December 31st has a special meaning to applicants planning to study in the US in 2014. The general perception is that unless you are applying early decision, you submit your applications around December 31st and then wait until the end of March to get your decision. Well, the reality is that there are a bunch submission opportunities before December 31st that can yield good news long before March 2014.
Several excellent colleges have rolling admissions, which means that the sooner you get your application in, the sooner you get your results. For example Indiana University (home to the highly-ranked Kelley school of business) opened their application for submission on Sept 1. There are no teacher recommendations required, only official transcripts and a simple, short essay about any special circumstances and why you want to attend IU. If you apply now, you have nothing to lose and you will get admissions results by Jan 15th at the latest, probably sooner. The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC, a popular choice for engineering students) also opens their application early and typically sends out results by early December. It is a great feeling to have an affirmative reply from UIUC before you even submit your regular decision applications.
Early Action (EA)
There are two kinds of early action applications – Single choice early action (SCEA) and unrestricted early action (UREA). For single choice you can only apply to one college early, but you are not bound to attend the college if admitted. The benefit to applying SCEA is that if you are accepted on Dec 15th, you do not have to apply anywhere else that you don’t really want to go – no more safety colleges on the list. The benefit of applying UREA is that you have several results in your hand before the December 31st deadline comes around. This year I know a girl who is applying to 8 colleges and 3 of them have UREA deadlines. By Dec 15th she will know her results on those 3 and then can decide whether she wants to try for the other 5.
Several colleges like USC and and Claremont McKenna college have earlier deadlines for students who want to be considered for scholarships and/or financial aid. It is important to submit your application by these deadlines if you need aid. And even if you will not qualify for need-based aid or the college does not offer need-based aid to international students, these deadlines are important for merit based scholarships as well. I know a student who turned in her application early to both University of Richmond and Tulane and was weighing scholarship offers from both by March.
Early Decision (ED)
Most students tend to treat the Early Decision application to their ‘dream’ college as the sacred submission that must be worked on in solitude without distraction from any lesser applications. If the ED application yeilds an affirmative decision on December 15th then students are free from all other applications because the ED decision is binding. But in practice this coveted application rarely results in happiness and then from December 16th onwards students are scrambling to put together 8-10 fresh applicatons. Early Decision is a gamble. My advice is that once you put it out there on November 1, diligently move on with your application process. While the dream college is ruminating over your ED application, get to work on all the EA, rolling, priority and regular decision appications. If your ED dream comes true you must withdraw all other applications.
Paying attention to deadlines gives you options. You can always wait until the Regular Decision deadline to apply to colleges, but applying early and getting good news early gives you options and confidence that can make the difference between a stressful, anxiety-laden application process and a smooth, in-control feeling of satisfaction.