Some schools, especially the more selective universities, offer a couple of different options when it comes to the admissions cycle. Conventionally, students apply by mid December and hear back from schools sometime in March. However, in recent years more and more students at Ivy league-caliber universities have been admitted under what are called Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) tracks. The rationale behind this from the universities’ perspective is that students who choose to apply in an earlier cycle are generally more committed to and enthusiastic about the school as compared to the average applicant. Further, schools can use these early cycles to get a sense of what to expect from the applicant pool that year, and they can bolster their yield (i.e. the percentage of admitted students who matriculate) by admitting a higher percentage of these early applicants (who, in the case of Early Decision, are committed to attending).
There are a couple of benefits for students who choose to apply during these early cycles. First, it’s well documented that many selective universities admit a greater percentage of students in the early cycle. For example, in 2017 Dartmouth admitted 27.9% of students who applied early but only 11.5% of students who applied during the regular admissions cycle. While it’s true that the earlier pool includes a greater proportion of legacies and athletes, these groups alone cannot explain the discrepancy between the admission rates. It is often easier for well-qualified students to secure admission early rather than taking their chances in the regular admissions pool.
Further, the mental health benefits of an early admission cannot be overstated. Rather than submitting at least a dozen more applications and waiting until March or April to hear back from schools, students who are admitted through an early cycle can relax a bit during the second semester of their senior year of high school, knowing that their plans are secure. This often makes for a much more enjoyable end to one’s high school career. Instead of writing applications, students can spend time with friends or take on passion projects that they have not had time to complete during their regular academic career.
While the potential benefits are great, you should only apply in an early admissions cycle if you are genuinely thrilled with the prospect of attending the school. In the case of Early Decision, your admission offer is actually binding–that means that if you apply to a school ED and are accepted, you are bound to attend that school. In the case of Early Action, while you are not bound to attend the school in question, you will still be using up a valuable opportunity to get a leg up in the admissions process–so you want to make sure that you’re using it wisely.