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Deadlines: How important are they in U.S. college admissions?

Liberal arts degrees in the United States can open up many doors and opportunities for international students.

What’s in a date? November 1, December 1, January 1, and May 1 are four simple days out the year, but for many U.S. colleges, these dates have significant meaning. Whether it is for submitting an application, or notifying a college you wish to attend, there are several deadlines in the U.S. college admissions process that international students need to know.

What’s happening in college admissions offices?

As the fall term ends for colleges across the United States, admissions offices have finished much of their recruitment travel across the world. Now, they are getting ready for what they call “reading” season, where they will spend much of the next three months reading and evaluating student applications. For some, this process has already begun. If a college or university has an early application deadline, they will already be making decisions. But what are these deadlines and what do they mean?

Types of application deadlines

As with many parts of the U.S. college admissions process, there are no simple answers other than, “it depends.”

Generally, there are four types of deadlines international students may see when applying to U.S. colleges and universities. Rolling admissions happens at colleges where applications are reviewed on an on-going basis throughout the year with no set deadline for applications to be received. Institutions with rolling admissions policies are generally less selective. These colleges and universities, however, provide the greatest flexibility for international students applying to the United States.

Next is Early Action (EA).  Typically, EA applicants must apply by a set date between mid-October and mid-November at selective institutions. For these colleges, if you are admitted early action, you get a decision by mid-December. While most colleges that admit students through EA do not require students to attend if admitted (called binding decisions), some are restrictive where if they admit you, they expect you to attend. In those cases, international students should apply EA only if they truly wish to attend that college.

Similar to Early Action is Early Decision (ED). Like Early Action, ED deadlines occur either on November 1 or November 15, with decisions made by mid-December. The major difference is that, if you are admitted, the decision is binding: you must attend that college who accepts you ED. In fact, when you apply, you must sign a contract, along with your school counselor and your parents, indicating you understand that if you are admitted ED you must accept their offer. As a result, international students should think very carefully about which one college or university they apply to as an early decision applicant.

Last but not least is Regular Decision (RD). For most international students, applying to universities with regular decision deadlines is the way to go if you are unsure of which institution you wish to attend at the time you apply. Among U.S. colleges with RD deadlines, apart from outliers like the University of California system which sets a November 30th date for students, most have January or early February deadlines.

Special note: For international students who want to attend a selective college or university but do not have the right test scores, there are several institutions that offer pathway programs with rolling admissions. These pathway programs allow students to take a mix of English language and academic courses in their first year then transition to full degree studies in year two.

Postmarked by or delivered by?

A common concern among international students is whether these application deadlines are strict or flexible. Speaking to international admissions officers at different institutions deadlines are strictly enforced. For most colleges this means that all required materials must be postmarked by or received by the application deadline. The answer to the postmarked/received question will vary depending on the college.

Decision Day – May 1st

Perhaps the most important date you will hear of after you apply to U.S. colleges and universities is May 1. This date is called National Response Day.By this day, you should decide which institution you wish to attend. For colleges that accept a maximum number of students each year, if you do not notify that college by May 1st (typically with a tuition deposit) you could lose your place.

Best advice: pay close attention to all the deadlines you have as an international student. It is your responsibility to ensure you meet all the expectations of the colleges if you wish to be admitted and enroll there.