Should You Apply Early to College? How to Know if it’s Right for You

Applying early to college is a way of signaling special interest in a school, and it can improve your chances of being admitted while also letting you find out admissions decisions earlier in the year. To apply early, you’ll have to be organized and on top of your game—and, since some kinds of early admissions are binding, you’ll have to be careful not to lose options that you want to keep open. Here, I’ll explain the different kinds of early admissions programs, and how to know if they’re right for your college journey.

How Different Early Admissions Programs Work

“Applying early to college” can actually mean a few different things. Here are the types of early admissions programs, and what sets them apart from each other.

Early Decision

Early Decision is a binding application process: applicants choose one school, typically their first choice, and send in an application stating that if they are admitted, they will attend (barring a financial hurdle).

Most Early Decision applications are due November 1 or 15, and students typically hear back in December or January. There are Early Decision programs for both school applications and some scholarship applications, such as Posse or Questbridge.

Early Action

Early Action is non-binding: you’re applying early and will, therefore, hear back early, but you’re not required to attend if admitted, and you’re not required to only apply to one school.

Restrictive Early Action

This application process restricts you to applying to only one school early. You apply early and find out early, but you are not required to attend if admitted.

Rolling Admissions

Rolling Admissions refers to an admissions process that is continuous throughout the academic year. As the admissions office receives applications, they make their decisions, rather than waiting until a specific deadline and reviewing all applications at once. You may see Rolling Admissions at your local state school.

Why Do Colleges Offer Early Admissions?

Most schools really care about something called yield, a factor in college rankings. A school’s yield refers to the percentage of students who decide to attend that school upon being admitted.

In order to ensure a high yield, schools pay attention to your demonstrated interest. You can demonstrate interest in a number of ways, from opening a school’s emails (yes, they track that!) to going on a tour.

Applying early decision is the ultimate form of demonstrating interest: schools no longer have to guess whether you’ll attend their school, they know it.

The schools that really care about demonstrated interested tend to be highly selective, but may not have the name recognition or locale appeal of a Harvard or Stanford. Everyone’s interested in Harvard and Stanford, but the slightly-less-well-known selective schools will want to be as confident as possible that you won’t be swept away by another school once they admit you.

Should I Apply Early to College?

I once heard the director of admissions at a highly selective school compare applying to college to dating. He said Early Decision is when you’re really serious: you think you’ve found the one and you’re hoping they agree.

Early Action is more like you’re looking for someone serious, but you’re keeping your options open. Regular Decision is more like being on Tinder and swiping right.

Before you go off and press that submit button, ask yourself the following questions.  If you can say yes to all of them, then an early application could be for you.

  1. Do you have a dream school? Many students have a dream school that they’re super excited about, and know that they would attend if admitted. If you think you have a dream school, make sure that you’ve actually done your research, whether that means visiting, talking to an admissions rep, talking to someone who has attended the school, or even doing a ton of research on the internet. A dream school should not be a school that you simply selected because of the name recognition or the city the school is located in.
  2. Are you relatively far along with your application? If this is, in fact, your dream school, you want to make sure that you’re putting your best foot forward. Returning to the dating analogy, you should not show up to your dream date wearing your sweaty gym clothes—which is what turning in a rushed, un-edited application is like doing. If you’ve given yourself plenty of time to write your personal statement, supplemental essays, and résumé, and had them looked over by as many people as possible, then you may be ready to apply early.
  3. Will the money work out? College is expensive! Ten years ago, when I was applying, I remember just assuming things would work out financially, since everyone else was going to college along with me. They didn’t! There’s only one thing worse than working hard to get into your dream school and then realizing you can’t afford it—and that thing is the crushing burden of tens of thousands of dollars in private student loans. Before you apply to any school, make sure to sit down with your family and complete the school’s net price calculator. Different schools will provide different amounts of financial aid despite having a similar sticker price, so make sure to do this step for each of them.

What Steps Do I Need to Take to Apply Early?

To be able to apply early to college, you’ll need to be organized and proactive. Most of my students do not apply early to college, for three reasons: they haven’t visited most of the schools they’re applying to, they don’t know if the financials will work out, and they haven’t completed their essays.

To be able to apply early, you’ll need to have clear favorite schools—that you’ve visited!—have your strongest essays, and understand how you’ll be approaching financial aid. You can do it if you think ahead: it’s not harder to have your applications ready by November 1 than by January 1, it just takes a little more planning.

The Last Word on Applying Early to College

At the end of the day, your college application process is your own, and there’s no cookie-cutter way to go about it. However, the more you know, the more strategically you can package your application. Whichever way you decide to apply, make sure that you’re proud of what you submit. This process can be stressful and exhausting, and it’s easy to want to just submit something to get it over with, but doing the process right is one of the clearest and most important positive steps you can take for your future in your entire life. Make a plan and take your time. You got this!



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