Many colleges offer different application plans that carry with them different deadlines. So what is the difference and is there an advantage in any of this for the student? All schools offer the "regular" plan which is the general deadline and process for applicants. Some schools will allow "late" submissions but not all. So, it is important to know your school's deadline and ensure that all required materials are received by the school prior to the deadline.
Nearly 500 schools, however, offer early submission plans that require that the materials be submitted at a date earlier than the regular deadline. Schools may offer "early action" and/or "early decision" plans which will require an earlier deadline, usually by November 1st. Some programs such as engineering at Texas A&M have even earlier deadlines. This year the engineering early action deadline is October 15th, and early action is only offered for this particular degree path.
There are several very important things that students and parents should understand about these deadlines. First, "early decision" is a binding application plan that requires a signed contract that essentially commits the student to this school should she be admitted. I rarely advise a student to apply early decision unless the student is 100% sure that this is the right-fit school, program, and financial commitment. While schools admittedly accept a high percentage of their incoming freshman from their early decision pool of applicants, the student does not have the benefit of weighing options and financial packages. If admitted under "early decision," the student must withdraw all other applications and pay the enrollment deposit far earlier than the national commitment deadline of May 1st. The advantage to the student here is that an earlier decision is received - usually by December - and the student can move forward with planning all the exciting details related to the transition to college. But again, all other applications must be withdrawn, and should the student decide to go elsewhere without a solid reason, the university may take action. Only one school may be applied to under an "early decision" agreement.
"Early action" is another early application plan with an earlier deadline, but this plan is non-binding which means that the student is not obligated to attend if admitted, and she can still continue to evaluate options, visit schools, and wait until May 1st to submit an enrollment deposit (although I do not recommend this.) Generally, students may apply to more than one school under an "early action" deadline; however, be sure to carefully read the guidelines of your school. For example, some schools (Harvard, Stanford) offer "single choice early action" which means that you should not apply to another school under an early action or early decision plan. Again, the key here is reading the fine print and ensuring that you are in compliance with the university's protocol regarding their early submission plans.
To confuse things further, some schools offer "early action 1" and "early action 2" with different deadlines. Again, these deadlines usually fall before the regular deadline and will result in an earlier decision. Most schools require that all materials are received including test scores, transcripts, recommendation letters, etc. prior to the deadline, so early planning is key to applying early decision or early action. Sometimes it is in the student's best interest to wait until the regular deadline so that additional tests can be taken and a full semester of grades can be reported. Whatever option is chosen, be proactive about the process and ensure that all materials - required and optional - are submitted in a timely manner.
I am a wife, mom, and educator. I love learning and helping others learn. Few things are more rewarding than helping kids find their way.