Is Early Decision Right for You?

One way to cut down your waiting time is to apply for an early decision—if the college offers it. But what trade-offs come with acceptance? And does the early bird really have a better chance of getting in?

An early decision application is due earlier than normal, usually in November or December. If you are accepted, your college plans will be settled by the time you leave for your winter break. So while the rest of your classmates sweat bullets over their applications and then wait for their decisions, you can relax.

The Early Decision Catch

You are allowed to apply for an early decision to only one college. If you are accepted by that school, you must attend it. You must withdraw all applications already submitted and may not apply elsewhere. There is only one exception to these rules. If the early decision school does not meet your financial need, even after you explain your financial situation, you are free to apply elsewhere.

Applying Early Decision Means You Are Committed

If the college is clearly your first choice, applying for an early decision might make sense. In fact, because you must enroll in the college if it accepts you, make that "utterly convinced" the college is your first choice. If you are a strong candidate for admission, this commitment may help your admissions chances. Admission rates for early decision candidates are generally higher than for students who apply regular decision. But not all colleges agree that applying for an early decision boosts students' chances. Instead, they attribute these higher admission rates to the fact that early applicants are often better qualified than regular applicants.

Early Decision vs. Early Action

About 10 percent of the four-year colleges featured on CollegeData offer early decision. These are mostly small or highly selective private colleges. About 15 percent offer early action, which provides the assurance of an early admission without requiring any commitment. Schools with early action admissions do not require that you enroll if accepted, and will usually let you apply early action and early decision to other colleges at the same time.

How to Apply for an Early Decision

If you decide to apply for an early decision, you will have to start the application process earlier than most applicants. You may need to complete all your standardized tests no later than October of your senior year, depending on the early decision deadline. Except for the deadline, early decision applications are identical to regular applications. You just need to start working on them at the end of the summer before your senior year.

When Applying for an Early Decision Might Not Make Sense

If getting substantial financial aid is critical, you are better off applying for a regular admission. That way, you can compare final aid offers before choosing a college. If there's a chance you can improve your grades and scores, you will also be better off applying in the regular admission cycle. Another reason to be cautious is when you are not really sure the college is your top choice. Many students change their minds about their college preferences as they visit and research colleges. Lastly, applying early adds stress to the beginning of your senior year and your grades may suffer. Colleges track your grades and may withdraw your admission if they don't like what they see.

How to Evaluate Early Decision Colleges

If you are considering applying for an early decision, talk it over with your counselor and be sure to check with the college about application policies and procedures. You should also take steps, such as visiting that college and several others, to be absolutely positive that the college is your first choice. If you are interested in whether your admissions chances might be better if you apply early, CollegeData's College Profiles include early and regular admission rates for most colleges. You can look up these rates at the colleges you are interested in and draw your own conclusions. Finally, if affordability is a top concern, ask the college for an estimate of your financial aid package before you apply.

Suppose You Don't Make the First Cut?

If a college does not accept you under early decision, you may still have a chance to get admitted. The college may automatically add you to the regular admission application pool. If it does not, you are free to reapply by the regular admission deadline. Check the admission policies of each college you're interested in.

Deciding on Early Decision—or Not

Even if your top-choice college offers it, is applying for an early decision the right decision for you? That is something you must decide for yourself. If you feel you are prepared and ready, then go for it.

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