Types of Applications
Information for application to colleges are found on each school's website. They often entail creating an account and applying on-line.
There are over 800 colleges and universities that use The Common Application, a general application students use and submit to chosen schools, with the same information going to each. The essay prompts are used by all member schools however these schools may also have supplemental questions specific to each college found on the college's website.
Early Decision and Early Action Deadlines
Some colleges offer different deadlines for applications but they come with restrictions. Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are usually in November with notifications to students by December 15th. Check specific college websites for their own guidelines and deadlines.
If a student applies Early Decision (ED) and is accepted, he/she is committing to attend that school no matter what financial aid package is offered. If you are going to be relying on any financial aid - whether it is merit or need-based, Early Decision is probably not the right choice for you.
If a student applies Early Action (EA) is accepted, he/she still does not have to accept until May 1. However, applying early may help guide the process: the student will know if they have been accepted and can plan a visit (if they haven't already), it may alleviate the worry that some students have that they won't be accepted by any school. And if they aren't accepted by a school they are interested in, that gives them time to refocus their search.
If you are considering applying EA or ED, here is a calendar that can help you stay on track.