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