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Applying To College Early: Are Early Admissions Programs It Worth It?

Most colleges now offer what’s called early admissions programs, where students can submit an application early (typically November 1) and receive a decision by mid-December. These programs are popular, and some schools are now filling as much as half of their incoming class with early applicants. Does applying to college early make sense for your student? Here’s what you need to know about the risks and benefits of early decision and early action.

Applying To College Early

There are two early admissions programs.

Early decision (ED) is a binding admissions program. This means that your student must attend that college if admitted and is not allowed to apply elsewhere. In contrast, early action (EA) is not binding. Your student is free to apply to other schools and gets until May 1 to decide where to go.

Early decision can give some students an edge.

“Colleges like competitive students who are willing to commit to being members of the incoming freshman class,” says Jon Reider, co-author of Admission Matters. But realistically, your student must be qualified for that school (or more than qualified, if it’s an elite college). If not, then ED will not help. (And you’ll have wasted the opportunity to use ED at a school where it would have helped). Note that EA provides less of an admissions edge, as schools recognize these offers are not binding.

If you need financial aid, do your homework before applying early decision.

Do the research to understand what the college will expect you to pay (see our article on page 29); call and confirm those numbers with the college’s financial aid office. Remember that if admitted ED, your student forfeits the chance to apply to other colleges, where he could get more aid. If your student is admitted early, you will receive a financial aid award at the time of acceptance. The only acceptable way out of the ED agreement is if your student truly can’t afford to go. (For example, your financial circumstances have changed dramatically since applying). For these reasons, it can make more sense for many students to apply EA (or wait to apply regular decision).

Early admission makes sense for some students (but not all).

It can be the right choice for students who are satisfied with their scores and grades and who just want to apply early (EA) or want the edge that ED, in particular, can offer. However, if your student wants to use the fall to improve his or her grades or ACT or SAT scores, then it’s best to wait to apply regular decision.