Any college-bound student will tell you, applying for college can be a real hassle! That’s because the majority of schools offer multiple options for when students may submit their applications. These varying options, also known as admission plans, include early decision, early action, regular decision and rolling admissions. Each typically have their own deadlines, requirements and restrictions.

To say it can get confusing is a real understatement! In fact, you almost need to take a college course just to understand how and when to apply for college!

Well, consider this your college course, because when you’re done reading this article, you will know everything you need to be able to apply for college in a timely manner.

But I’ll do even better.

Read this article all the way through to the end, and I’ll tell you how you can go to college without having to deal with these traditional application deadlines.

Okay, class is in session!

 Applying for Early Admissions

Early admissions include two options: early decision and early action.

Both share similar timelines, though each differs in terms of their conditions and requirements. Both admission plans have a deadline of November 1st and prospective students can expect to hear back by mid-December, with some schools deciding before the end of November.

So what’s the difference between early action and early decision?

The main difference is whether you are free to consider other schools once you find out your admission decision.

With early action submissions, you are not tied to that particular school. You are free to consider and apply to other schools.

With early decision submissions, on the other hand, you will be bound and committed to attending that school.

Which is the Right Choice for You: Early Action or Early Decision?

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If there are multiple schools you are quite interested in, early action is a good way to go, because you will find out sooner rather than later if you have been accepted, and so then have more time to weigh the pros and cons of each school, knowing you have a spot that’s yours if you want it.

Early decision is a great option for those students who have their eye on the prize. They know exactly which school they want and aren’t considering others. Applicants have a much better chance of acceptance when applying early decision because it shows a commitment to enrollment on the student’s part.

Typically students who apply to ED do not need financial assistance. If you know you will require financial aid, then ED is not a good option for you because you are committed before even knowing what kind of aid you may be eligible for. Early action allows you to shop around before signing on the dotted line.

Some popular schools with early action deadlines include Harvard, Notre Dame, Stanford, and Yale. Popular schools with early decision schools include Dartmouth, NYU, Columbia, and Brown.

College Planning Tips for Early Deadlines

Three main things must be included with your application: a personal essay, recommendation letters, and your SAT or ACT scores. You will want to give yourself time to brainstorm ideas for your essay.

Don’t leave that until the last minute and try to write something quickly. Often the personal essay is the thing that can have the admissions department accept you over another candidate with similar SAT or ACT scores.

And speaking of test scores, if you are a high school student reading this, you have either just taken your test or will do so shortly.

But what if you are an adult who took their test a few (or many) years ago? How do you get your hands on these old scores?

You’ll need to take a few steps:

  1. Contact the College Board and request a score report. You may either:

Request by Mail

Download the request form at CollegeBoard and mail it to SAT Program / P.O. Box 7503 / London, KY 40742-7503. You must remember your old information at the time of testing such as your old street address.

By Phone

For an extra $10, you can call to order your old reports. This is generally the quicker way.

(212) 713-7789, (866) 756-7346 (toll-free), (888) 857-2477

  1. Pay the fee(s) for your old score report
  2. Old score reports usually arrive in about five weeks. You will get a copy and so will the schools you listed on the form.

And finally, you’ll need to get a few letters of recommendation from teachers and/or guidance counselors. If you are an adult, you may want to consider asking former instructors, mentors, and job supervisors for these letters.

By the way, these tips can be applied to any admissions plan.

Applying for Regular Admissions

The most common admission plan is the regular decision, and these deadlines are in January and February. January 1st is the most common date, but January 15th and 31st are also popular deadlines as well.

So why aim for a regular decision as opposed to an early decision?

One of the main benefits of applying for a regular decision is you have a bit more time to put your application together.

This is especially helpful for anyone who wishes to retake their ACT or SAT for a higher score, which will increase their chances of being accepted or to be eligible for more scholarships. And of course, more time means getting that personal essay just right.

And finally, the regular decision is a great idea for those students who need a bit more time to decide on their majors. Maybe you’ve gotten your choices down to two different majors but you’re still on the fence. You can either apply with an “undecided major,” or you can take this extra bit of time to make your final decision.

Of course, where there are pros there are also cons, and applying regular decisions means you may not hear back from schools until the spring or early summer months. This doesn’t give you much time to prepare mentally or logistically to head off to college in the fall.

Some popular schools with January regular decision deadlines are Boston University, Harvard, and Yale, among many others.

Applying for Rolling Admissions

Rolling admissions sounds better than it actually is. Technically speaking, schools with rolling admissions accept applications throughout a set period of time, usually from the fall into the spring. So theoretically you have less pressure on you to meet tight deadlines.

The thing to be clear about is that schools with rolling admissions accept applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

Obviously, if you want to increase your chances of being accepted, you want to get your application in as soon as possible. Most schools will tell you to try to stick to an early deadline of November or a regular one of January, even though, “technically” you don’t have to.

There are those schools that publicize a ‘priority deadline’, meaning those students who apply by that deadline have an advantage. As an example, the University of Maryland has a priority deadline of November 1st (which is the same date as early admissions).

The main difference is this school, and others, will accept applications after their priority deadline, but you’ll really improve your chances of getting accepted if you meet that deadline.

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So you see, while you do have a larger window of time to get your application in, you’ll definitely increase your chances of admission if you get your application in as soon as possible!

So the bottom line is, that applying for college is a big endeavor, and for most students, meeting strict deadlines is something they have to deal with. Meeting these tight deadlines can be doable for high school seniors who have no real responsibilities outside of their education.

But what about adult students with jobs and family responsibilities? It’s just not feasible for them to spend months putting together these application packages and get them in under strict deadlines.

There’s got to be an easier way. There actually is!

Applying for College Just Got Simpler!

In recent years, non-traditional education programs, such as an online degree, have become increasingly popular among adult students.

Not only do these programs offer flexibility and learning customization, but they also offer year-round enrollment. This means that you can go online and apply 24/7 365.

In addition, many online programs do not require prospective students to submit additional materials such as standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, or a resume. Now that is far more convenient!

In addition, online programs are also far more affordable than traditional brick-and-mortar colleges. Plus, online learning doesn’t require that you move out of state or even get in your car and drive to your local community college two or three times a week.

You already know what applying to and attending a traditional college looks like, let’s take a look at what applying to and attending an online program looks like.

It’s a Saturday in July and you’ve been thinking about going back to school to get your bachelor’s degree. You’ve been researching online programs and finally decided on the one you want to enroll in.

You head to their website and apply, and are almost immediately enrolled. By that Sunday evening, you are taking your very first course, learning the material from your sofa in your PJs.

This is the new way of going to college and it’s the perfect option for adult students who have work and family responsibilities. Learning this way is more affordable, far more, and you learn when and where is convenient for you. This means you never have to miss an important business function or your child’s swim meet.

When thinking about going back to college for your degree, it’s easy to focus on traditional methods of learning. Traditional courses have been around for a long time. But between the hassle of applying to colleges and the cost of traditional schools, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for an adult learner.

Online programs make a lot of sense. These programs are flexible and affordable, and you don’t have to worry about the traditional application process.

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About the Author
Grant founded with a purpose-driven mission: make college accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their education. He's a frequent speaker and author in higher education, and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider, American Express, AOL, MSN, Thrive Global, Reader's Digest, Inside Higher Ed, Evolllution, EducationDive, and nearly 100 radio shows and podcasts.