It’s October, which means Early Application deadlines for college admission are fast approaching. While most schools don’t require Regular Decision applications until January 1st, Early Application deadlines fall earlier (hence the name), typically on November 1st. If you’re reading this post at the time of its publication, that means you only have a couple of weeks.
Below I’ll be discussing what early applications mean, and why you should or should not apply early (Spoilers: You probably should).
There are several types of early applications, so let’s first look at what each of these entail:
Pros: Find out early, better chance of admittance
Cons: Less time to prepare, committed to one school
Applying Early Decision to a school means you’re committing to attend that school if you get in. While you can only apply ED to one place, you can still apply Early Action (see below) to others. However, if you’re admitted ED, you’re obligated to withdraw your other applications. Several schools that offer Early Decision are Columbia, Duke, Brown, and Cornell, but the majority of other colleges offer this as an option as well.
Early Decision II
Pros: Better chance of admittance, more time to prepare
Cons: Committed to one school (and have to withdraw all other applications)
Early Decision II is a recent trend that only a fraction of colleges have capitalized on so far. It’s essentially the same as Early Decision, where you commit to attending a school if you’re admitted, but its deadline is usually the same as for Regular Decision, so you lose some of the advantages that normally come with applying early. You do, however, find out your admittance status sooner than with RD. Some highly ranked schools that offer Early Decision II include University of Chicago, Vanderbilt, Emory, and Tufts.
Pros: Find out early, can apply to several schools/not committed to one
Cons: Less time to prepare, doesn’t boost chances much
Early Action is Early Decision without the commitment. You apply early, find out early, and don’t have to necessarily attend a school you’re admitted to through it. Few schools offer Early Action, but some that do include University of Chicago, Caltech, and University of Virginia.
Restrictive/Single-Choice Early Action
Pros: Find out early, not committed to one school
Cons: Less time to prepare, can only apply early to one (plus public schools)
Most schools that used to offer Early Action have switched to a Restrictive or Single-Choice Early Action system. What this means is that you can only apply early to that one school, but are not committed to enrolling there if you get in. For the majority of these schools, there is an exception that allows you to also apply to public universities early. Schools using the REA system include Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
Now that we have those definitions out of the way, let’s talk about the big question here: What does applying early actually mean for your application?
Why apply early?
There are several reasons you may want to apply early, though many depend on the specific type of Early Application.
The first and most obvious reason is that you find out earlier (with the exception of Early Decision II). This can be huge for relieving the stress of the application process. My students think I’m crazy when I say that senior year was one of my best years of high school, but it’s true. I applied Early Decision to Cornell University and learned I had been admitted on December 11th, three weeks before most Regular Decision deadlines. Because I was committed to Cornell, I didn’t have to send out any other applications or worry about the stress of getting into the schools on my list. If you are admitted Early Action or Restrictive Early Action, you may still want to send out other applications (just to see where else you get in), but you’ll have a huge weight off your shoulders as you do so, knowing that you’re already into at least one school. Conversely, if you’re rejected or deferred to the regular decision round of admission, it can tell you something about your application. Was the school you applied to more of a reach or a match school? If it’s the latter, you may want to lower your expectations and add a couple of safeties to your list. See this post to learn more about what makes a school a reach, safety, or match.
On top of finding out sooner, for many schools applying early can boost your chance of being admitted. Colleges love to deny this, and most admissions office websites will say that the early applicant pool has higher quality students in it as a result of self-selection (students who apply early are better prepared and know that they have a good shot of getting into the school they’re applying early to). However, it seems like a stretch for this alone to explain the wide margin between acceptance percentages for early decision applications vs. regular applications that span a range of schools (for early action, there is less of a gap, and the previous explanation makes more sense). Duke, for instance, had a 25% acceptance rate for ED students in 2016, but only a 7% acceptance rate for regular decision students (which balance out to an 11% acceptance rate overall). For Dartmouth, ED was 28% and RD was 9% (10% overall).
There are several factors in the admissions process which we think help explain this gap, but the key is that admissions officers are incentivized to accept more students early. This stems from the fact that there’s a huge amount of uncertainty in the admissions process, not just from the students’ point of view, but also from the officers’ as well. How many students will apply? How many can we let in? Of the students we admit, how many will attend? Are we their top choice? When you apply early decision, you remove some of that uncertainty. Because you’re committed to attending the school, they know you’ll enroll if they admit you. While yield is no longer counted toward a school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking (up until 2004 it was), colleges still care about this statistic, and letting students in early is a simple way to boost it. Plus, if they know a certain number of students are attending from the early round, they have fewer spots to offer during the regular round, which allows them to decrease their acceptance rate (and acceptance rate does count in the rankings).
The most important reason to apply early though is that it shows that you’re committed to a school. For our international students, this is a particularly crucial point, as many international students will apply indiscriminately to a huge number of schools without a clearly motivated first choice. With early decision, you signal to a school, “I want to go here,” and admissions officers appreciate that.
So what about Early Decision II? What’s the point of applying “Early” if you apply at the same time as Regular Decision? Well, ED2 might be useful if you have a first choice of the schools you’re applying to and didn’t have enough time to get an ED application together (see below for more on that). By selecting to apply ED2, you’re still telling a school that they’re your top choice. While you won’t receive the full boost of applying early (since by this point they will have chosen a number of members of the class), you’ll still have an edge since you’re committing to go there.
Applying early sounds pretty great, why would you not apply early?
There are three reasons you might not apply early:
The first and most common is that you don’t have a clear first choice. This primarily applies to Early Decision, since it’s the only one that actually binds you to a school. If you have several schools at the top of your list and can’t decide on any one of them, that may seem like a good reason not to apply ED. However, you will have to decide on one college sooner or later. By applying ED, you take back some of your agency in the admissions process because you make the decision about what school you want to attend (you just have to be ready for them to reject you) rather than letting the schools decide on your options.
Another reason not to apply early might be it doesn’t boost your chances at your first choice school. It can be difficult to track down early acceptance rates, but some schools we’ve found don’t offer a substantial increase to your chance of admittance are UVA, Georgetown, and Boston College. There are definitely others, but with these schools you might decide to wait until the regular round. Even so, you should still consider applying EA or REA to other schools on your list, since it’s not binding. To learn which schools offer which kind of early application, download our Full List here.
Lastly, but perhaps the best reason not to apply early is because you feel that your application will be significantly stronger in two months. Maybe you had a weak junior year and want to show colleges that you’re a better student now that you’re a senior. Maybe you’re building a Spike and it will be farther along in a few weeks. Maybe you’re planning to retake the ACT in December because your score is below the median for your top school. These probably won’t apply to the majority of students, but if any of these are the case, you should think seriously before making the decision to apply early. Otherwise, we’re all in favor of it. So stop reading and start working on your application today!