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Applying Early Decision or Early Action: 4 Application Strategies to Consider

As the back-to-school season kicks off, students across the country (and world!) are gearing up for the US college admissions process, and with an abundance of application options available, it’s important for students to consider how their application strategy can impact their chances of admission to their top-choice colleges.

First, it’s important for students and parents to understand how things like grades, essays, recommendations, and demonstrated interest impact the college admissions process.

  • Grades are the most important factor that colleges consider when evaluating applications, so it’s important for students to make sure their grades are in tip-top shape should they choose to apply early.
  • Student essays also need to be compelling in order to add context to the application and reveal something about them that can’t be found anywhere else in the application.
  • Other elements like teacher and counselor recommendations need to be strong and acquired as soon as possible to meet deadlines.
  • Students also need to consider demonstrated and informed interest, which is the level of interest and commitment the student has shown to the school during the admissions process. Have they done thorough research? Are their supplements complete and thoughtful? Have they visited? Attended an information session? Been in touch with an admissions officer? And, most importantly, are they applying early?

All of these elements are critical in the admissions process, especially if students are applying early decision or early action, as they’re on a much more compressed application timeline. With all of this in mind, what are some application strategies that students should consider in order to maximize their chances of admission to their top-choice schools?

Applying Early Decision (ED)
Applying ED is the most compelling way for students to demonstrate their interest in a top-choice school because an ED acceptance is binding – meaning that students agree that if they are accepted they will enroll. The decision to apply ED should not be taken lightly because even though the admission rates in the early round are higher compared to the regular admission round, the applicant pool is considerably more competitive, and students can only apply to one school ED. Students who apply ED should have excellent grades, test scores, and complete and compelling applications. When creating an ED application strategy, students should plan to apply to their top-choice school ED but continue to work on their Regular Decision applications for the rest of the schools on their balanced college list in case they are deferred or rejected from the ED school. ED deadlines are typically early-to-mid November, with decisions released mid-December, so students will have to be diligent about completing their essays, supplements, and gathering all materials well ahead of their peers. Applying ED is a significant commitment, so students should be 100% sure their ED school is their top-choice before submitting their application. Students applying ED will only be able to submit Regular Decision, and in some cases Early Action, applications to other institutions, so students need to consider how the ED strategy will impact the rest of their applications. For example, how will applying ED affect your ability to leverage a legacy or other special applicant status at an SCEA school on your list?

Applying Early Action (EA) or SCEA (Single Choice or Restricted Early Action)
If you’re a strong student and ready to apply early but don’t want the commitment of an ED option – consider applying EA or SCEA. Again, admission rates are more favorable in the early rounds, but the applicant pools are considerably more competitive. The EA or SCEA round is also good choice for students who wish to leverage their legacy status in order to have the best chance of admission without the commitment of an ED decision. When applying EA or SCEA students will receive their decisions in mid-December, but there are some restrictions about where else students can apply. If applying EA, students can still apply Regular Decision or EA to other institutions, but SCEA students can only apply Regular Decision to other institutions – they must wait until they get their SCEA decision before applying EA or EDII elsewhere unless it’s a public university. It’s wise for students with strong grades, test scores, and compelling applications to apply to their top-choice schools EA if possible, while also continuing to work on Regular Decision applications. Students applying EA or SCEA can be deferred or denied, leaving open the possibility of applying ED II to another top-choice university if they decide the EA or SCEA school is no longer the best option for them.

Applying ED II
Maybe you have a top-choice school in mind but you’re not quite ready to apply in the ED I round with the November deadline. Maybe you applied ED or EA to your top-choice school and you were deferred or denied, or you were accepted to your EA school but now you’re not sure if it’s right for you and you want to pursue your ED chances at another institution that offers a later ED II deadline. ED II, while still competitive, offers another chance for students to demonstrate their interest and commitment to a college albeit with a later application deadline, usually in early-January or mid-February. ED II is a great strategy for students who are compelling applicants, but maybe need a little more time to get their applications in tip-top shape. ED II can also help students leverage special circumstances like legacy status to have the best chance of admission without worrying about applying by an earlier deadline. The ED II application strategy can be used as a first pass at an ED round, or as a second option should students’ other ED or EA application strategies not work out in their favor. Again, ED II is binding, so students should work with their college counselors to make sure this application option is the best option for their goals and can help them have the best chance of admission.

Holding Off Until the Regular Round
In some cases, applying ED, ED II, EA, or SCEA isn’t in the best interest of the student. Maybe he or she needs more time to improve grades or test scores, or maybe the student got a late start on his or her college applications and needs more time to get everything completed. While applying ED or EA can be a great strategy for certain students, it can be detrimental to some. Again, early rounds are competitive, and if a student applies with grades and test scores that are not competitive, or with a rushed application that isn’t compelling, applying early can significant hurt their chances of admission – most likely resulting in a rejection. In some cases, applying to a top-choice school in the regular round can yield better results for a student than applying early. It’s important for students to meet with their college counselors in order to gain a realistic expectation of their admission chances and whether or not applying early will help or hurt their application.

Developing an application strategy is a critical part of the college admissions process and can often be the difference between an acceptance or a rejection at students’ top-choice school. At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors works with students to create the best application strategy possible, designed for the most optimal outcomes based on students’ balanced college lists. For more information on IvyWise’s college counseling services and how we can help your student develop the best application strategy for his or her college admissions goals, contact us today.