Applying to colleges under their Early Decision program (ED) can be both alluring and scary for prospective applicants. On one hand, it offers an increased chance of admission and the peace of mind that comes with completing your entire college decision process by December. On the other hand, it can be frightening to commit to a binding agreement to attend a college without testing your options at other schools. 

Let’s begin with a quick explanation: Early Decision is a binding agreement that states that, should you be accepted, you will attend the school.

Early Decision differs from Early Action in that Early Action is a non-binding application method. Some schools offer Restrictive Early Action applications, where students can apply early and are not bound by a commitment to attend, but are restricted from applying to other private colleges early action. 

Most early applications are due November 1st, and applicants are notified in early December, while most regular applications are due January 1st, and applicants are notified by April 1st.

That said, is it a good idea to apply ED? Let’s consider several common reasons students have for applying ED. 

I have done extensive research and am certain that this school is a strong match for me.

This is a key aspect of ED and one that should be self-evident. Don’t apply anywhere you won’t be happy going. Don’t apply ED anywhere you aren’t certain is going to be your #1 choice, because you won’t be able to back out of it. Don’t apply ED anywhere if you’re not certain that your GPA and test scores will make you a strong match and give you a good chance of being accepted. It would be a shame to waste an early application on a school that isn’t a good match for you. This leads us to the second reason people apply ED… 

Applying ED will give me a better chance of getting into this school. 

This is probably the most common reason that ED is such a popular choice. There’s certainly logic behind it—Northwestern University’s ED acceptance rate was 35% a few years ago, and 55% of the spots in their freshman class were filled through that round. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this is causation or correlation—it might be that those students who are perfect for Northwestern are more likely to apply early, and athletes who have been given likely letters also tend to be accepted in this round—but it stands to reason, at least, that applying ED can’t hurt. 

One thing we can say for certain, however, is that applying ED is the best way to demonstrate interest in a school, and in time when the admissions process is becoming more competitive for both students and the colleges, schools will be glad to know that you’re certainly going to attend if accepted. This is important and the rate of its impact on your chances of acceptance will vary from school to school, but it shouldn’t be discounted as an important factor to consider. 

I’m okay with front-loading my work and want to be set as early as possible.

Applying ED (or EA, for that matter) means that you’re going to have to front-load your work. It also means that if you get in, you don’t have to go through the stress of applying to more colleges, and you can rest easy having only applied to one. 

I understand my family’s financial situation and ED works for us. 

Make sure that you understand the financial options available to you before applying ED. At many schools, matriculation is contingent upon a satisfactory offer of financial aid, so that can make the decision easier. But if it makes financial sense for your family to weigh different aid options at different colleges, it might be best to apply EA elsewhere instead. Regardless, make sure that you can calculate the Expected Family Contribution in as much detail as possible, so that if you’re offered less than you expected, you can appeal and/or back out. 

I’m okay with the potential disappointment of not getting in—and prepared to deal with the next round of applications. 

Expect the best, but prepare for the worst. This means that you should be ready for the possibility that you might not get in. We don’t mean only from an emotional point of view—you should be ready logistically as well. Should you not get into a school to which you applied ED, you likely won’t want to have to start over from the beginning on a bunch of other applications. So prepare in advance by preparing applications to other schools. Make sure that you’re not scrambling to apply to all the rest of the schools on your list—if you wait, chances are the quality of your application (and the likelihood of acceptance) will suffer. 

The college application process is rarely simple or clear. Applying to your top school ED can simplify the process somewhat, but it can also raise a whole host of potential complications and disappointments. What you end up doing is a personal choice, but as with all other things, make sure that you’re prepared for all possible outcomes.

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