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Applying Early to College: What Parents and Students Need to Know

It’s college application season and across the United States, thousands of students are wondering: should I apply early to college, especially if it’s the school of my dreams?

But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer about applying early to college, say Vining Morgan and Jon Reider, co-authors of Admission Matters. Here’s what early applicants need to know:

Applying early to college—Here’s what you need to know

1. Applying early to college means you will need to complete your application by November 1.

If you need the fall to boost your GPA or test scores, then applying early may not be the right choice.

2. Understand the difference between Early Decision and Early Action.

While both ED and EA will give your student an earlier admissions decision (typically mid-December), they are not the same. Here are the important differences between Early Decision and Early Action.


Early Decision is what’s known as a binding admissions offer. This means that by applying ED, your student is making a commitment to attend that institution if he’s admitted. This is a legally binding agreement (and you will have to sign forms agreeing to all this before your student can apply ED).

Your student must agree not to apply anywhere else ED; not to apply anywhere else regular decision (if admitted to his ED school); and to withdraw any applications already submitted (if admitted). In other words, your student should really want to go to the ED school. You may lose a hefty deposit if he changes his mind.

ED admission decisions tend to come around mid-December and offers of ED admission must be accepted around mid-January. Depending on the school, ED students not accepted for admission will be either rejected outright or deferred to the general applicant pool (the regular decision crowd).


In contrast, Early Action (EA) is not binding. You can apply to multiple schools EA and if you’re “rejected,” then you will automatically be deferred for consideration with the general applicants. You also have until May 1 to accept an EA offer.

The other advantage with Early Action college applications is that you can compare financial aid offers from multiple schools (because you’re allowed to apply to multiple schools under EA) and can also use those offers to negotiate a better award for your student (Note: if your student gets a higher award from a comparable—or more selective—school, you may be able to get your first-choice school to match that award).

3. If you need financial aid, ask questions before applying ED.

Early Decision offers of admission often come before financial aid awards. You may be in the position of having to accept an ED offer without know exactly how much money your student will receive. This can put families who need a certain amount of financial aid to make the ED school affordable in a bind. Here’s what those families need to know:

Make sure you will get a financial aid offer at the same time as the ED offer. Many schools are willing and able to make financial aid awards at the time of ED admission. If you will need financial aid to afford an ED school, call that school’s financial aid office. Inquire about when awards are made for ED students.

It’s hard to negotiate an ED financial aid award. There is another downside of ED vis a vis financial aid. Families lose any opportunity to use competing financial aid offers from other colleges to their advantage (as noted earlier, by asking a first-choice school to match another school’s offer, for example).

Make sure you can turn down an ED offer if the school is not affordable. At many schools families are able to decline an ED acceptance if the financial aid offer is not enough to make the institution affordable. Make sure you understand the terms under which a school will agree it’s not affordable for your family (your view of that may differ from the school’s).

4. There are lots of flavors of early admission.

There are now many options for applying early to college. Some schools have two (or even three) sets of ED deadlines (ED I, ED II, etc.). Others are now offering an option called single-choice Early Action, which is a hybrid. Like Early Decision, you are committing to that school if accepted, but if you are “rejected,” you will still be deferred (like the regular Early Action process).

Whichever version you pick, make sure you know what you’re agreeing to before applying.

5. Early decision can give some students’ applications an edge.

“Why? Very simply, colleges like competitive students (i.e., those with strong academic credentials) who like them and who are willing to commit to being members of the incoming freshman class,” says Reider. And many schools are now filling up to a big percentage of their freshman class through early decision programs, making it even more tempting to apply ED.

6.  But it’s not a magic bullet.

Yes, ED/EA can help some students over the finish line. But realistically, your student must be basically qualified to go to that school. If your academic credentials aren’t within striking distance for that institution, then ED/EA will not help. You may be throwing away the opportunity to apply to a school where applying early will actually help you gain admission. In other words, ED offers a bit of an edge, but it’s not a magic bullet to gain entry to an institution for which you’re really not qualified.

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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