MAR 11, 2020 • 6 min read
It can be an enormous advantage to apply to college early—in doing so, you show your passion for the school and your ability to get applications completed and submitted before your peers. You may be rewarded with early relief and a weight off your mind! It’s never a bad idea to apply early, but be mindful that you will need to be more prepared and understand the implications associated with this path.
First, there is a difference between ‘early decision’ and ‘early action’. Early decision plans are binding and commit you to attending that college, should you be accepted. They want to be sure that you are going to go there, and this is part of their calculation in granting you admission before your peers. Early action, on the other hand, results in non-binding places (in other words, you are admitted early but not required to attend), allowing you to wait to decide until the usual date (typically on May 1st). It is important to understand the difference between the two plans.
With colleges more uncertain of their ‘yield’ (the percentage of accepted students who actually attend) than they have been in the past, early application has become more important as a way for colleges to consolidate a portion of the cohort early. The yield rate for early decisions (binding) is 87%, as opposed to the usual yield rate of 35%. Early applications also allow colleges to more accurately predict their student numbers for the upcoming fall before their fellow institutions, allowing them to better prepare.
As many as 450 colleges offer these early decision plans, and many offer both early decision and early action. The main – and very important – drawback with early decision plans is that they don’t work well for students who need financial aid, as colleges are essentially never able to tell you your options ahead of time; this means that the student in need of financial aid cannot make an educated decision about their ability to pay, even though they’ve been admitted early. That gives an unfair advantage to students from wealthier families.
Students who do decide to apply for early acceptance should have a few things sorted. First, they should have researched the colleges they want to apply for extensively – as they will be putting in an early application for the place(s) they know they really want to go. Sure of their choice, they should be a good match for the college – socially, academically or otherwise. The applicant should meet or exceed the college’s profile for SAT scores, GPA and class rank, and ideally have a solid academic record, that has been proven over time.
If that’s you, there are a few benefits to early applications:
You spend less time waiting for a decision than your peers, as you’ll typically hear sometime in November. Additionally, you tend to be applying to fewer colleges, so you’re on the hook for fewer responses than your peers.
On this last point, because early applicants tend to apply to fewer colleges, they are spending less time and money on each individual application. Not only does this free you up financially, it also means you have the latitude to pour your energy into that top application and really nail it.
If you are lucky enough to get in and know where you’re going before your peers, you have more time to sort things out before heading off to college – whether this means sorting out housing, preparing for your courses, or making the big move, it ought to be helpful.
If you don’t get into the college of your choice, the good news is that you haven’t lost all that much: you still have all that time ahead of you to root out another chosen destination, and this time you have the experience of the early application to propel you forward.
Some colleges may practice different admissions standards when considering early applicants, though it is wise to check this out on a college by college basis. However, because early applicants tend to have stronger profiles (and therefore confidence in applying early) it does seem that early application correlates with higher acceptance rates. That doesn’t actually mean you are more likely to be admitted; it means that better students apply early, and better students are more likely to be admitted. Nevertheless, why not include yourself in that better group? Always a good thing to do.
A few important reminders: you may only apply for early decision at one school. You may apply for non-binding early action at multiple schools (as long as their stated policies allow it). You may apply for binding early decision and non-binding early action at the same time, but if you are admitted to the binding program, then you must attend. Finally, do not place all your eggs in an early decision or early action basket—simply because you’ve submitted an app does not mean you’ll be accepted, so don’t stop working on your other college applications until you’ve actually received an acceptance that you’re satisfied wi