A few of you may know (at least the seniors that are reading this), that the early decision (ED) and early action (EA) deadlines just passed, most of them being on November 1st.
And I can speak for all us seniors when I say “Hallelujah!” - at least one thing is over. But for the rest of you who are confused as to what applying early to college might mean, here’s a quick rundown of what it is and what it means in terms of both your application process and admission chances. (And no, applying early is not always a binding decision!)
HOW TO APPLY TO COLLEGE IN GENERAL
In the usual college application for most universities across the United States, you fill out one of three general applications (Common App, Universal App, or Coalition App - there’s very little difference between them), which ask you for your general information as well as info about your school and extracurricular activities and an essay (for an in-depth look at the Common App, click here). You then submit this general application to a university, along with a supplemental application with more questions and essays specific to the college (and of course, you can’t forget about that application fee!). After you submit these required materials, usually by around January, you wait (and wait and wait) for the college to review your application and decide your fate. (Duh duh duhhhh). You hear back from the college about a decision (Accepted! Rejected. Waitlisted?) and financial aid packages around late March when you then compare offers from all the colleges you got accepted to in order to make a decision on where you want to enroll by May 1st. And then yay! You’re in college! (And of course, don’t forget about that enrollment deposit.)
*Note* For more insider and detailed tips about the college application process, click here.
As you can see, applying to college is no easy process. But what’s harder than applying is actually getting in. And once you’ve gotten in, the hardest decision is deciding where to go (Princeton for full tuition or Rutgers for free?).
That’s where applying early can make a difference.
BASICS ABOUT EARLY APPLICATIONS
The primary difference between early decision/action and regular decision (RD) is the deadline. While RD applicants have to have their applications submitted by January 1st ish, ED/EA applicants must submit a few months earlier in November (or even in October in some cases!). For this reason, applying early is also something you have to spend a little more effort on thinking about, because you will (ideally) have to finish your application materials the summer before you are applying. This means that you have to be dedicated to the university where you are choosing to apply early.
Early decision and early action are actually very very very very different things, so I’m going to talk about them separately, starting off with what most people think when they think “applying early”.
ED is an admissions process that is BINDING! By this, I mean that if you are accepted into the university during this application review, you are REQUIRED to attend the college (okay, technically, it’s not a legal document, so you can’t get taken to court, but it is an official admissions commitment). That is the majority of what it means to apply as an early decision applicant.
In terms of the timeline for ED: when you apply in November, your application review begins then as well. This way, the admissions committee is actually able to give you a decision in early to mid-December, months before a regular decision application decision, which is a huge benefit to applying ED. (Think about all that stress being lifted off your shoulders.)
Your ED decision can be one of three things - you can be accepted, rejected, or deferred. If you’re accepted, you’re done with the college application process! (Yay!). You will submit your enrollment deposit, and get decked up in their college gear in no time. If you are rejected :(, you will be taken out of the applicant pool entirely - but you can still apply to other colleges RD (which you should do anyway, just in case you are rejected). And finally, you can get deferred, which is a new term to many people. But this basically means that the college is not sure whether to accept you, but they don’t want to deny you just yet. They want to give you another chance, and so your application is pushed to the regular decision review pool. This means that when the admissions team is reviewing the rest of the RD applicants, they will also review your application again, to see if compared to this group of applicants, you deserve a spot in the incoming class. And you can then be either accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.
By applying ED, you are indicating that the college you are applying to is your hands-down first choice university. This means it is compatible in terms of fit, academics, and most importantly, cost. Because an ED acceptance is binding and you will not be able to turn it down (okay, there are a few exceptions), you must also accept the financial aid offer you are presented with. You can try to bargain with the aid package, but because you don’t have any other offers from other colleges, it’s hard to get the university to change their offer.
Beyond being able to pay for the college, you have to be 100% committed to attending. Because in the chance that you are accepted, you are required to enroll. (I’m repeating myself because this is important.)
The idea of showing colleges that they are your hands-down first choice can also carry some weight in the admissions process. It depends from college to college, but a large percentage of an incoming class is made out of Early Decision applicants, therefore increasing the “acceptance rate” of the ED application cycle.
Now, I put “acceptance rate” in quotation marks because it’s harder to tell whether applying ED actually makes a difference in the chance of you being admitted to the university. There is a general consensus that yes, it improves admissions chances, and the numbers suggest that as well. (For example, the RD acceptance rate to Duke University was less than 9% in 2016 and their ED acceptance rate was about 24%). But you have to keep in mind that the individuals applying ED (especially to those high tier universities) are likely very qualified applicants, and would have had a good chance in being admitted even in RD. In addition to that, ED acceptance rate numbers can be inflated by people like recruited athletes, established legacies, and similar cases.
But in my opinion, applying ED does make a difference, mostly because of the weight that the binding decision makes and how it shows your true commitment to the university. (Plus, it’s possible that applying in a pool including other very qualified applicants can make you seem more qualified as well).
Finally, because ED is binding, you can obviously only apply to one school as an early decision applicant. But even though you can only apply to one ED, you can still apply to EA schools and RD schools. In fact, I definitely encourage having your applications ready for the schools you are applying to RD because if you are rejected from your ED school, it will be mid-December and you will only have a couple of weeks to write all the essays for other schools you want to apply to.
ED is not for everyone: don’t be worried if you’re not applying to any schools ED (I didn’t). But if you are in absolute love with a specific university (like I am with Princeton) and are sure you will be able to afford the price tag, consider applying there through early decision.
Now, you might be wondering, if I am so in love with Princeton, why did I not apply ED? Well, that’s because Princeton doesn’t have an early decision option. Instead, they have Early Action (EA). (Believe me, if they had ED, I would be the first to apply).
EA is fundamentally different than ED in many ways, but let’s talk about their similarities first:
Now for the major differences, and there are a few key ones.
First, it is NOT BINDING! This means that even if you are accepted during the EA cycle, you are not required to enroll immediately, like in ED - you can wait until the RD commitment date of May 1st to make a decision on whether you want to attend.
This is huge in that you get the best of both worlds - you still receive your admissions decision early (and get that weight off of your shoulders if you’re accepted) and you can still compare financial aid offers once you hear back from your other EA or RD colleges.
Now, you might have realized I have been saying “other EA”. I say this because while ED is binding (and you can therefore only apply to one college ED), EA is non-binding, and therefore you can apply to as many schools as you want that have the EA option. This is obviously the optimal scenario - you get your decisions earlier while not having to make a decision yourself.
However, there are a few times when you cannot apply to multiple Early Action schools. This is when one of your school has a Restrictive or Single Choice Early Action (REA or SCEA) policy in place. In this case, you can only apply to that one college through EA, and not any others, even though it is non-binding.
For example, Princeton is REA. This means if I apply to Princeton EA (which I am doing) I cannot apply to, let’s say, Northeastern EA. But… because of the way that Princeton’s EA policy works specifically, I can still apply to public schools EA, and so I am applying to Rutgers through EA. (Different schools have different EA policies, definitely make sure with each specific institution.)
Because EA is non-binding, it also does not affect your admissions chances that much, for better or for worse. The ones that are non-restrictive almost definitely have no advantage to applying EA in terms of your chances of getting in, but the benefit of applying REA/SCEA has been debated.
In the numbers, there is some increase in terms of admission rates, but which can mostly be attributed to again, the overall excellence of the early action applicants, legacies, athletes, and other cases. However, because it is restrictive, you are still showing the university some commitment, so there might be a minor advantage there. But to be honest, there’s very little advantage in admissions to applying EA. But because REA/SCEA are usually only in very very top-tier universities (like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford) many choose to apply early because their applications are being read earlier and may have a bigger impact on admissions officers and it may be the only way to stand out. (For me, applying REA to Princeton was a no-brainer, even it gives me a .001% greater chance of getting in, I’ll take it).
My recommendation is to apply to as many schools EA as possible (even if that means having to finish your essays earlier) because there is no feeling like receiving an acceptance in the wintertime (sadly, not speaking from experience...yet). Of course, if you choose to apply to an REA/SCEA school you don’t have the luxury of applying to many, but definitely still apply early action.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
Now that you know the benefits and drawbacks of applying as different early application options, it is your turn to decide whether or not to apply early. Deciding to apply early decision (ED) is definitely the tougher decision of the two, but it also leads to more rewards. Just remember to consider everything before you make the decision, and to keep RD applications ready just in case of a rejection. Good luck!
And as always, thanks for reading!