And it's not worth sacrificing choice if you're not truly sold on a school.
"Too often, the temptation comes from a different direction, like 'I'm definitely applying ED and where should I apply?'" says Karen Giannino, senior associate dean of admission at Colgate University. "The worst thing that can happen is if a student applies somewhere and gets in, and they no longer really want to go there."
[Consider the reasons to apply early action to college.]
3. Demonstrate your interest: The rising tide of applications has colleges seriously calling into question students' sincerity.
Author Peter Van Buskirk, former admissions dean at Franklin and Marshall College, suggests making yours known by visiting campus and introducing yourself to the regional director of admissions, who is "likely to be the first one to review your application and the last to defend it before decisions are final."
Increasingly, he says, regional recruiters "ping students to see if they're still engaged." You should respond, or risk falling off the radar.
The same advice applies if you land on the waitlist, which many colleges increasingly lean on. Staying in touch at this stage shows the admissions office that you're still a good catch. Send in any updated academic information and try to get a feel for how much and what type of contact is beneficial.
"You have to read the instructions of the school, because they all differ," stresses Pete Caruso, associate director of undergrad admissions at Boston College. Though "we clearly state that we're not meeting with wait-listed applicants," he says, inevitably some show up. "It makes for an awkward discussion."
Once all of the apps are in the mail, it's smart to reflect a bit and manage your expectations. Coming to terms with not getting your top choice can be difficult, but "it's not as if not getting into that school means there are no other options left," says Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
He sees that students are often driven to think that they should go to the school that's the hardest place to get in, whereas "we want them to find a place that is a good place for them."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.