The short answer to this question is, YES. Apply early to college may give you an advantage in the admissions process because colleges want to admit qualified applicants that are excited to attend their institution.
The longer answer, however, depends on where you want to apply, how ready you are to commit to a school, and the type of student you are. But is early decision right for everyone? It depends on where you want to apply, how ready you are to commit to a school, and the type of student you are.
Today, applicants have a variety of deadlines and admissions types to choose from. But this wasn't always the case. Early decision is a relatively new phenomenon; it was first offered by a small group of elite New England colleges in the late-1950's, nearly two-hundred years after the first American university was chartered. These schools, which included Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Wesleyan and Williams, offered early admissions decisions to a small group of applicants who committed to attend if admitted. This enabled the colleges to compete with each other, attract top students, and admit applicants that they were confident would accept their offers and be enthusiastic members of the campus community.
Today, the majority of four-year colleges offer some type of early admission, and many offer a few different application deadlines and options for applicants, including early decision I and II, early action, and regular decision. In recent years, as applications to top colleges have swelled, schools have begun admitting a larger percentage of their incoming classes through early decision or early action because it helps them better predict yield (which is how many admitted students will actually attend). As a result, more and more students are choosing to apply early in an attempt to gain an admissions edge.
Applying early can be a great way to increase your chances of admission, especially at schools with low admission rates. Early decision is a way to get a school’s attention and lets the school know that they are your first choice. In return, the school will take a closer look at your application and, if you have the right grades and a good application, you will have a higher chance of admission than if you were to apply regular decision.
President and Chief Educational Consultant Laurie Kopp Weingarten of One-Stop College Counseling advises:
Each year, over 90 percent of my students apply Early Decision; it greatly increases their chances of acceptance at their first-choice college... I encourage my students to do so under most circumstances... Early Decision is a ‘sure thing’ for the colleges since the student has signed a contract agreeing to attend; colleges are running a business, and they highly value their Early Decision applicants. Students show the college their “love” by selecting ED, and the colleges reciprocate by giving them an extra-look and higher admit rates.
Even if you're not admitted early, applying early may help you get a better sense of how strong your application is. You may even get feedback that you can use for your applications or interviews to other colleges. Recent Carnegie Mellon graduate and former Wharton early decision hopeful, Shriya Boppana, highlights the importance of being a strong applicant when applying early vs regular:
As someone who was not accepted to my early decision first choice, I did get feedback from my interviewer on where I went wrong in the process. She stated that while I was very qualified, I was not an exciting candidate, as I had not done something that was typically unusual for someone my age. After getting that feedback, I realized that the main advantage of applying early was a chance to have a thorough vetting of my criteria for entrance. Now if there really is not much on your resume, as mine apparently was back in high school, that interview time plus extra research the school does on you, gives them a chance to dig deeper into you as a person and understand you a little better rather than just through a few test scores and an entrance essay. If you feel like everything you have to say can fit into a common application, early decision/action may not even be necessary.
Based on percentages of accepted students, many schools accept a higher percentage of students who apply early decision compared to students who apply regular decision. While this isn’t true for every school, the fact that it is common highlights that you will have a higher chance of being accepted early if you apply to certain schools.
If you apply to a school that accepts a large percentage of early applicants, you do have a higher chance of acceptance compared to your chance if you apply to the same school as a regular decision applicant.
Here's a look at comparisons of early acceptance rates to regular acceptance rates from a sample of popular colleges that students apply early to each year.
|School||Students Accepted Early||Students Accepted Regular|
|Carnegie Mellon University||25%||17%|
|University of Virginia||21.7%||23%|
For students who want to apply early without the commitment, early action may be a better option. Early decision is best suited for students who have one school that they are eager to attend, and early action is best suited for students who have more than one school they are going to apply to.
Early Decision (ED) is a binding commitment to attend the college you are applying to. When applying early decision, you only apply to one school and are committing to enrolling upon acceptance. With early decision, if the financial aid awarded is insufficient, you may break your commitment to attend.
Early Action (EA) is a non-binding early application. When applying early action you can apply to several schools and wait until you hear back from each before making your final decision.
Restrictive Early Action (REA) is non-binding as well. However, when applying restrictive early action, you apply early to only one school and cannot apply early under early decision or early action to any other private school. Most (if not all) universities that offer a restrictive early option do allow applicants to apply early action to public universities, since public universities are often the best financial option for students.
Can I apply early decision and early action?
Yes! If you apply to your first-choice as early decision, you can also apply to other schools early action, since early action is non-binding. But if you get admitted to your early decision school you must deny any early action offers from other schools.
Applying early is a big decision. It requires planning and preparation including bumping up your application timeline so that you can get your applications in by the early deadline in November. When thinking about applying early consider these things:
Are you prepared to commit to the school?
If you are applying early decision, your acceptance will be binding. You are committing to that school upon acceptance. If you aren’t completely sure you are dedicated to that school, applying early decision might not be for you. If you are sure that you want to apply early decision, applying to your top-choice school is the best method to ensure that you won’t have any doubt about your place at the school should you be accepted.
Do you have appropriate test scores?
Since you are applying in the fall of senior year, you should have a SAT/ACT scores and a GPA you’re happy with before November. This means that you should be sufficiently prepared with appropriate scores by October. If you aren’t satisfied with those scores and won’t be able to put your best foot forward for early applications, regular decision might be the better option for you.
When applying early, you will also apply for financial aid early. When you receive your acceptance letter you will also receive your financial aid offer. If you are accepted under early decision, but the financial aid offer is not sufficient you are allowed to break your commitment to enroll.
Early decision application and financial aid can get tricky. While students can back out of an early decision commitment for financial aid reasons, students will not be able to compare financial aid packets with other schools if they apply early decision since you only apply to one school for ED. You can, however, compare financial aid offers between schools you are accepted to through early action.
When it comes to merit-based aid and early decision, schools might not be incentivized to award merit aid to early decision students because the students have already expressed their intent to commit.
Independent education consultant Rachel Coleman of collegeessayeditor.com advises:
Do not accept an offer of admission to a school without first asking for additional merit scholarship money. It's entirely possible that the answer is no, and that's fine, but you lose your leverage if you accept the offer of admission without first asking for more money. Calling the admissions office and saying something along the lines of "If I receive $10,000 more in merit aid, my parents say I can send in my enrollment deposit today," will make the admissions officer consider the student's request seriously, and decide what's in their school's budget to get the student to a "yes" - which is their ultimate goal.
If you're still wondering if you should apply early, the answer is probably yes. More often than not, the benefits of applying early outweigh the risks. If you're not set on one school, look into schools that offer early action, which is not binding. Applying early decision is a great way to show a school that you're serious about attending and have made them your first priority. And, according to a sampling of early admission rates from popular universities, you do have a higher chance of being accepted by applying early!
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