Early decision is a college admissions plan where you have decided to apply to one college which you believe is the right school, and, if accepted, you will attend. The early decision plan is a binding, written agreement in which you, a parent, and your guidance counselor usually have to sign to indicate that you understand and abide by the terms of the agreement.
Early decision deadlines are usually between November 1 and December 1. Some schools offer Early Decision II, a second-chance plan for students who want to commit to an institution, but at a later deadline — usually in January.
You can usually apply to other schools, especially those with a rolling or early action admissions plan deadline. However, if you are accepted to your early decision school, you must immediately withdraw in writing from the other schools to which you applied, whether or not you have received a decision.
You receive a financial aid package from your early decision school around the time you get your decision. You can only be released from your early decision agreement if your need for financial aid has not been met by the college, and you would not be able to attend with the aid package you received.
If you decide to apply early decision, there are three potential outcomes. The first, happiest, and clearest outcome is that you are admitted to your dream or first-choice school. At that point, you must immediately withdraw from the other colleges to which you applied. A deposit will be required within a short period of time.
The other two outcomes are that you may be rejected outright or you may be deferred to the regular decision pool of applicants, where your application will be reviewed again. In both cases, you are released from your agreement, and you are free to apply to other colleges, either for regular decision or to another school for its early decision II deadline (your second-chance early decision school).
Regular decision is a plan where students apply by a set deadline specified by each school. Many colleges have regular decision deadlines by January 15. You typically receive your decision in March or April and then you have until May 1 to inform colleges of your final selection and to send in a deposit. There are also many colleges that have spring and summer deadlines for students who have not yet applied or who were not accepted to any other schools.