Rolling admissions means that universities assess your application on a first-come, first-served basis when they get it. There is usually no final deadline to apply. You just send in your application when it's ready, they have a look, and they get back to you fairly soon--usually around four weeks. Most--but not all--of the schools that have rolling admissions are large, state schools. They are large and robust enough to just look at each application as it comes in and decide if you're admissible or not without trying to "craft a community" or compare you to their other options. Some of the universities with rolling admissions are places you've probably heard of, like Penn State, Michigan State, and Arizona State. If you're looking at a college that has rolling admissions, especially if you're looking for a college because it has rolling admissions, there are a few things to understand.
While rolling admissions may sound like a slacker's paradise with no real due date, it's best treated as a more relaxed Early Action. If you're in the front of the line and one of the earlier applications a school looks at, there's no reason for them to be super-picky. If you meet their criteria then you're likely to be accepted. Later in the year, once they've already admitted a lot of people, they may be more worried about accepting too many people and a bit more reserved. It's definitely preferable to apply earlier to a rolling admissions school, not later.
Plus, the types of schools that tend to use rolling admissions, large state schools with a relatively high admission rate, also tend to be schools people think of as "safety schools" (not that they should. Many of them are excellent first-choice schools). So if a good-but-not-first-choice school on your list offers rolling admissions, apply early and feel good about having that acceptance while you finish your application to more selective colleges. Or, alternately, get denied and realize you need to shift your strategy and your list quickly.
Another thing about rolling admissions is that the rolling part usually only refers to admission, not financial aid or housing. A school with rolling admissions and no deadline will still have deadlines if you want to also apply for aid or on-campus housing. Those aren't up for grabs all the time like admission is. For example, the University of Alabama has rolling admissions. Technically. But to apply for "priority consideration," you need to submit that by February 1. If you're applying for scholarships? That deadline is even earlier: December 15. Applications for housing open up on May 1st for anyone who is already admitted by that time. So sure, you can apply in June. But there may not be any more room, there will probably not be any on-campus housing, and you're way too late for scholarships.
The best way to handle a rolling admissions school is to treat it exactly like a regular admissions school. Choose the earlier deadline and make sure you have your application submitted by then, at the latest.
Rolling admissions can also be, if necessary, a strategy of last resort. If, in March, you find yourself denied or waitlisted to all the schools you applied to, then you should start looking for rolling admissions schools immediately. Since it's probably going to be late to get much, or any, financial aid, start by looking at the smaller state universities in your state. They're often the most affordable. Once you've applied to a few schools still taking applications, then you can get to work on contacting wait list schools and thinking about transferring next year. Or you may find a school you really like and want to stick with.
Is there another term you'd like to see in The Glossary? Let me know, and I'll explain it!