What are the advantages of applying to college early?

College Admissions

Senior year looms. You have college applications on your mind--and you may be thinking about applying early. What you may not have on your mind, though, is a clear idea of what "applying early" really means: the differences between early action and early decision, when deadlines are, and what you should do to get yourself and your apps ready. That's where we come in.

So what are Early Action and Early Decision?

Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) are programs many colleges have in place that let you submit your college applications early (usually in November), and get an admissions decision early (usually by January). If you have done your research and know there are schools you would attend above all others, then EA and ED could be great options for you.

Be careful, though: Although they sound similar, each program has different rules. It is important that you become familiar with the specifics, so that you can meet the requirements of each program and submit the best application possible.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

With Early Decision, students apply to their first-choice school early and make a promise to attend if accepted. In a nutshell, ED programs are:
  1. Exclusive. You can only apply to one college via ED. You can still apply to other schools, but they all have to be via Regular Decision.
  2. Binding. If you apply to a college via ED and you get in, you have to go. You will also have to withdraw all other applications to all other schools.

Like ED, EA has earlier deadlines than regular decision programs. Also like ED, with EA you will get an admission decision much earlier than if you apply via Regular Decision. That’s where the similarities stop, though, and the differences begin.

EA programs are:

  1. Non-exclusive. With a few notable exceptions, you can apply to as many schools via EA as you want.
  2. Non-binding. If you get accepted via EA, you don’t have to attend that particular school. You also don’t have to withdraw all other college applications.
Here's a handy chart that will help you really get a good idea of what EA and ED are all about:

early action, early decision, applying to college, college admissions
(Click to enlarge)

ED programs are great for students who have a very clear first-choice school which they would attend above all others. EA programs are a good fit for students who have a few schools they would love to attend, but don’t have a clear front-runner.

Some Exceptions

Some schools don’t have a traditional early program. Yale University, for example, has a “Single Choice” Early Action program. Through this program, a student can apply to Yale via non-binding Early Action, but has to sign a statement saying they will not apply to any other schools via any early programs, either EA or ED.

Similarly, Stanford, Georgetown, and Boston College have “restrictive” EA programs where you can choose to apply via non-binding EA, but cannot apply to other schools via binding ED.

Other schools, like Emory, Vanderbilt, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, and Brandeis, have two ED deadlines (named ED1 and ED2), offering students a little more flexibility.

Who offers EA and ED?

In addition to the nine schools listed above, there are many, many other (as per the College Board, close to 450) schools which offer EA and ED programs for their applicants. For example, CalTech, MIT, University of Chicago, Notre Dame, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor all offer EA programs.

Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Wake Forest, and NYU, all offer ED programs.

All Ivy League schools offer an early program.

What should I do to have the best chance of getting in early?

You’re already in luck: Early applicants have a higher percentage of admission than regular applicants, mostly because early applicants are sending a very clear message to the Admissions Office—they are saying, “You’re school is my first choice!” Admissions officers want enthusiastic students, and early applicants are just that.

What else can you do?

  1. Make a calendar of important dates and deadlines. Tell your parents and your school counselor about the dates, too, and ask them help you keep them.
  2. Take your standardized tests early. Don’t leave the ACT or the SAT to the last minute. If you can’t get your scores to schools in time, your application will not be complete, and may not be considered.
  3. Ask for your teacher recommendations as soon as you get back to school. Teachers are busy, and will need time to complete this important part of your application. Don’t leave it to the last minute. The last thing you want in your application is a hastily-written recommendation—or worse, no recommendation at all.
  4. Start working on your application essays as soon as they become available (usually early September). You need to brainstorm, draft, and edit these essays carefully in order to present the best, most polished version of them possible. Don’t let a shadow be cast on your EA or ED application because of grammar or spelling mistakes! Take the time to carefully write and proof your essays, and they will only add value to your early application.
  5. Ask questions! Don’t let your fear of asking a question lead you to make wrong assumptions about your application.

Once you’ve submitted your applications, sit back and try to relax. One great aspect of the early application programs is that you will get a decision by January at the latest (although it can certainly seem like forever!). Focus on enjoying your last year of high school—you’ll be in college before you know it!


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