Seniors: Get a head start on your college apps this summer!

Application Strategy: Learn How Early Decision Works

Monday, December 11, 2023

Once you’ve put the finishing touches on your list of best-fit colleges, it’s time to consider application strategy. More specifically, rising seniors need to decide when they will apply to the schools on their list.

Early Decision can be a great application option for a student who is passionate about a certain school and able to meet the deadline. Keep reading to learn more about this application strategy and to determine whether applying early is the right move for you.

Early Decision and Early Action: What’s the Difference?

Early application policies vary from school to school. Do your research and find out exactly which policy you are agreeing to when applying early, most importantly, is it binding or not. There are four variations:

Early Decision (ED)

This choice is for students who have identified a college as a definite first choice. Early Decision is binding, meaning if you apply to a school ED, you are committing to enrolling upon admission and must withdraw all other applications. Students who apply for ED usually get their admissions decision in mid-December. Because it is binding, you can only apply to one school ED.

ED I and ED II 

Some schools have two ED deadlines, one in November and a second in December, closer to the Regular Decision deadline. ED II is for students who are committed to applying ED to their top-choice school but aren’t necessarily ready for the early November deadline. Again these are binding.

Early Action (EA)

This is similar to ED except you are not required to attend if admitted; therefore, it is non-binding. You can apply to many schools EA and will receive your admission decision in December, same as ED.

Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) 

Also known as Restrictive Early Action, this option is also non-binding; however, you cannot apply to other schools EA or ED until you receive your decision from the school to which you applied SCEA. In Restrictive Early Action policies, however, you can still apply to public or state universities EA.

Some colleges offer Single Choice Early Action or Restricted Early Action, which limits when students can apply to other schools without binding them to a specific choice. The rules for this application process can vary by institution, so make sure to read all of the fine print before committing to this option.

Hidden ED III

Often known as “secret” or “hidden,” ED III is a policy that allows students to change their Regular Decision application to ED II as long as they submit the proper paperwork by a certain deadline. Often these deadlines are well after the initial ED II deadline, giving students a third opportunity to apply ED to a top-choice school if they want. The decision is binding, meaning students accepted after switching to an ED round are bound to attend if admitted. This type of policy has become more popular in recent years as more colleges offer more EA and ED rounds. Here are some schools that offer an “ED III” option:

School Typical ED II Deadline Switching to ED II Policy
Bates College January 10, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
Case Western Reserve January 15, 2024 Due by 1/15/2024 (Source: Email)
Catholic University of America February 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)
Colby College January 2, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
Colgate University January 15, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
College of the Holy Cross January 15, 2024 Due by 2/9/2024 (Source: Email)
Connecticut College January 15, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)
Denison University January 15, 2024 Due by 2/20/24
Dickinson College January 17, 2024 Due by 2/28/24
Hamilton College January 3, 2024 Due by 1/29/24
Harvey Mudd College January 5, 2024 Due by 1/5/24 (Source: Email)
High Point University February 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)
Kenyon College January 15, 2024 Due by 1/15/24 (Source: Email)
Lafayette College January 15, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
Marist College February 15, 2024 Due by 2/15/24 (Source: Email)
Middlebury College January 3, 2024 Due by 2/1/2024 (Source: Email)
Muhlenberg College February 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)
Rhodes College January 15, 2024 Due in late February (Source: Email)
Skidmore College January 15, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
Southern Methodist University January 15, 2024 Due by 1/15/2024 (Source: Email)
Stonehill College February 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)
Texas Christian University February 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
Trinity College January 17, 2024 Due by 2/01/24
Trinity University February 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)
Union College January 15, 2024 Due by 2/07/24
Villanova University January 15, 2024 Due by 1/31/24
Wellesley College January 1, 2024 Due by 1/1/24 (Source: Email)
Wesleyan University January 1, 2024 Due by 2/01/24 (Source: Email)

While it may not be for everyone, understanding how Early Decision works can help students determine what kind of application strategy aligns with their needs and goals. If you are currently preparing to apply to college and looking for expert input, don’t hesitate to get the benefits from our college admissions consulting services.

Learn the Early Decision notification dates by school. 

What Are the Benefits of Applying Early?

For a student who is passionate about a specific institution, Early Decision can be an excellent choice. Early Decision is one of the best ways to convey your demonstrated interest in a specific school, which can serve as an advantage throughout the application process. The acceptance rate for Early Decision applicants is often higher than the rate for regular round admissions; however, this is in part due to the nature of the applicants. Many students who apply ED are competitive applicants who are on top of the game throughout the admissions process.

Better Admission Rates

When you apply early, you’re entering into a smaller applicant pool, albeit just as competitive as the Regular Decision pool. However, early admit rates still tend to be higher when compared to the regular or overall admission rates for a school. Some can even be two to three times higher. For example, for the 2020-21 admissions season, Middlebury College had a 45.1% early admit rate compared to its 10.7% Regular Decision admission rate. At the University of Pennsylvania, 14.9% of those who applied early were admitted, compared to the 4.4% of applicants who were admitted in the regular round.

Knowing Your Admissions Decision Sooner

Those who apply early usually get their admissions decisions back by mid-to-late December. Depending on whether you’re accepted, denied, or deferred, you can begin to put forth a plan of action. You might want to secure enrollment if you’re admitted, finalize other applications for regular admission if you’re denied, or write a letter and seek expert guidance on the next steps if you’re deferred to the regular round.

Demonstrating Your Interest 

It’s no secret that schools want to admit students who really want to attend. The presence of demonstrated interest, or the school’s gauge of how likely you are to attend if admitted, has become more of a consideration in the college admissions process. One way to demonstrate your interest is by applying early. Especially if the school has a binding early admissions policy, applying early is the most effective way to show your commitment to the institution.

Learn more advantages of applying early 

Are There Drawbacks of Early Decision Applications?

You have to be ready. Applying early isn’t just so you can get your applications out of the way; it’s for students who have decided on a top-choice school and have all their materials ready to go. If you apply early but your junior year grades weren’t the best, you could be hurting yourself by not waiting to see if your fall semester grades show improvement. The same applies to standardized test scores. If everything is ready to go but you’re waiting on fall ACT or SAT scores, applying before they are available can hurt your chances of admission.

One of the key differentiating factors that sets Early Decision apart from other early application processes is the fact that it is a binding decision. In other words, if a student is accepted to a college they applied to through Early Decision, the candidate is expected to enroll and must withdraw any outstanding applications. Any student who is considering applying to a college through Early Decision should understand that this is a commitment and feel 100% confident that the school they are applying to is truly their top choice school.

Is Applying Early Right for You?

First, be sure that the school or schools that you are applying early to are your top choices. Applying early is a commitment that requires a lot of preparation, so be sure you are applying to an institution you really want to attend.

Second, all your application materials, including test scores and grades, must be ready to go in order to maximize your chances of admission. Again, if you’re waiting on the final ACT or SAT scores, or if your fall semester grades will give your application a boost, it will be better to apply in the regular round.

Third, make sure you’re being strategic! At IvyWise, we advise our students to apply in the round that will maximize their chances of acceptance at their top-choice schools. If you think you have a better chance of being admitted EA to two of your top choices, but also want to wait until your fall semester grades are available to apply to a more competitive school in the regular round, then go ahead and apply early and keep working on your regular applications.

Deciding where to go to college is a big decision. Early application options are great for students who know where they want to attend and have all their materials ready ahead of deadlines. However, you should not feel pressured to apply early if you don’t feel like you’re prepared. Take time to think over your application options and make sure you’re feeling completely confident before you hit ‘submit’!

When to Give Early Decision a Second Thought?

There’s no one-size-fits-all application process and for some students, Early Decision may not be the best option. If a student doesn’t have a clear first-choice school, it may be better to apply in non-binding rounds. Similarly, if a student wishes to have the opportunity to compare financial aid packages and gauge scholarship offerings, applying to a single school ED will not be beneficial. Students who got a late start on the application process and those who are still working on upping their grades and test scores may wish to avoid the first Early Decision round as well.

Learn if schools are considering extending their Early Decision deadlines. 

10 Early Decision Application Tips for Higher Acceptance Chances

Before submitting your early application, make sure your application is the best representation of who you are as a student and that you’ve taken time to reflect on how applying early might impact your admissions journey.

Here are some final tips for early applications:

Reflect Before You Hit Send

First, make sure that you reflect on why you are applying early to these schools. Is it because you’ve always had your heart set on this school or because you are a legacy student? Is it because you feel as though this school aligns with what you are looking for in a university or college? Or, is it merely because you want to get your applications out of the way and avoid the waiting game later this spring? Make sure you are applying Early Decision or Early Action for the right reasons. Don’t just apply early to avoid the stress later on and to get it out of the way. Be sure to ask yourself the question, “Will I still feel as strongly about this school in a few months?”

Plan Ahead

By now you should have gathered all necessary application materials, so don’t wait until the last minute to submit them. If it helps, consider changing the application deadline date in your mind to a few days before. Make a point to have everything submitted by Oct. 26 or 27, for example, if your deadline is actually Nov. 1 or 15. This way, you will be able to put yourself in a good position to avoid any hiccups that are out of your control, such as Internet outages or website issues.

Seek Out Second Opinions

Make sure to have a second, third, or fourth pair of eyes look over your application from start to finish. Having different people read over the entire application will ensure that you did not look over any small mistakes or details. Also, be sure to enlist people other than your friends or parents. Have your college counselor look over it as well, to ensure that everything is in the right order and that it looks good from an admissions standpoint!

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!

We can’t stress it enough—proofreading is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure you’re submitting the best application possible. While a spelling error won’t necessarily kill your chances of admission, an essay filled with them can bring your overall application quality down. Proofreading is also a good opportunity to catch missing or incorrect information. Maybe instead of noting you spend 12 hours per week on an activity, you accidentally put just “1.”

Careless errors can really hurt your application if they misrepresent important information. Read through your application a few times once it’s completed and then ask a parent or counselor to check behind you. It can also be helpful to read your essay out loud, as it forces you to slow down and better process the language and syntax. It’s a good way to catch grammatical errors or typos.

Make Sure All Materials Are in Order

It’s not just the application itself you need to submit. Be sure to check in with your school and the admissions office to make sure your transcripts, test scores, and other materials have been sent and received. If you’re waiting on a recommendation letter, politely follow up with your recommender to make sure it’s submitted on time. Don’t wait until the day before to make sure everything is in order—by then it might be too late. 

Make Your Supplements Tailored

If you’re applying Early Decision or Early Action to a college, it’s safe to assume you’ve done your research and know exactly why you want to attend that school— after all, it’s presumably your first-choice college. However, no matter how much students know about a school, they can often neglect to specify what makes that college so special to them in their supplemental essays. Colleges like Columbia, Brown, and others ask students directly why they want to attend that college. It’s important to have tailored essays that mention specifics about the school, your interests, and how you plan to pursue them at that institution. This is your chance to really demonstrate your interest, so don’t squander it.

Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Hit Submit

It’s not unheard of for students to wait until 11:59 p.m. on the deadline day to submit their applications. Waiting until zero hours to hit the “submit” button, however, is not a great idea. There have been instances in the past of applications encountering technical problems that can keep students from submitting on time. There’s also the chance that other things, like power outages, Internet problems, or other factors outside students’ control, could keep them from getting their application in before the deadline.

While many admissions offices can accommodate application mishaps, this can create undue stress for students and parents—and could dash admission hopes if a college can’t accommodate an extension. Aim to complete your application a few days before the deadline, allowing ample time for review and proofreading, and submit it early. With a few days’ buffers, students can have plenty of time to troubleshoot problems.

Check out the 4 things to review before submitting 

If You’re Having Doubts, Talk to Your College Counselor

Applying to college early is a big commitment, as Early Decision applications are binding should you be accepted. If you’re getting cold feet about your Early Decision college, or if you’re not sure that your application is ready for the early deadline, talk to your college counselor about your options. Sometimes students just need reassurance that they’re ready, while other times a students’ gut feelings can be rightmaybe their application isn’t in early shape. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you encounter some roadblocks while finishing up your early applications.

Continue to Work on Your Regular Decision Applications

After the rush to the Early Decision finish line, it’s tempting for students to take a break from college applications and anxiously await their early admission announcements. Especially if they’re confident about their chances of early admission, some students might think completing other applications is a waste of time. It’s important to remember that, while admit rates for early applications tend to be higher, there are no guarantees in college admissions. You might not get into your early college, and if you haven’t worked on your other applications, you’ll be at a huge disadvantage going into the Regular Decision deadlines. Take a day or two after submitting your early applications, then get right back to working on your Regular Decision applications and essays.

See what happens if you are not accepted Early Decision. 

Look Ahead

Prepare for every admission outcome, including getting deferred. Make sure you continue to complete your Regular Decision applications as you wait to learn your early admission decision. Keep track of any relevant information that pertains to late fall through April, should you need to update your early college with new information in the event of a deferral. Another issue that tends to creep up on seniors at this time of year is senioritis. Keep in mind that this process is not over until you have graduated, so don’t let senioritis get in the way of you attending the school of your dreams!

Need expert help with your application strategy and other parts of your college admissions journey? Schedule an Initial Consultation with an IvyWise counselor.  


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