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How To Know if Early Action/Early Decision Is Right for You

You’ve narrowed down your list of colleges, considered potential majors, and even started working on your application essay.

That’s great progress, but there are a few more choices to make. One important decision is whether you will apply to any schools early.

There are several types of early applications, including early action, restrictive early action, and early decision. How do you do know if any of these options are right for you? Let’s take a look!

What Is Early Action/Early Decision?

In brief, Early Action is a non-binding early round application. You aren’t obligated to attend a school if accepted Early Action, and most colleges will allow you to apply Early Action to multiple schools.

Similarly, Restrictive Early Action is non-binding. However, the “restrictive” part means that you can only apply to one school in the early rounds. It clearly indicates to a school that they are your first choice.

Early Decision is binding. If you apply to a school Early Decision and you are accepted, you must attend. You will need to withdraw any applications to other schools.

These are general guidelines, and some schools have their own rules about early round applications. In all cases, it’s important to carefully review the information on the university’s website.

To learn more about early round applications, read our guide on the difference between Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, and Early Decision.

See which colleges offer Early Decision
See which colleges offer Early Action

Should I Apply Early?

Now you have a general understanding of early round applications. But is applying early the right choice for you? There are a few factors you should consider.

Will applying early increase my chances of acceptance?

Colleges want to have a high yield, meaning they want a high percentage of accepted students to enroll in their school. Early round applications benefit colleges because they know they’re sending acceptance letters to students with genuine interest in their school.

For this reason, applying early can sometimes increase your chances of success. For example, Harvard’s regular acceptance rate is 5%, while their early round acceptance rate is 13.4%. At Vanderbilt University, 11% of students are accepted in the regular round. 19.8% of early applicants are accepted.

Some admissions officers claim that these inflated early round acceptance rates are the result of higher quality applicants applying early.

But it’s also true that if you apply early, you’re compared to a smaller pool of applicants. Depending on which type of early application you submit, you’re demonstrating that the school is your first choice or one of your first choices. If your application is strong, this makes you a very appealing applicant.

See your chances of getting in with our Admissions Calculator

Are there other advantages to applying early?

Early applications are typically due in November, and you’ll hear back by mid-December. By contrast, regular decision application deadlines are in January or February, with decisions typically released by April 1.

If you apply early, you can find out your fate at your top choice school(s) early in the process. This reduces the stress and uncertainty of the college application waiting game. With your college plans finalized early, you’ll be able to fully enjoy the rest of your senior year.

Plus, you’ll have more time to start preparing for college. While other students are still filling out applications, you can get a head start on finding housing, looking at courses, learning more about your future college and future city, and more.

Will I be prepared for an earlier deadline?

If you aren’t prepared to meet the early November deadline, don’t rush it. Give yourself the extra couple of months to ensure your applications are as competitive as possible.

You are probably not prepared if:

  • You’ll have to scramble to write an essay and gather letters of recommendation.
  • Your SAT/ACT scores aren’t great, and you’d like to re-take them.
  • You’re still narrowing down your list of colleges/frequently changing your mind.
  • The idea of applying early is extremely stressful.

However, if you feel adequately prepared, applying early could be right for you. Ensure that you have all necessary information, have made a start on your essay, are asking for letters of recommendation, and are happy with your grades and test scores.

Students who could benefit from an additional semester of grades or another run at the SAT/ACT should hold off on early rounds.

Do I have a clear first choice?

If you’re applying to a binding round (Early Decision) or even a round that limits your ability to apply early to other schools (Restrictive Early Action), it’s essential that you have a clear first choice.

Are there several schools that you’d be thrilled to attend? Do you keep going back and forth on which is your favorite? Early Action is an option for you if you’re prepared, but you’ll want to avoid Early Decision and Restrictive Early Action.

Remember that Early Decision is binding. If they accept you, that’s where you’re going to school. Only apply to this round if you’re 100% certain that this is the school you want to attend, and you will have no regrets about making this binding commitment.

Sometimes, students say that they aren’t sure where they’re applying yet, but they know they want to apply early. This is the wrong approach. Early rounds are for students who have done their college research early and are deeply committed to their dream school.

Is financial aid an important factor in where I’ll go to school?

Although applying early allows you to find out whether you’ve been accepted early, you most likely will not find out about your financial aid package until March or April. This can be an issue for students who are counting on financial aid to help them pay for college.

Some schools say that if your ability to attend a school depends on your financial aid package, applying Early Decision may not be right for you.

In most cases, you can decline an Early Decision offer if the school’s financial aid package is not sufficient. At that point, however, it may become a frantic scramble to apply to other schools.

Additionally, many schools wait to offer merit-based aid until the spring as an extra incentive for undecided students. If you apply early, you may miss out on these opportunities.

And if you want to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools before making a decision, then it’s typically best to wait until the later rounds.

Final Thoughts: How To Know if Early Action/Early Decision Is Right for You

Applying early is a great option if you:

  • Know which college you want to go
  • Are happy with your GPA/test scores
  • Are prepared to meet early deadlines
  • Are not especially concerned about financial aid

Early round applications show your commitment to a college and can increase your chances of acceptance to your dream school. It also allows you to get the stress of college applications and college decisions out of the way early.

However, you may want to wait and apply during the regular rounds if you:

  • Are undecided about your top choice(s)
  • Could benefit from an additional semester of grades or another SAT/ACT attempt
  • Feel unprepared and stressed about meeting the earlier deadline
  • Need financial aid and would like to compare financial aid packages when making your decision

If you aren’t ready to apply early, or if applying early isn’t a good fit for you, don’t worry. Take the extra time to strengthen your application, and it won’t matter when you apply — you’ll still be a competitive candidate with the time and ability to weigh your options.

Which colleges are right for you? Take our quiz

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.