If applying for college wasn’t time consuming and complicated enough, deciding which application path to follow, increases the stress. In fact, it may come as a surprise to many students and parents that there is more than one way to apply for college—and it varies from college to college.

There is, of course, the regular application deadline—a date by which you must apply or you will not be considered for the coming school term, but as many as 450 schools offer early action or early decision applications. Some schools are now offering new options of single-choice early action or early decision II, while others continue to offer rolling enrollment.

There are pros and cons to each, so students and their parents should take the time to understand how each works.

As the name implies, both early action and early decision applications have deadlines that are earlier than the regular application deadline, usually in November or December. Everything must be ready to go by the deadline: application, letters of recommendation, essays, test scores, and often the College Scholarship Service financial aid profile. If a student has his heart set on one school, then early decision, which is binding if the student is accepted, may be the way to go. However, the family should have clear conversations with the school’s financial aid office in advance of submitting an early decision application, because if accepted, the student must attend that school. Early application may increase the student’s chance of acceptance because it shows commitment, while helping the school’s yield numbers.

In contrast, early action applications are non-binding and the student may apply early to more than one school. If accepted, the student benefits by having an opportunity to compare competing financial awards, and by having until May 1 to decide whether or not to attend. While the popular early action application allows greater flexibility, more schools are deferring early applicants to regular enrollment, thereby negating the purpose of applying early. Also, this option is disappearing as the trend is to eliminate early action.

Both types of early applications do reduce the stress of the waiting as students find out early, usually before Jan.1, whether they have been admitted, declined, or deferred to the regular application. Both CSU and CU-Boulder offer early action.

While early action is starting to be phased out, some schools are phasing in single-choice early action. Under this option, students apply to only one school using early action. It is not binding and the student can still apply to other schools during the regular period. This gives universities a better idea of which early action students are serious about attending. Another new option is early decision II—which is a second go-around, but earlier than regular enrollment, for a binding decision.

Rolling enrollment gives students plenty of time to apply. An enrollment period begins and continues until the school has filled all its slots, and students are usually notified within two to three weeks of applying. Some rolling enrollment can continue right into the beginning of classes; however, few selective colleges use it. Front Range Community College uses a rolling enrollment.

With all college applications, it is always better to apply as early as possible to keep options open.

Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. P. Carol Jones is a freelance writre and editor, and author.