As we firmly settle in to another school year, high school students everywhere are re-focusing their attentions from summer fun to college aspirations. Along with these dreams comes the strategizing necessary to stand out in the competitive applications process. One such strategy worth considering is applying to college early. But what does applying early mean exactly? What does it entail? Below, we’ve answered a few of the most fundamental questions concerning early applications in the hopes of helping you suss out whether this decision is right for YOU. 

1 — What does it mean to apply to college early?

There are two main ways to apply to college early. They are called Early Decision and Early Action. In both cases, applicants apply earlier in the application cycle (typically in November) than do other students, and they receive a decision earlier in the application process, as well.

2 — What is the difference between Early Decision and Early Action?

The primary difference between Early Decision and Early Action is that Early Decision applications are binding and Early Action applications are non-binding.

This means that if a student applies to a school under Early Decision and is accepted, they must commit to attending that school. If they applied to other schools with regular deadlines, they must withdraw those applications. Since Early Decision comes with this understanding of commitment, students may only apply to one school per year under Early Decision. However, if they are not accepted by a particular school during a given application cycle, they may re-apply to that school the following year.

Since Early Action applications are non-binding, students are not required to commit to any schools to which they’ve been accepted. They may also apply to multiple schools under Early Action.

3 — What are the advantages of applying to college early?

  • Applying either under Early Decision or Early Action displays your investment/seriousness in a school. Especially since Early Decision applications come with the understanding of a commitment, applying Early Decision may give your application an advantage over others in the stack.

  • Applying early to college may improve your chances of acceptance. Research shows that students have a better chance of acceptance if they apply either Early Decision or Early Action. However, the level of that advantage varies. This is due, in part, to the fact that not all colleges and universities use the same early application processes. So, it is best that applicants do their research, inquire about individual institutions’ processes, and assess whether Early Decision or Early Action is appropriate for them.

  • If a student is not accepted to a given school, the early rejection that comes with having applied early gives them sufficient time to look elsewhere for a good fit.

  • If a student is accepted early to a given school, it can reduce the stress that often comes with the application process. There will be no need to put in the time, effort, and money of applying to additional schools. But beware senioritis! Sometimes, students who are accepted early feel as though no work is left to be done in high school and let their grades slip. It’s important to know that colleges can withdraw their offers if students allow their grades to slip during their senior year.

  • If a student is accepted early, it can give them a head-start on familiarizing themselves with their new school before their arrival.

4 — What else should I consider about applying early?

Timing — Naturally, since Early Decision or Early Action application dates arrive a few months before regular application dates, students will need to prepare all of their materials a few months sooner. This includes asking for letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, and other mentors a few months sooner.

Finances — Students who apply Early Decision typically receive their financial aid offer at the same time that they receive their offer of admission. Sometimes, though, the financial aid offer isn’t received until after the admissions offer. This means that students can be placed in the position of making a binding decision without having a clear picture of their aid package, or of not being able to compare packages with other schools before deciding. For many students, finances play a big part in their college decision-making process, and such uncertainty can be a real hindrance. 

5 — When are the due dates for Early Decision and Early Action applications this year?

Typically, the deadline for Early Decision and Early Action applications is either November 1st or November 15th each year (depending on the school), although some schools have deadlines as late as December 1st. Decisions typically then arrive in December (for Early Decision) and January or February (for Early Action).

Beyond these general due dates, however, Early Decision and Early Action policies all differ from institution to institution. So, be sure to research the policies of the schools to which you’re applying to ensure that you don’t miss out on any opportunities!

6 — Is applying early to college right for ME?

Still unsure if applying early is right for you? Consult this helpful document (PDF) from The College Board, which includes both a list of “Pros and Cons of Applying to College Early” and an “Early Decision Self-Evaluation Questionnaire.”


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