By Nina BerlerBy the time the summer heat begins to fade and the fall colors start to show, chances are good that you or someone you know will be making really important college application decisions. To clarify questions you might have about early options — particularly Early Decision II (ED II) — here is some guidance. Early birds, take note!What exactly is ED II, and how does it differ from other early options?Early Decision II is an early application option initiated by some colleges over the last decade or so. As opposed to Early Action, which is almost always non-binding, Early Decision II is a binding option, meaning students must attend the college if accepted under ED II. The difference between Early Decision I and Early Decision II is timing. Most colleges offering both options ask ED I students to apply by mid-November, and they render decisions in mid-December. The deadline for ED II, on the other hand, is on or around Jan. 1. Students typically have a decision in late January or early February.Note that the application deadline for ED II is generally the same as the Regular Decision application deadline. But under ED II, applicants will have their decisions back from the school about two months earlier than Regular Decision applicants (just as colleges will have deposits that much earlier). The college is happy to fill its next class with candidates who want to be on that particular campus.There are some colleges that offer both Early Decision and Early Action, creating some very nice flexibility for students who aren’t sure of their preferences and financial aid options. At Bennington, for example, a student can opt for ED I, ED II, or Early Action. Early Action candidates need to apply by Dec. 1, and they hear back from Bennington in late January; ED I applicants must apply by Nov. 15, and they hear back by mid-December; ED II students at Bennington have until mid-January to submit, and they receive decisions by mid-February.Why would a student apply ED II to a first-choice college rather than ED I?Some students, as well as parents and counselors, may be concerned that a disappointing junior year transcript may have an unfavorable impact on a student’s candidacy. ED II, which requires applicants to submit grades and information from the first quarter of their senior year, allows time for students to report some better grades and activities as well some late-year standardized testing. For example, seniors could take advantage of the opportunity to take the SAT or the ACT in early December. Scores are usually posted in late December, which would be in time for the ED II application deadline at most schools.Is it ever risky to apply ED II?Yes. Final junior year transcripts are required for ED I applicants. However, ED II applicants must submit first quarter senior year grades. So a student off to a rocky start in the senior year may look better as an ED I applicant rather than ED II.Can students apply both Early Action and Early Decision?Usually the answer is yes, but students should check the policy at each college to be certain. Also, a few colleges — notably Yale, Harvard, and Princeton — have moved to an option known as Single-Choice Early Action (or Restrictive Early Action). This non-binding policy typically keeps candidates from applying to any sort of early program at other private colleges, yet they can submit applications to some other schools.Here’s how Yale explains its option:You may apply to any college’s non-binding rolling admission program.You may apply to any public institution at any time, provided that admission is non-binding.You may apply to another college’s Early Decision II program, but only if the notification of admission occurs after Jan. 1. If you are admitted through another college’s Early Decision II binding program, you must withdraw your application from Yale.You may apply to any institution outside of the United States at any time.Are there any circumstances under which a student is released from this binding agreement?Yes, and it’s usually for financial aid reasons. In most situations, a student will only be released from the Early Decision agreement if he or she believes the estimated financial aid package is not enough to be able to attend. Applying Early Decision will not allow students to compare financial aid packages from other universities. If comparing financial aid packages is important, the student should probably apply under the Regular Decision program.Early candidates are generally treated the same as regular candidates for purposes of awarding financial aid. Applications for admission are considered by admissions departments. Financial aid is decided by a separate office. Colleges notify accepted candidates of a preliminary financial aid package on or around the same time they are admitted under an early plan, provided the students have submitted the required forms in a timely manner. A student needs to agree to the college’s financial package when he or she accepts an ED I or ED II offer.What if a student really loves his or her ED I school and gets deferred? Should that student then apply ED II to his second-choice school or risk going back in the regular pool in hopes of getting into that first-choice college?This is the question colleges don’t dare answer on their websites! Colleges do admit a larger percent of candidates applying ED I and ED II rather than Regular Decision. When students are deferred after applying early to an elite college, they are often denied admission in the regular round. So using ED II as an alternative admissions strategy with a second-choice college may be appealing. Yet it is a decision the student has to make with his or her family and counselor — the people who know that student best. It is a very emotional decision and not one to take lightly.What else do I need to know?Some colleges automatically consider candidates who do not receive a favorable early decision in the regular pool, but others do not. Students must check each college’s rules on this matter. A student may not apply ED I or ED II to more than one college, and must withdraw any applications to other colleges once admitted under an ED plan. Also, colleges can share the names of those admitted with other institutions.