The college admissions process can be daunting, especially when the names of the different processes intertwine, and people seem to use them interchangeably. In order to avoid legal trouble (yes, you do sign some contracts when applying) and confusion, understand what each of these policies mean and which one works best for you.

There are about 6 different ways to apply to college: Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), Restrictive Early Action (REA), Early Decision II (ED II), Regular Decision (RD), and Rolling Admission (RA). Most schools follow the definitions outlined below; however, some schools may have different policies: it is ALWAYS important to read through their website (read the fine print as well) and figure out which option works best for you.

These processes can be categorized into two groups: Binding and Non-Binding (the word restrictive can be used interchangeably with binding).

Early DecisionEarly Action
Early Decision IIRegular Decision
 Restrictive Early Action
 Rolling Admission
The table sorts the 6 processes into binding and non-binding plans.

BINDING: you commit and are obligated to attend where you apply
Colleges typically ask applicants to sign a contract or binding agreement form which prevents the applicant from applying to other colleges and comparing different financial aid packages. Binding processes typically have an early deadline, which may pressurize many seniors to submit incomplete applications, or applications that don’t reflect their full potential.
However, being accepted early alleviate the stress that comes with applying to college.

  • Early Decision: Applicants apply to their top school, typically in October or November, and are ‘binded’ to that school, if accepted.
  • Early Decision II: Applicants receive a second chance at applications and may choose to apply to their second choice school, typically in January, and are responsible for engaging in and understanding binding applicants for ED and ED II.

NONBINDING: you are NOT obligated to attend where you apply
A non-binding or nonrestrictive plan allows applicants to confirm or reject their offer of admission, instead of being legally binded to attend. Applicants can typically do this by late May. Some schools also allow applicants to apply to other schools, which is advantageous, as it allows the applicants to compare financial aid packages and consider other factors, before making a decision.

  • Early Action: Like Early Decision, applicants typically submit their applications in November. However, they are free to apply to multiple colleges (usually the top colleges on their list), and compare financial aid packages and other factors before finalizing their decision (i.e. they are not ‘binded’ to attend to that college).
  • Regular Decision: This application cycle is the ‘normal’ application process, where applications are due in January, and applicants are free to apply to as many colleges as they want. The non-binding aspect makes this the most popular application route; applicants are also able to reject the offer of admission and are not obliged to notify the school.
  • Restrictive Early Action: *CHECK EACH SCHOOL’S POLICIES* – Sometimes also referred to as Single Choice Early Action, applicants are only eligible to apply to ONE school during this process. Only some schools participate in this cycle (like Stanford and Yale), and each school has different policies, regarding other applications (some schools may allow applicants to apply to public universities).
  • Rolling Admission: This process allows applicants to apply to colleges anytime within a large window. Admissions decisions are ‘rolled’ out throughout this time period, instead of a specific date (some schools will allow applications during the summer before the freshman year of college as well – although this is NOT recommended, since it can jeopardize your college plans, if you are not accepted).

In the end, YOU decide which plan works best for you. ALWAYS ensure that you read through each college’s policies thoroughly before making a decision to apply there. If you are considering any of the early application processes, make sure that you have a college list ready with backups and safety schools.