Last Updated: Aug 4, 2020
I recently returned from a week-long summer camp to find a pile of mail sent by colleges. Some were the usual—a list of reasons to attend the college, statistics, and, of course, lots of colorful pictures. Others, however, contained college applications. I haven’t even had time to go back-to-school shopping for my senior year, but I already have the ability to apply to college! Once I sorted through them (I only had interest in one of the schools), I noticed that about half had “Early Decision Application” written on them. While these are not always blatantly marked or clearly explained, it is important to fully understand the differences between them and to be certain of which type is best for you.
Early Decision applications and deadlines let you apply to a school early and be accepted before the holidays (hopefully). But what you might not realize is that these decisions are binding, i.e., if you are accepted, you must attend that school. For some people, this is wonderful. First, there is a sense of reassurance at being accepted while most of their peers are scrambling to finish their applications. Second, a quick look at the acceptance rates of selective colleges shows that you have a much better chance of being accepted when applying early. (When I was visiting Kenyon College, they showed that Early Decision applicants had more than double the acceptance rate of the general applicants at that school.) Applying Early Decision might seem like a perfect option for more decisive people applying to their dream school. However, rushing to apply without being positive about your decision to attend and aware of the specific college’s policies can be a costly mistake.
Financial aid is a big deal. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, upwards of 80% of students in a four-year college program receive financial aid. When it comes to applying, not all schools have the same policy regarding Early Decision and merit-based scholarships. Some schools give money on a first-come-first-served basis, so students who apply early have a better shot at scholarships. Other schools wait until all applications have been submitted until they award scholarships. For students that are expecting or in need of merit-based scholarships, applying early can either be the best way to receive money or an expensive mistake.
For those who are indecisive or in need of financial aid or both (myself included), there is a third option. Applying Early Action allows students to send in their application and get an admission decision early but does not bind them to that school. In most cases, students can apply to as many colleges as they want through the Early Action process. Some schools also offer a “Single-Choice Early Action” option, where the student can apply to only one college early (their top-choice school), but it too is not binding. While the “single-choice” option is somewhat limiting, the Early Action application provides the most benefits to the students.
With so many great colleges to choose from, it is hard to make a decision on one school. So unless you are completely sure about your intended college, it’s often best to stay away from Early Decision applications. On the other hand, if you want to wrap up your college search early and the schools you’re looking at have Early Action deadlines, it won’t hurt to finish your applications and apply early to a couple of them. Of course, if applying early doesn’t appeal to you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with general application, or “Regular Decision,” deadlines. In fact, waiting a couple months to apply gives you extra time to polish those applications. And that might end up being the extra boost you need to improve your chances of getting accepted into your dream school.
Early Action and Early Decision application policies are a great opportunity for students ready to commit to a school you’ve been dreaming about—but it’s certainly not for everyone. Use this advice to guide your research and figure out if one of these options is right for you. And if not, applying regular decision just gives you more time to really nail your application and get into the school of your dreams.
For more college application advice, check out our College Admission section!