One of the most important elements of the college admission process is also one of the most overlooked by students and their parents: timing. When competing for admission at your top-choice college, it’s not enough to just write a few essays and hit “submit.” There are many nuances that students, parents, and counselors must consider — including whether to apply in the early round or not.
Timing and application strategy are key in selective admissions, and applying in the early round can improve the chances of getting an acceptance letter — but only if students are ready. This is why it’s important to maintain an upward grade trend throughout high school, take challenging courses every year, and start building a balanced college list early.
There are many different application options for students to choose from, with many variations of applying early. It’s important for students and parents to know the differences and whether a college’s particular early application policy fits a student’s needs. Here are the different early application options available to students:
- 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 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 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.
Why Should You Apply Early?
Statistically, your chances of getting accepted in the early round are much higher at some universities than if you take your chances in the Regular Decision applicant pool. Here are some examples of early and overall admission rates for the Class of 2027:
|School||Early Admission Rate||Overall Admission Rate|
While the numbers might seem to be in your favor, keep in mind that students applying early probably have more competitive applicant profiles than those of students in the regular round. That’s why it’s important that students be prepared to submit their best application if they intend to apply ED or EA.
Applying early is also one of the best ways to bump up your “IQ” — interest quotient or demonstrated interest. Since many early application options are binding, applying early is the most effective way to tell a college that it is your first choice and you are completely committed to attending. Even if the decision isn’t binding, you’re still declaring your commitment by seeking an admissions decision before applying anywhere else.
Applying early can also benefit certain types of applicants, including athletes, legacies, and some international students. Colleges are looking to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists, and many times there is only so much room for students within a particular applicant category. When evaluating applications, colleges look at their institutional needs, and with some colleges filling over half of their freshman classes with early applicants, there’s a chance that an applicant’s particular specialty will no longer be an institutional need come time for the regular round.
How Do You Know If You’re Ready to Apply Early?
Applying early is no small decision. First, consult with your college counselor to make sure that applying early is the right move for you. Early decisions can be binding, meaning if you are accepted you have to attend, so be sure that you’re applying to a college you truly want to attend.
Applicants who apply in the early round typically have their best foot forward going into senior year, including:
- Strong junior year grades
- Strong junior year courses
- Robust activities list
- Strong SAT or ACT scores
- Letter of recommendation from appropriate instructors
- An early start on application essays
- A realistic and balanced list of best-fit colleges
It’s crucial that all elements of an early application are prepared at the start of the school year and ready for submission by November 1 deadlines. If there’s anything that’s not in tip-top shape, like a drop in grades junior year or a less-than-stellar standardized test score, consider holding off until you’re able to improve and show those results in the regular admission round.
Since many colleges will not see your senior year grades when applying early, don’t let a poor junior year performance send your early app to the “no” pile, when bringing your grades up and applying in the regular round could get you in. This is where guidance from your college counselor is most effective. They will be able to evaluate your applicant profile and advise on the best application strategy given the information at hand.
While it may be tempting to apply to your top-choice college early just to get it out of the way and receive a decision quickly, it’s important to know how your application strategy can affect your chances of admission. Applying in the early round can be beneficial to students who are ready, but can hurt those who are not. Heed the advice of your college counselor, and you’ll be in for a great admission season — whether you know your fate in December or April.