As you do your research into college application options, you’ll probably hear buzz about Early Decision (ED). This is an application plan that lets high school seniors apply in November (usually by November 1st or 15th) and receive a decision by December. Early Decision is a binding plan, meaning you can only apply ED to one college.
Applying ED to your top-choice school can seem like an appealing option. After all, if you’re accepted under an ED application, you can happily cross college admissions off your to-do list, focus on enjoying your senior year, and look forward to attending the school of your dreams in the fall. You may have heard about other benefits of applying ED, namely that it’s less selective than the Regular Decision (RD) cycle. But before you go ahead and apply ED, ask yourself the following questions:
Do you have a clear first choice college?
The most important thing to be aware of when it comes to ED is that it’s a binding agreement between a student and a college. If admitted, you will be obligated to attend; this means you must withdraw applications from all of the other institutions you’ve applied to. An ED application will require signatures from a parent and a college counselor from your school.
In order to determine whether a school is truly your number-one, you should visit the campus and spend some time there. Take a tour, get to know the student culture, sit in on a class or two, visit the dorms and the dining halls. If possible, stay on campus overnight as part of a high school visit program. If you know what you’re planning to major in, find out about the department that offers that major, and perhaps even talk to a professor or two. Does the school have a program for your intended major that excites you? Can you really picture yourself there? If you’re not sure, applying ED probably isn’t for you.
Are you strongly considering other schools?
Perhaps there are a few schools where you can imagine yourself thriving, and try as you might, you just can’t choose a single school as your first choice. That’s totally fine; however, you don’t want to end up locked into attending one particular school if there are others you know you’d like to consider. Keep in mind that senior year is often a time of rapid personal growth. Your goals, intended major, and even where you’d like to live can all change between November and May of your senior year. If keeping your options open is important to you, your application plan should reflect that.
Are you depending on improving your test scores or GPA in your senior year?
There is a possible boost in your likelihood of being admitted to your dream school with an ED application (last year, for example, Rice University admitted 16% of its ED applicants, compared to just 9.3% of its RD applicants). In spite of this, however, ED applications are very competitive. Simply put, you’ll need to submit as strong an application as possible. ED will not allow you to include your final grades for your fall semester of senior year, so if you are counting on your GPA improving in that time frame, ED is not for you. Similarly, if you are taking the SAT or ACT in November and counting on those scores as part of your strong application package, you’ll need to wait and submit Regular Decision (RD) applications to include those scores.
When will you be starting on your application?
ED is a good option for students who are prepared to submit a strong application package in November, a month or more before regular application deadlines. If gathering everything you need to apply will make you feel rushed and negatively impact the quality of your application, ED is not your best bet.
Do you need to compare financial aid packages?
Knowing how you and your family will pay for tuition and other costs is essential when deciding which college you’ll attend, and considering different financial aid and scholarship packages is a crucial part of the college admissions process for many students. If you’re admitted to a school under an ED application, however, you’re committing to the financial plan that accompanies the admission offer. Some schools will release students from early decision agreements if the aid package they’re offered is truly not enough to make attending economically feasible, but if aid is important to you, this probably isn’t a risk worth taking. If you’re positive that you’ll be comfortable with the financials of your ED school should you be admitted, great! But if you know you’ll want to weigh scholarship and aid offers from multiple schools before deciding, avoid the binding ED route.
Could you apply Early Action instead?
So you have some colleges you’re passionate about applying to, and want to get a jumpstart on your applications (while letting those colleges know that your interest is serious). If this is the case, check and see if these schools offer Early Action (EA) as an application plan.
Like ED, EA allows students to apply early (in November) and receive their decisions early (in December). Unlike ED, EA decisions aren’t binding, and students have until the regular May 1 deadline to make a final decision about which college to attend.
The bottom line? If you’re a high school senior with a definite top-choice college who’s prepared to submit a stellar application this November, you might be ready to apply ED.
If that’s the case, you should also know that ED applications will receive one of three decisions: admitted, denied, or deferred. If you’re denied, you cannot apply to the same school in the Regular Decision (RD) cycle. If you’re deferred, you’ll receive a response in the spring, when the RD decisions are sent out. If you are denied or deferred, you can apply EDII to a different school.
For more information on Early Action, EDII, and other early deadline options, see our recent guide, and stay tuned to the blog for more advice as you prepare your college applications and start to receive decisions!
Personalized advice on your college applications, including help deciding whether and where to apply ED, is available through our services at Expert Admissions.