Applying Early to College
Applying Early to College /

Some colleges and universities allow you to apply early in the first semester of your senior year so that you can receive an admissions decision ahead of other students. Decisions typically come near the end of the fall semester or at the beginning of the spring semester. Many students are drawn to early admission when they notice higher acceptance rates among early applicants. However, it’s important to note that not all early admission programs are the same, so consider your options before making a decision.

What is Early Decision Admission (ED)?

ED is a legally-binding agreement with an institution that requires you to attend if you receive an offer of acceptance. You can only apply to one school for ED, though you can continue to apply to other schools regular decision. However, you must withdraw all regular decision applications upon notification of acceptance to your ED school. Students should only apply early decision to a school if they are certain that it is their top choice after thoroughly researching all other options.

  • Note: Many elite universities have discontinued their ED programs following complaints that ED gives an unfair advantage to affluent families. Due to the nature of early decision, admitted students do not have a chance to compare their ED financial aid package to other regular decision offers in the spring. This can pose a major problem for low-income families. On rare occasions, a school to which a student has been offered acceptance through ED will allow them to break their commitment if they are able to provide substantial evidence that their financial aid package is insufficient. Immediately contact the school’s financial aid office if you have a concern about your ED offer. They may be able to provide you with more scholarship money or financial aid, but it is not guaranteed.

What is Early Action Admission (EA)?

Unlike early decision, early action is not a binding agreement. Like early decision, you will receive an admissions decision early in the second semester of your senior year. Students are encouraged to apply EA if they do not need their first semester senior year to boost an otherwise lackluster application. If your GPA, test scores, or extracurricular activities could use a little help, consider waiting to apply to your top schools regular decision. Otherwise, go for it! If you are waitlisted during the early action period, your application will automatically have a second chance for consideration in the regular decision applicant pool.

It’s tempting to accept an EA offer in the winter to avoid the stress of applying to other schools with regular decision. But, there are no consequences of waiting to make a decision. It’s best to consider your EA offer along with others made to you in the spring by the schools to which you applied regular decision. Take time to compare financial aid packages and visit any campuses you haven’t seen to make sure you make the most thoughtful, informed decision.

What is Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA)?

As the name suggests, single-choice early action is similar to EA in that it is a nonbinding agreement. However, schools with this admissions option will not allow you to apply to other schools early. You can still apply to other colleges regular decision. It’s important to take your commitment to your SCEA school seriously. Institutions with early admission programs often share their lists of admitted students with each other. If you apply SCEA to one school and they find out you’ve been admitted early to other schools, they can rescind your admissions offer and may persuade other colleges to do the same.

What are Instant Decision Days?

There are a few schools that have designated days for prospective students to meet with admissions officers and walk away with admissions decisions the same day. Some colleges host these days on campus; prospective students arrive with all their application materials and meet with an admissions officer who will then offer an admissions decision at the end of an interview. Other colleges send admissions officers to high schools and meet with prospective students on their home turf. (Colleges may also visit community colleges for Instant Decision Days in an attempt to recruit transfer students.) Some schools require students to submit a brief application online to be prescreened by admissions personnel before they’re invited to participate in an instant decision day.

This opportunity is great for charismatic students who are prepared to answer tough questions about their academic and exam history. For students who do not interview well, it’s fine to let your application speak for itself and decline the opportunity to attend an Instant Decision Day. Note that students generally are not offered financial aid packages with their admissions decision; these come later after students have filled out the FAFSA and colleges have time to review the results.

What are the benefits of applying early?

  • You could get into your dream school on the first try and not have to worry about anything else!
  • You don’t have to wait as long for an admissions decision, which can lower your stress level.
  • You can save money on application fees by only applying to one school.
  • If you are not accepted at your early decision, early action, and single-choice early action schools, you have time to apply regular decision at other institutions.

What are the drawbacks of applying early?

  • If you are accepted early decision, you cannot change your mind about attending an institution.
  • If you are accepted early decision, you will not get a chance to compare your financial aid package with those offered to you by other institutions.
  • Committing to early decision, early action, and single-choice early action applications can put pressure on you to make a decision on where to apply before you’ve explored all your options.
  • If you are not accepted at your early decision, early action, and single-choice early action schools, you still have time to apply to other colleges. However, you will have to do it faster than if you’d applied regular decision from the beginning.
  • If your grades drop during your second semester of senior year, colleges may rescind your admissions offer.

Remember, you are not obligated to apply early to any schools. This is an option if you have a dream school and know you won’t regret committing early (early decision) or if you are pretty confident that there’s one school you’d like to attend over your other options (early action or single-choice early action). If you need more time to make decisions, weigh your options, and complete your applications, there is no harm in applying regular decision to every school on your list.

Page last updated: 05/2019