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Should You Apply Early Action vs. Regular Decision?

There are some advantages to applying Early Decision or Early Action to your top-choice college. However, when developing an application strategy it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to apply in the early round — and when you should hold off.

For many students, one of the main appeals of applying early is receiving an admission decision earlier, typically by December or January. The admission rates in the early application pool also tend to be higher, even though the pool is typically more competitive than the regular round.

However, because the early round is full of extremely competitive applicants, it’s not always the best choice for every student. While it might be tempting to apply early so that you can learn your admissions fate sooner and possibly have the college admissions process completed well before everyone else, it’s not worth going through the process if it doesn’t align with your needs and goals.

What Does Early Action Mean?

Early Action is an application option where students can complete their application by an earlier deadline, usually November 1 or 15, and receive a decision on their admission in mid-December. Early action is similar to Early Decision in that you need to complete your application early, however, unlike Early Decision, Early Action is not binding. Meaning, if you are admitted you are not required to attend. Early Action and Early Decision pools tend to be pretty competitive, as the most high achieving students tend to apply early, so it’s important to be very prepared if you plan to apply in the early round.

What Does Regular Decision Mean?

Regular Decision is the regular application deadline, usually January 1. Apply Regular Decision means you are not applying in the early round, and you will receive your admission decision in the spring — usually around late-March into early-April. The Regular Decision pool tends to be larger as this is the general applicant pool for the upcoming year, and often the admit rate is lower in Regular Decision round compared to the Early Decision or Early Action round because of the volume of applications being considered.

Who Should Not Apply Early Action?

Since every applicant is different, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy that will work for every student. In fact, there are a few circumstances where students should reconsider their plans to apply Early Decision or Early Action.

Your Grades Are Not Where They Need To Be

Grades are the most important factor that college admissions officers consider when evaluating applications. It’s necessary to have a strong GPA and junior year performance to be competitive in the early applicant pool. If you struggled a bit during your junior year, you’ll need to improve your grades during the first semester of senior year to show an upward grade trend and improve your chances of admission in the regular round. But waiting to apply Regular Decision is only beneficial if you plan to bring up your grades during the fall. It’s important to have a firm understanding of how your applicant profile stacks up to previously admitted students, and if your grades are not competitive, you may need to reevaluate your college list and application strategy.

You Need To Take the SAT or ACT Again

Test-optional admissions have been gaining traction, since the COVID-19 pandemic. Since more than 2,000 schools are test-optional or test-free for the 2023-2024 application cycle, some students may choose to forgo testing entirely. However, if you’re planning on submitting a test score as part of your application, it’s important to make sure your performance is up to par with the admitted students’ range at your best-fit college. If your scores don’t quite meet the mark, you might want to consider taking the SAT or ACT again and applying in the regular rounds. Even if the school you are applying to is test-optional, a strong test score can set you apart from other applicants.

You Have Not Visited Colleges Yet

Visiting colleges is an important part of the college research process, so if you haven’t visited your Early Decision or Early Action college yet, you need to. Many colleges have added virtual touring options to allow students to get a feel for their campus without visiting in person, which hasn’t always been feasible throughout the pandemic. Now that campuses are starting to reopen for in-person tours, it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll visit in person or remotely. Regardless of what you choose, it’s important to visit your first-choice college to demonstrate your interest in the school. Not only will visiting further demonstrate your interest in attending, but it will also help you put together the best application possible, should they ask school-specific essay questions.

College-bound students also need to keep in mind that Early Decision options are binding, so you really need to be sure that’s the institution you want to attend before applying. A visit can help you know for sure if that school is a good fit for you or not.

You Have Not Started Your Application Yet

Deciding the week before early applications are due is not the time to start on your essays and to ask for recommendation letters. A last-minute application can be sloppy or incomplete, and with a competitive early round pool, you can’t afford to make any mistakes. It takes time to put together a comprehensive and compelling application, and admissions officers can tell when an application is rushed or an afterthought. Rather than rush to get an early application done before midnight on the deadline, take your time to put together a really strong Regular Decision application.

You are Not Sure The School is Your Top-Choice

As we mentioned before, admission in the Early Decision round is binding, meaning that you have committed to attend if you are admitted. This is a big deal, as getting out of your Early Decision commitment, for reasons other than insufficient financial aid, can really affect your reputation at other institutions to which you apply. If you plan on applying Early Decision to a college, but you’re having second thoughts, go with your gut! Don’t apply unless you’re 100% sure that’s where you want to attend.

Deciding whether to apply Early Decision or Early Action is one of the most important things that seniors will do this college admissions season. Having a firm understanding of the different application options, what they require, and how you can use them to your advantage is key to a successful college application process.

If you need help putting the finishing touches on your early applications, or want some advice on whether or not applying Early Decision or Early Action is a good option for you, our team of expert counselors can help you put your best foot forward when applying to college this fall. Contact us today for more information on our services for high school seniors.

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