This article is published in the 2014 I’m First Guide to College

Before senior year begins (or as soon as possible after!) it’s time to plan out your application timeline. Before you do that, however, it’s important to be aware of the various types of deadlines colleges use.

Early Decision Deadline

Early decision applications are usually due between October and December of your senior year, and they are binding, which means if you get accepted to a school where you apply early decision, you are contractually obligated to attend. For this reason, you should only apply to an early decision school if you are sure it’s your number one choice. If you are accepted, you will be asked to withdraw all your applications at other schools, even if they haven’t yet been processed. Be sure to ask your admissions counselor what the school’s policy is if you are accepted early decision but are not given enough financial aid.

If you are certain of your choice, however, early decision applications can be a great option. If you receive an acceptance, you will be able to focus your spring semester on applying for scholarships rather than waiting to hear back from schools. Additionally, some colleges have higher acceptance rates for early decision applicants (most schools would rather accept students who will definitely accept their offer than ones who might say no).

Early Action Deadline

Early action applications are usually due between October and December of your senior year, but are non-binding. In other words, you can still decide not to accept the offer if you’re admitted. Keep in mind, though, that the deadlines for making your decision are usually earlier than regular decision deadlines, so you may still have to make your decision about the school before you hear back from your other options.

Regular Deadline

While not all schools offer early decision or early action deadlines, most of them have a regular decision deadline. Generally this deadline is sometime between January and April of your senior year, though a handful of schools have deadlines as late as July. This application is non-binding.

Rolling Deadline

If a school offers “rolling” admissions that means it accepts applications throughout a range of dates. Generally, the earlier you apply, the better. Rolling deadline decisions are non-binding, so there’s no disadvantage to applying earlier. Applying later in the cycle can put you at a disadvantage when it comes to getting financial aid.

On-Site Admissions

Some schools will offer “on-site” admission to select students during campus open-houses, college fairs, or high school visits. This form of admission can be offered throughout the year. Keep in mind, however, that you should never accept an offer of admission made on the spot (and an admissions officer should never ask you for your decision in the moment). Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s your best option, and you still need time to think and do your research.