Applying to US Universities? What’s the Best Timing?

Are you in Grade 12 and thinking about applying to colleges and universities in the United States? Now is the time to strategize about the timing of your applications. And to do that, you need to know about your “Regular Decision”, “Early Action”, “Early Decision”, and “Rolling Admissions” options.

Each of the schools you’re considering applying to might have different application categories and timing options, so you have to check each particular school’s website. Continue reading to learn about the typical application categories and the deadlines that usually apply to them.

Regular Decision (RD)

The “Regular Decision” category is the most common type of application and its deadline is typically around the beginning of January. Schools generally send out “RD” decisions sometime in March. If you’re offered admission, you’ll have until the first day of May to accept the offer. This is why May 1st is known as “College Decision Day”.

RD is the traditional and most usual way to apply to US colleges. RD is “non-binding”, meaning that you’re not making any commitment merely by applying. (If you keep reading, you’ll see below that this is not true of all the application categories discussed in this article.)

Because RD is non-binding, it’s probably your best option if you haven’t yet settled on exactly which college you want to attend. And because RD is non-binding, there’s no limit on the number of schools you can submit RD applications to. If more than one college accepts you, you can then consider which one you want to go to and make your decision. Until you decide, you won’t be under any obligation to enroll at any one of them.

Early Action (EA)

The “Early Action” category means you choose a school (or schools) that you’re very interested in, and submit your application substantially earlier than the typical RD January deadline. Then, if a school you apply to EA considers you highly-qualified, they may offer you admission as early as mid-December. Typical EA application deadlines are around November 1st.

This can be a great route for you to take, as you can be pretty much through with the application process by mid-December. On the other hand, your EA application and a school’s EA offer of admission do not require you to commit to the school or even respond to their offer until the May 1 deadline. Therefore, even with an EA acceptance from one or more schools, you can still wait to see what happens with your RD applications to other schools you’re interested in.

But take note! There are exceptions to your freedom to make multiple EA applications. Within the EA category, some schools offer “Restrictive Early Action” or “Single Choice Early Action” options. These two categories, also referred to as “REA” and “SCEA”, are quite different from regular EA because “Restrictive” and “Single Choice” mean that you’re agreeing you will not apply EA to any other school. That is, you’re restricting yourself to one, and only one, early application. (This is similar to the “Early Decision” category described below.) So if a school you’re interested in uses REA or SCEA, proceed carefully as you strategize about applying to the universities you’re interested in.

Early Decision (ED)

If you know with certainty what your first-choice college is, and if that college offers “Early Decision”, you should carefully consider taking advantage of the ED choice. Unlike EA (but similar to REA and SCEA), you can apply to only one ED college. That is, by submitting your ED application to your first-choice college, you’re agreeing (1) that you are not applying ED to any other school, and (2) that you are committing to attend if you are accepted.

You can still apply EA and RD to other colleges, but you name the ED college as your first choice and agree that, if they accept you, you will withdraw all of your EA and RD applications and enroll to attend the ED college. So if you use ED, you’re making a big commitment. But if you’re clear about your first-choice college, ED can be very advantageous for you because if you’re accepted you can be all done with the application process quite early in your Grade 12 year. Typical ED application deadlines are around November 1st.

“Rolling Admissions”. A university that operates on “Rolling Admissions” reads and considers students’ applications as they receive them, and they continually make their decisions about which students to offer admission to and send out those offers to students. So the earlier you apply, the earlier the school will  consider your application and the earlier they’ll let you know if they’re offering you admission.

These schools do have admissions quotas though, so it’s wise to apply earlier rather than later to avoid missing out merely because the school has reached its quota. Another advantage to applying on the early side is that sometimes your application may stand out in a way it wouldn’t if received later along with many other applications.

Of course, as with any school you’re considering applying to, make sure you check the date when applications open and the final deadline for applications to be submitted.


Applying to US universities in the “Early Action” or “Early Decision” rounds has some advantages.

  • At some schools, an EA or ED application can significantly increase your chances of receiving an offer, if your grades and test scores are in the range of typically-accepted students.
  • Many schools accept a higher percentage of applicants in the EA and ED rounds than they do in the RD round.
  • If you receive an early offer of admission, you can focus on the rest of Grade 12 with much less stress and save the time and money you would have spent on additional applications.

But EA and ED are not suitable for everybody. The applicant pools in the early rounds are often more competitive. And if you need more time to improve your grades and test scores and to make more of an impact in your various activities, it might be better for you to wait until the RD round. 

If you’d like to discuss your best strategy for “Regular Decision”, “Early Action”, “Early Decision”, and “Rolling Admissions” applications, or to learn about working one-on-one with an Academic Pathways university admissions expert, email