by Dot Kowal, Director of College Counseling
November 1 is more than just a day to digest Halloween candy. Our seniors know that for many colleges and universities, November 1 is the Early Decision (or Action) deadline. Applying early to a top-choice school has become an increasingly popular choice for many independent high school students, for a variety of reasons. Some competitive colleges now accept up to 60% of their classes from the Early Decision pool, so some seniors are feeling more and more pressure to take the early route. There are solid arguments both for and against applying early, and, like the whole college process, much depends on each individual student’s situation.
Understand the Early Options
Colleges offer several different versions of early application to their prospective students.
Early Decision amounts to a promise to attend a college if admitted. Students must withdraw all other applications and commit to enrolling at the school. If not accepted, some students are deferred until the Regular Decision reply date. Students can only apply to one school Early Decision. Early Decision replies usually come in early December.
Early Action is not binding; students do not have to withdraw other applications and do not have to make a decision about whether to accept the offer of admission until the spring. Students can also apply to more than one school Early Action.
Early Decision II is the same binding contract to attend a college if accepted as Early Decision, but the deadline is later (usually around the Regular Decision deadline in early January). Students hear back from colleges quickly, often by early February.
Restricted Early Action is offered by a few very elite colleges. Although it is non-binding and students do not have to respond to offers of admission until spring, students are not allowed to apply Early Action to any other schools when using this option.
Why Apply Early?
Applying Early Decision or Early Action does have advantages. Applying early signals that you are very serious about that school. Colleges often take a larger percentage of their ED/EA pools because these applicants are safe: They are very likely to attend, and they are willing to take whatever financial aid package they are offered without waiting to compare offers from other schools. And, whether accepted or denied, it can provide some peace of mind for students to have a decision from their dream schools locked away earlier in the process.
The Downsides of Early
Early deadlines can add even more stress to an already stressful time, and some students feel pressured to apply early even if they aren’t completely enthusiastic about a school. If a student needs another shot at the SAT or ACT or is hoping for a boost from their fall semester grades, applying early means they won’t be able to include their most recent scores and transcripts. And applying Early Decision means that you are limited to one financial aid offer; you can’t compare packages to maximize scholarships and grants.
The Early Bird and the Worm
They say that the early bird catches the worm—but what if you catch the wrong worm? We only recommend that a student apply Early Decision if they are 100% sure that this school is their top choice. It is imperative to visit the campus and to know why it is your top pick; what, specifically, makes it a good fit for you? Being committed to a school that you’re just lukewarm on, or that you love the idea of, is a recipe for regret down the road.
The Bottom Line
Applying Early Decision can be a great option for students who are very serious about the college they’re applying to, who have strong grades and test scores and don’t need their fall numbers to bolster their application profile, and who are willing to take whatever financial aid is offered to them. For others, Early Action is a more attractive route, allowing for more flexibility and time to decide. And for many seniors, having more time to thoughtfully compile their applications and narrow their lists makes Regular Decision the way to go.
Now… back to that Halloween candy!