Should You Apply Early to Colleges?

We're tackling the tricky question of whether you should apply early to colleges under Early Application.

Early Application is a blanket term which includes two types of applications: Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA). We know this information is complex, so here is an Executive Summary:

 

Early Application Executive Summary:

  1. Early Decision (ED) is binding, so if you get accepted, you are required to attend that school.
  2. Early Action (EA) is non-binding, so if you get accepted, you still get to see your letters from other schools before deciding.
  3. Early Application deadlines range from November 1st to January 1st for many schools.
  4. Applying early usually makes you more likely to get in.
  5. The one drawback to applying Early Decision is that it might diminish the amount of financial aid a school gives you.
  6. You should apply early if you have a top choice college, your application is ready to go, and financial aid is not your primary consideration when choosing colleges.

 

Let's examine these statements below:

1. Early Decision (ED) is binding, so if you get accepted, you are required to attend that school.

Most colleges have an Early Decision Agreement that you must file when you submit your application through their Early Decision program. This agreement usually says something like:

  • if admitted, you agree to accept the school's offer of admission and withdraw your applications from all other colleges (even before you see whether you get into those colleges)
  • you may only opt out of the Early Decision Agreement if you cannot afford to attend
  • you agree not to apply to any other college under EA or ED

You should carefully consider whether you have a first choice school before applying ED, since, if you are accepted, you will never know what other colleges would have accepted you (and you may always wonder, “what if?”)

 

2. Early Action (EA) is non-binding, so if you get accepted, you still get to see your letters from other schools before deciding.

Like Early Decision, Early Action still involves applying early and hearing back early, but the key difference is you do not have to withdraw your applications to all other schools if admitted under EA. You may bide your time until the May 1st deadline before choosing which college you wish to attend.

Early Action Single Choice (also known as Restrictive Early Action) is a type of Early Action in which:

  • the application is non-binding, so you still get to see the results from other schools
  • you agree not to apply to any other school's Early Action or Early Decision options

Only three schools we know of offer Early Action Single Choice: Boston College, Stanford, and Yale.

All other Early Action programs are not restrictive, meaning that you can apply to several schools under Early Action and hear back from all of them early. Every year, we work with several students who apply Early Action to the prominent Jesuit schools in California: USD, Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara, and University of San Francisco. You can apply to all of these under EA and receive multiple admissions letters by January.

 

3. Early Application deadlines range from November 1st to January 1st for many schools.

Check with the colleges to see the specific deadlines for EA and ED. Most colleges have early deadlines of 11/1, 11/15, or 12/1.

Exception - some schools have two rounds of EA or ED, usually with a deadline of late December/early January. This results in a school having multiple rounds of Early Action and/or Early Decision.

For example, Bennington College in Vermont has the following dates and deadlines:

  • Early Decision 1 is due 11/15.
  • Early Decision 2 has a deadline of 1/3.
  • The Early Action application is due 12/1.
  • The Regular Decision application is due 1/3.

Yes, that’s a little confusing, but it allows students to apply to multiple schools through ED. A student might apply Early Decision to Dartmouth in November, get rejected in December, and apply Early Decision to Colorado College under their Early Decision 2 in January.

 

4. Applying early usually makes you more likely to get in.

Every year, colleges are just as eager to start accepting applicants as you are to see where you get in. College admissions committees are under tremendous pressure to make sure they admit a bright, interesting, and diverse incoming class.  And that starts with the Early Application pool.

Colleges give preference to early applicants for one main reason: by applying early, you're showing the school that it is at the top of your list. Obviously, if you commit to a college under ED, then you are "locked in," and will attend their school in the Fall. Colleges don't have to risk that you will decide to go elsewhere, and you will raise a college's yield by applying Early Decision.

Even EA makes you more likely to get in, because you are more likely to wind up choosing that school. For evidence, just consider what happens in your brain. You find out you're admitted four months before you hear back from other colleges.  You visit campus again. You start to imagine life at that school. When time comes to make a decision in April, you know more about your Early Action school and are overwhelmingly likely to choose to attend.

To play devil's advocate, we frequently hear the argument that the pool of applicants who apply early are more talented than the overall applicant pool. They are more likely to have higher grades and test scores and have been considering their college choices longer than the applicant pool as a whole. As a result, the competition is tougher under Early Application programs, so you're better off waiting until Regular Decision.

Although it's true that the applicant pool is more qualified early, don't let that stop you from applying. To see why, consider the three possible decisions a college will make when you apply early:

  • You are accepted. Woo hoo! You're in college!
  • You are rejected. Let the weeping ensue.
  • You are deferred, which means you have to wait until April, as your application has been put into the Regular Decision pool.

The primary benefit here is that if you're deferred, your application is reviewed on two separate occasions, once under EA or ED and once during Regular Decision. So the idea that the competition is stiffer will at worst just push your application to the Regular Decision process, which is where you would have been in the first place by waiting to apply! And if you're rejected early, that means you are so far outside of the school's normal range that you still wouldn't have had a chance under Regular Decision.

 

5. The one drawback to applying Early Decision is that it might diminish the amount of aid a school gives you.

In many ways, college admissions offices act like businesses fighting to attract customers (in this case through the discount they give off their sticker price). Every year after choosing whom to admit, colleges offer what they hope is the “Goldilocks” financial aid letter: Not too little money or you may choose another school, but also not too much money, or they are giving away cash from their own pocket (every dollar of discount they give you is a dollar of tuition revenue they lose). They’re trying to give you just enough financial aid that you will choose their school and pay (most of) their tuition.

Under an Early Decision Agreement, the college knows you’re locked in. The college has no incentive to give you more than the average amount of financial aid, as they do not have to risk losing you to a competitor. You are a loyal customer in this case and have already chosen to buy from them.

 

6. So should I apply early?

You should apply early if:

  1. you have a top choice school
  2. your essays are ready to go, your letters of recommendation have been requested, and you have filled out your CSS PROFILE
  3. financial aid is not your primary consideration when choosing which college to attend.

We’ve tried to break down EA and ED as simply as possible, but we know how cryptic this process can be. We hope this month’s newsletter will help you navigate the confusing territory of Early Application, and serve as a reference guide as you make your upcoming decisions.

Happy college hunting, and best of luck!