10/07/2013 04:36 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2013

Applying to College: Is it Too Late to Apply Early?

With September in the rearview mirror, seniors now look toward a new round of college application deadlines starting next week. Known as the Early Deadlines, these are the last opportunity students can submit applications to some colleges with the promise of an admissions decision by Thanksgiving, Christmas, or at least much earlier than the traditional date in late March.

These early programs come with a wide variety of deadlines, requirements, and conditions, so it's always best to review the conditions of a particular early program on the college's website. These general guidelines can get you started:

Early Action: Also known as EA, colleges that offer this option promise a quick response if you submit a completed application by their early deadline. Students admitted EA don't have to promise to attend the college; they just want to hear back sooner than usual. Students can apply as EA candidates to several colleges at the same time, as long as they are submitting a quality application that didn't get thrown together at the last minute.

Restricted Early Action: Sometimes known as Early Action Single Choice, REA works much like Early Action, but the student is limited in the number of other colleges where they can submit early applications -- and that number is often zero. Colleges do this for a number of reasons, but they most often want the student to show a special commitment to their college without having to promise to go there. This can reduce the number of students who apply early who aren't really thinking about why the college is right for them , and still reward the students who feel a special bond to the school.

Early Decision: ED applications require a little more from students than EA applications. The process is the same -- students submit a completed application by an early deadline -- but if a student is admitted as an ED student, they promise to withdraw all other college applications and attend the college that admitted them ED. If this sounds like serious business, it is. Students should only apply ED to a college they absolutely, positively love, and cannot live without.

Seniors who have just heard about early applications wonder if it would be good for them to apply early to a college or two. As is the case with many college questions, the answer is different for each student. It's usually safe to say that if you are still thinking about applying ED to a college, you aren't completely in love with it -- given the strong commitment ED requires, it's likely ED isn't the right thing to do.

Students thinking about EA will want to know if their college even offers an early deadline (many do not), and if the average grades and tests scores of students admitted early is higher than those of students who apply later. If the numbers are favorable, and if you have the time to submit a strong application without overlooking your homework (yes, senior-year grades matter), early may be the answer for you.

And as you decide, be sure to double check the early deadline for your college. Some schools, like Lake Forest and Georgia Tech, just changed their early deadlines for this year, in case students got caught in some of the unexpected technology curves of the new Common Application.

Talk to your college and your counselor, hear what your family has to say, then wait a day. Odds are you'll wake up and know exactly what to do.