Early Decision: This is an early college application process in which students complete their application for submission in November. In most cases, students will receive an admissions decision in December or before the new year. A student may only apply to one college for early decision as it is a binding decision. He or she may apply to other colleges for regular admission but if accepted to the early decision school he or she must withdraw all other college applications. As well, if admitted, a student must attend the school. A student should not apply early unless he or she is absolutely sure that this is the best fit college for them and is their top choice. Families should be aware that a student who is accepted early decision may miss out on comparing financial packages from different colleges.
Early Action: Like early decision, this is an application process that takes place early in the process and applications are typically submitted in November (with a few exceptions). Most students will receive a decision back from the colleges either in December, January or February. The benefits to early action are that it is not a binding decision (they can apply to other colleges) and although the student will hear earlier about a decision they still have until May 1 to confirm their enrollment. Even if a student is accepted early action to a specific school they can still make the decision to attend another college and compare financial offers.
Regular Decision: Students who apply regular decision may apply to as many colleges as they like. Most deadlines for regular decision are in early January with decisions sent out in late March and early April. Students who apply regular decision have until May 1 to either accept or decline the offers from the colleges. A student is only permitted to submit a matriculation (or enrollment deposit) to one of the institutions to which they have been admitted.
Single Choice (or Restrictive) Early Action: This is a non binding application option for students who are confident that the college they have selected is their first choice. Students agree not to apply to any other private colleges/universities under another early action, restrictive or early decision program. However, applicants may apply to other colleges and universities through the regular decision process. As well, a student may apply to public colleges or universities with a non-binding early application option or non-binding rolling admissions process. Students will typically hear back from single choice early action schools in mid-late December.
While these are the nuts and bolts of the different types of decisions, it is always important to check and confirm the policies for the colleges that you are applying to and to check their specific deadlines as they do vary.
Good luck making your decision!