Countdown to College: Application options can be confusing

It would be easy to assume that with the increase in the popularity of online applications ( and that a variety of decisions would be streamlined for college applicants. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

Colleges appreciate the benefits of the common applications, but many of them want to differentiate themselves. That’s where the variety of application deadlines play a critical role. The college application process is full of acronyms, but none seem more confusing than those associated with application deadlines: EA (Early Action), ED (Early Decision), ED 1 (Early Decision, first deadline), ED 2 (Early Decision, second deadline), SCEA (Single Choice Early Action), REA (Restricted Early Action) and RA (Rolling Admissions).

Early Action is a great gift for the well-prepared student. Students must submit their complete application by an earlier deadline, typically Oct. 15-Nov. 15.

The big perk here is that students receive notification of their acceptance, rejection or deferral much earlier, in many cases by Dec. 15. The best benefit is that EA is not binding, so students may apply to multiple schools EA and can even apply to one school Early Decision (ED), which is binding. Students who apply EA and are accepted are not required to notify the college of their decision until May 1.

Early Decision (ED), Early Decision 1 (ED 1) and Early Decision 2 (ED 2):

ED is straight-forward. You apply early – typically there’s a Nov. 1 deadline – and you’re notified early, typically by Dec. 24. If you’re accepted, it’s binding – you must go. Since it is binding, you are only allowed to apply to one college ED. But now a small number of colleges have added an ED 2, with a January deadline.

ED 2 is frequently used by students who applied ED elsewhere and were either rejected or deferred. Colleges love students who apply ED. It allows them to have a better grasp of their numbers and how many students they’ll need to accept in regular decision. Many colleges have a surprising bump in their ED acceptance rates compared with regular decision.

There are trade-offs with Early Decision. Yes, the numbers can be very appealing, but families need to understand that the applicant pool for ED is typically stronger. ED applicants are frequently athletes, legacy students, development cases (where the family has donated a lot of money), etc.

Since the ED decision is binding, once students are accepted ED, they are asked to withdraw their applications from all the other schools where they applied. Applying ED eliminates any possibility for a family to compare financial aid offers or to even find out about need-based or merit-based aid at other schools.

Early decision is a big decision.

Next week: Restricted Early Action, Single Choice Early Action and Rolling Admissions programs.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;