written by
Zoë Edington

Early Action, Early Decision, and more: So, when should I apply to college?

Admissions Tips 6 min read
Image of physical calendar to help with planning when to apply to college
Image: Calendar to help track deadlines | Photographer: Eric Rothermel | Source: Unsplash

So it’s time for you to seriously think about applying to college, and you’re starting to plan out your timeline. There are a lot of factors to keep track of when finalizing your college application schedule— deadlines for various schools, getting letters of recommendation, writing personal statements, and more.

And another factor that may not be on your radar, but could have a huge impact on your future, is when you submit your application. Choosing to apply early action, early decision, or regular decision can not only result in you receiving a decision letter sooner, but also increase your chances of being accepted into a school. If you're applying to colleges this application season, keep on reading below for our tips on when to apply. (P.S. those application dates may be sooner than you think!)

First, let’s start with the basics…

What's Regular Decision?

Most often when students think about applying to college, they are probably thinking of regular decision. Regular decision is the “normal” college application process in which students submit their applications by the college’s regular deadline (usually in late December or early January) and receive their decision letter in the spring (usually in March or April). This process involves submitting individual applications, personal statements, academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, and any other documents that a college may require.

Regular decision does not involve any additional steps. Apart from submitting their applications on time, students will only have to make sure that they select “Regular Decision” in the drop-down menu on the Common App.

So, what's all this "Early" talk?

Applying "early" involves students submitting their applications in the fall (usually early November) and receiving their decision letters within a few weeks (around mid-December). In addition to all of the components required to apply as regular decision, students may have to write additional essays or explain why they're choosing to apply early to the school of their choice.

What's the difference between Early Decision vs. Early Action?

The big differentiating factor is that early decision is binding. This means that if you apply early decision and are accepted, then you'll have to accept the offer by New Year’s Eve or risk being rejected by the school. While it's exciting to find out early on that you've been accepted to your dream college, it's important to remember that the binding policy means that you will not be able to compare financial aid offers in the spring when other colleges send out their decision letters.

Whereas the early action option is less strict, so if you apply early action and are accepted, you can wait and compare offers before making a final choice. However, not all schools offer early action.

Okay, what about Rolling Admissions?

Rolling admission is the most flexible option because it allows students to apply anytime within a large window, and the window will not close until the incoming class is full. Not only do students have a longer amount of time to submit their applications, but they will also receive a decision letter as soon as the school makes a decision.

Let's chat through the advantages and disadvantages of applying to college early

The main advantage is that you increase your chances of being accepted to your dream school. Selecting “early decision/early action” on the Common App tells the college that you're serious about attending the school and doing everything possible to have the honor of joining their community. Because of the extra work that students put in during this application process, the acceptance rate for early decision usually increases by 1‒2%.

Another major benefit is that you can have peace of mind after finally applying to your number one choice! If you’re reading this post now, then you’ve probably been researching the college application process and have realized that it's stressful to say the least. Getting at least one application out of the way could drastically reduce your stress levels (and increase your excitement about what's ahead!).

As stated earlier, the main disadvantage of applying early decision is the binding factor. By submitting your application via the early decision option, you're agreeing to attend if admitted. Although it may be possible to request more time, it's unlikely that a school will make many exceptions.

Student looking lost in the maze
Image: Student feeling a bit lost about which path to take | Photographer: Burst | Source: Unsplash

So, what are the things to keep in mind if applying early?

1. It's not mandatory

If you find that early decision/early action is not for you, that is perfectly fine. This process is entirely optional, so applying in December or January under regular decision may be the best option.

2. Not all schools do it

Different schools have different early application policies (or maybe none at all), so it's important that you do your research when applying.

3. There are different types of early decision

If you've already done some research, then you may have noticed that some schools have various deadlines listed as “Early Decision I” and “Early Decision II.” The deadlines are different to give students more time to gather their application components or re-take standardized tests to increase their chances of being accepted. You should understand the requirements and deadlines of each option before deciding which is best for you.

4. You can usually only apply early to one school

Applying early is the chance for students to give their best shot at their top choice school, so this opportunity is limited to only academic institution. Because of this, you want to be sure the school you're applying to is one you could really see yourself happy at.

While it's possible that students may be allowed to apply early action to one school and early decision to another, policies vary depending on the institution (for example, some schools may have a “restrictive early action” policy which allows students to apply early action to only one private school, but they can also apply early action to public school). Again, you’ll have to do your research.

5. It may not make a difference in the end

While all the benefits of applying early may seem encouraging, it's worth mentioning that this process may not affect the outcome of the college’s decision letter at all. It's still common for colleges to reject students who apply early (or you may be like me and receive a letter of deferral).

Alright, so should you apply early?!

The decision is up to you! Regardless of what anyone says, the decision to apply through early decision or early action is entirely yours. After doing your research, only you can make the best decision for you.

Just one more word of advice

Even if you don’t officially apply early decision or early action, you should still submit your applications as soon as you can. Advantages of this include not only lightening your workload during your senior year, but also increasing the chances of having interviews with alumni. During my senior year, I completed all of my applications in August and within weeks I was contacted by alumni from ten different schools who were willing to interview me.

Regardless of what you decide to do, please don’t overthink this option too much. At the end of the day all you can do is put your best foot forward, be patient, and enjoy the rest of your high school journey!

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