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Having choices is a good thing but deciphering which application deadline is the right one for your student can be confusing. For some families it is a question of strategy, while others just want to know as early as possible.

Here's a basic primer on the two most popular Early Deadline options: Early Action and Early Decision.

Early Action (EA): If a student's transcript has been consistent from freshman to sophomore and through junior year, then an Early Action application can make great sense. This year many colleges moved their Early Action deadlines to Oct. 15, even earlier than last year.

The biggest benefit of Early Action is that students are notified early, generally from mid-December through mid-January. But they are not under any obligation to attend if accepted and are not required to make a commitment until May 1, after all their decisions have been returned.

Students can be accepted, denied or deferred in Early Action. If they are deferred it means that their application will receive a second viewing along with all students who are applying by the regular deadline, which is generally in early January.

For the prepared student, applying Early Action is a great option. It also allows students to make plans to revisit colleges in February, March or April to help them make their best decision. EA also gives families the best chance to compare financial aid packages from different schools.

Most colleges will tell students that there is no greater likelihood of being accepted if they apply EA. While colleges frequently have higher acceptance rates for Early Action, those numbers can mostly be attributed to stronger students applying because they are more organized and can meet these early deadlines. These students would have been accepted if they applied in Regular Decision.

Early Decision (ED): Early Decision, with due dates from Oct. 15 through Dec. 1, is binding. If a student applies ED and is accepted, he must attend. They are allowed to apply to other colleges, but once accepted, they are required to withdraw their applications from any other colleges.

The Early Decision risk/benefit analysis is pretty clear: There is a higher acceptance rate at virtually every college (Davidson College's ED acceptance rate is 44.2 percent while their regular decision acceptance rate is 29 percent); and you are notified early, but one of the risks is that you have eliminated all other choices and any possible leverage you might have regarding financial aid packages.

For the right student who has done her homework and knows for sure that this is her No. 1 choice, it is a terrific option.

Word of caution: Some families focus more on strategy and less on fit, asking their children -- "Where are you applying Early Decision?" A better question would be -- "Does it make sense to consider applying Early Decision?"

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.