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How to Decide Where to Apply Early

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Imagine knowing exactly where you’ll be attending college before some of your peers have even submitted their applications. Sounds great, right?


That’s the draw of applying early to college: if everything goes according to plan, you have a chance to be accepted to your chosen school a good six months before you graduate from high school.


Applying early can benefit you in other ways as well. Spreading out the timing of your various college applications can help you manage the workload, and if you’ve prepared one early application, you’ve already done a great deal of work toward your applications for other colleges. Additionally, at many schools, acceptance rates in the early application round(s) are substantially higher than in the normal admission round.


This is not to say that early application programs don’t have any downsides. Many students don’t have a clear first choice, aren’t comfortable with the restrictive terms of certain early application programs (which we’ll go over later), or simply aren’t ready to submit a complete application that early. However, applying early to at least one college is definitely something that you should consider as you contemplate your strategy for college application season.


The question remains: where should you apply early? There are a few major factors you should keep in mind when making a decision as to where to submit an early application. Read on for more information about the important distinctions between Early Action and Early Decision programs, the benefits of applying early, and how to choose the best early application school for your situation.


Early Application Logistics


For the typical early application program, you’ll submit your application in November of your senior year of high school. (We’ll go over some variations on this timeline below.) This includes not only the application itself, but supporting documents such as your test scores, transcripts, and recommendations. Clearly, you’ll need to do some advance planning in order to make sure that everything is ready in time.


Early applicants generally find out about their admissions decisions in December, at which point they may be accepted, rejected, or deferred. Applicants who are deferred will be reconsidered for admission in the general applicant pool, and won’t receive a final decision until late March or early April. (For more details on what deferral means for you as an applicant at certain schools, check out the individual school profiles on the CollegeVine blog.)


As we mentioned above, early application programs come in two basic types: Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA).  ED programs are binding, meaning that in order to utilize them, you must sign an agreement stating that you will attend the college if you’re admitted. ED programs are also single-choice, meaning that if you apply ED to one school, you’re not permitted to apply to any other schools in the ED round, whether those schools have ED policies or EA policies.


Each school you apply to will only offer one type of early application, ED or EA. However, there are variations on these types. For example, some schools offer a second round of ED, known as ED II. Since this round doesn’t overlap with the ED or EA rounds, you can apply to one school in the ED II round regardless of what you did in the first round of early applications.


EA programs also have variations. Some schools, including high-profile examples like Harvard University, offer EA programs that are known as Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) or Restrictive Early Action (REA). Like all EA programs, SCEA and REA programs are not binding, meaning that you are not contractually obligated to attend if you’re admitted. However, SCEA and REA programs are single-choice, so if you apply to one of these particular EA programs, you’ll have to pick just one.


Deadlines may be different from school to school, so you’ll need to carefully research the particular school you’re applying to and its policies before you make the decision to apply early. No two schools are exactly alike. Since breaking the rules of an early application agreement could mean risking your admission being rescinded, you should take these policies seriously.


Now that we’ve covered the basic logistics of what it means to apply early, we’ll offer some advice on how to decide which of your college options might benefit most from an early application.


Considering EA vs. ED Timelines


The first thing you’ll need to find out about your early application candidates is whether they accept early applications at all— some schools, such as the University of Southern California, simply don’t have an early application program. The second thing you’ll need to find out is whether your candidate schools have Early Decision programs or Early Action programs.


The main difference between ED and EA programs, as we’ve mentioned, is that ED programs are binding. ED agreements are taken quite seriously, and if you try to circumvent your contract, that can have negative consequences not only for you, but for future applicants from your high school who might be regarded more warily by that school’s admissions committee.


How you’ll be paying for college is also something you should consider when you’re thinking about applying ED. While applying early doesn’t change your financial aid eligibility, participating in a binding ED program means that you won’t have a chance to compare financial aid offers from different schools before deciding where to attend. (If you’re accepted ED to a school that simply doesn’t offer you enough financial aid to attend, however, you’ll likely be able to get out of your ED contract.)


EA programs, on the other hand, don’t require you to make a binding commitment. If you apply to a college in the EA round and are accepted, you’ll be able to apply to other colleges in the RD round and compare admission and financial aid offers before making a final decision.


Clearly, ED and EA differ widely in the degree of commitment they require. If a college you’re interested in offers early applications through an ED program, applying early to that school means making a major decision that you can’t reverse; if you’re accepted, you’ll generally have to attend the college for at least a year before you can even apply to transfer to a different college.  


As you can see, ED programs are not for everyone, and it’s not a good idea to apply ED just for the sake of applying early somewhere. Applying ED is really only appropriate for people who are very confident that they are a good match for and will be happy at that particular school. The bottom line is that if you aren’t feeling sure about a school that has an ED program, don’t apply early to that school.


For colleges with EA programs, the stakes are lower. Since EA isn’t binding, and many EA programs aren’t even single-choice, applying to one school EA has a minimal impact upon your ability to apply to other schools. If you’re willing to put in the work to prepare an EA application, it’s unlikely to hurt your overall application strategy in any way, and you’ll have a chance to compare offers and change your mind later.


Applying EA is appropriate in a greater range of situations than applying ED, though applicants should still remember that SCEA and REA programs will expect you to only apply early to one school. If you feel that you’re ready to submit an application early in your senior year, and especially if you have a strong preference for one school, applying EA may be a great option for you.


Acceptance Rate Benefits


Another factor to take into account when you’re deciding where to apply early is that acceptance rates are typically higher in the early application rounds. While this is welcome news no matter where you apply, it’s also a factor that you can also use strategically when planning out your applications. The early-application boost won’t turn a long shot into a sure thing by any means, particularly at the most competitive schools, but it may give you an edge that you wouldn’t otherwise have.


If you look at the data, it’s true across the board that a higher percentage of applicants are admitted in early application rounds than in the regular admission round. For example, at present, Dartmouth College’s acceptance rate for first-year applicants who apply in the RD round is about 10%. However, Dartmouth’s acceptance rate for applicants in its ED program is much higher, at about 28%.


The same goes for schools with EA programs. Tulane University has an RD acceptance rate of about 14%, but its EA acceptance rate is about 39%. Harvard University, which recently got rid of its ED program and later introduced a single-choice EA program, only accepts about 3% of applicants in the RD round, but accepts around 21% of applicants in its EA round.


You get the picture: sometimes, there’s a major difference between early acceptance rates and regular acceptance rates. The difference varies from school to school, which is something you’ll want to take into account when planning your application strategy— applying early gives you a greater advantage at some schools than others.


Will applying early increase your personal chances of being admitted to a certain college? It’s hard to say. Admissions offices at most schools tell applicants that the admissions committee strives to make the same decisions regarding early applicants as they would have made had those applicants been in the RD round. Also, of course, if your application just isn’t competitive within the pool of students applying to a certain college, applying early won’t make much of a difference.


However, especially given that many competitive colleges get far more qualified applicants than they can accept, applying early certainly can’t hurt your admissions chances. For one thing, the early applicant pool is usually considerably smaller than the regular applicant pool, giving you a better chance to stand out and be recognized.


In addition, applying early can be a way of showing that you’re committed to and enthusiastic about a particular school. This may not be a quantifiable factor in how your admissions decision is made, but colleges certainly prefer applicants who appear genuinely interested and excited about becoming part of the community.


On the flip side, if you’re already quite sure that you can get into a given college either way, applying early doesn’t present you with any particular admissions benefit over applying in the RD round. You might want to apply early to a school like this just to get it out of the way and have an acceptance under your belt, but you certainly shouldn’t prioritize a school like this when deciding where to apply early.


Having a Strong First Choice


There’s one more very good reason to apply early to a particular college: if that college is far and away your top choice, and you’re pretty confident that you’ll be admitted, applying early can save you a great deal of time and stress.


As we at CollegeVine know all too well, there is a considerable amount of work involved in applying to the number of colleges high school students do these days. Even with innovations like online applications and the Common App system, which make data entry faster and minimize excessive duplication, you’ll still be responsible for handling a great deal of information and making sure it gets to the right places at the right times.


If the college application process is causing you a lot of stress, you’re far from alone; it can be quite difficult to imagine that your future rests in your own hands. In fact, that’s the very reason why CollegeVine exists: to help students manage the high-stakes, high-stress application process as successfully as possible.


As we addressed above, it’s not a good idea to apply early to a college just for the sake of applying early somewhere and avoiding paperwork and stress. Nor is it wise to apply early just because your friends and classmates are doing so. However, if you’re very sure about your college plans, both in terms of where you want to be and where you’re likely to be accepted, applying early can lead to a good outcome while letting you avoid some amount of stress.


Since application deadlines vary for different schools, whether in the early application round(s) or in the RD round, you’ll need to be careful about how you schedule your time if you take this route. Technically speaking, for many schools, you should hear back about your early application and your admissions decision before you need to submit applications to other colleges. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to wait until after early admission decisions come out to submit your other applications.


We at CollegeVine always advise you to get started on all your applications early, whether or not you’re applying early to one or more schools. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re not accepted in the early application round and you have only a few days to gather materials for your other applications.


However, applying early to a school you’re sure is a good fit for you can still take some of the weight off your shoulders. If you’re accepted ED, or if you’re accepted EA and decide immediately to attend, you won’t necessarily have to send all your supporting documents to all the other schools you would have applied to. Most importantly, if you’ve already been accepted EA at a school you love, it’ll be much easier to handle the often difficult prospect of hearing back from your other college choices.


Applying early isn’t the right choice for every applicant, but if you can put forward a competitive application early in your senior year, it’s certainly something worth considering. Figuring out which school fits best into your early application slot, however, can be a challenge, and you’ll definitely need to do some thinking about what your priorities are in the college application process and how an early application could help you achieve your goals. We at CollegeVine hope this post will help clarify some of the factors you should consider.


Do you need more help deciding where to apply early? Are other application issues stressing you out? CollegeVine can help. Our admissions experts can provide services ranging from help with writing essays to tutoring for standardized tests to assistance in planning out your application strategy. 


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.