The College Conversation: College deadlines are all over the map

Nothing causes more confusion than the random nature of college admissions deadlines and notification dates. Applying to a UC campus? The deadline is Nov. 30. But don't wait till then or you'll face the inevitability of crashing of their online portal.

Considering a Cal State? Officially, this application is also due in November. Unofficially, for some CSU campuses, the earlier one applies the better, and spots certainly fill up. USC's deadline is in January. Want financial aid? Better have that app in by Dec. 1. Dare I list the other 3,500 colleges and their individual deadlines?

Not only are the college deadlines all over the map, most schools offer a plethora of different application plans, each with their own respective deadlines. There are priority deadlines, early action deadlines, early decision deadlines, rolling admission, regular decision, and others that don't quite fit into any of the aforementioned plans. The vast menu of options is daunting. And not every admissions plan is offered at every school. The basics of early application plans are as follows:

Early Decision is a binding admissions plan. Students apply to the college by the Nov. 1 or Nov. 15 deadline, and, if offered admission, must attend and withdraw applications at all the other institutions to which they applied. Students may only apply to one college Early Decision. This plan is reserved for those students who have a clear first choice institution in mind.

Colleges appreciate students who apply Early Decision because it illustrates their undying love for a school. It's the best way for a student to demonstrate interest. High-achieving students, especially those with stellar grades and high test scores, are often "clinched" by colleges in this round in order to improve the college's academic reputation. Athletes are often encouraged to apply Early Decision so teams can firm up their roster sooner than later.

Early Action (EA) candidates apply by the college's Nov. 1 or Nov. 15 deadline and receive a decision well in advance of the normal spring notification date, often before the winter holidays. This is not a binding plan in that, if offered admission, the student doesn't need to commit to the school prior to hearing back from others. The student may apply to other Early Action schools and regular decision schools while waiting to hear back from an EA school.

This is a fantastic option for students who ended their junior year strong with an upward grade trend compared to their earlier high school years. It feels incredible for students to have that acceptance in their back pocket, so to speak, as they navigate senior year.

However, keep in mind there's no truth to the notion that if students apply early, senior year grades don't matter. There are some colleges who request quarter grades from school counselors and a low grade can mean a definite rejection or, if the student is lucky — a deferral. This means the student's application is reviewed again during the regular decision round and notification of the decision is delayed to spring.

In order to apply early to a college, it's very important that your child starts planning now. The next 12 weeks will fly by — essays need to be written, test scores sent, recommendations requested, and interviews secured (if applicable). Fall college visits might build a better case for your child's college admission. Nothing feels better than clinching a college admission by the holidays, so this is the carrot that should be dangled.

However, college applications should never be rushed, so if your child can't handle the early timeline, do your best to encourage completion of all applications by Winter Break. Everyone deserves a break by then, mom and dad included.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Sundays. Please send college admissions questions to

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