How to Know if You Should Apply to College Early

Once upon a time there were only two kinds of “early” options when it came to applying to college, and each school offered only one, if any: early decision, where students applied to one school in November, got a reply by mid-December, and were bound to attend if they were accepted; and early action, where the timing was similar but no commitment was required.

But in the past decade, the permutations have multiplied. Now they include everything from two rounds of early decision (such as at Bates College in Maine and Emory University in Georgia) to a combination of both early decision and early action (Tulane University in Louisiana, the University of Chicago and Fordham University in New York, for example). A number of schools even offer a newer hybrid called restrictive early action, where students typically can only apply early to one institution without having to commit.

Some colleges have even fashioned their own definitions of the terms, which can lead to further confusion — and the oft-repeated suggestion that students and parents always read the fine print.

The proliferation of early applications can be a mixed blessing for applicants and schools. In some cases, “students are like, ‘Let’s apply everywhere,’ and it doesn’t help them find the right fit, and it doesn’t help the college find the right fit,” says Grant Gosselin, director of undergraduate admission at Boston College.

BC, for example, used to have a nonbinding early action program that barred students from applying to schools with binding early decision policies. Last year, the college switched to nonbinding early action with no bars to other schools, and early apps rose a whopping 53%. Now, beginning in the fall 2019 application cycle, the school will move to binding early decision.

[See: Applying to College Early Decision: 10 Frequently Asked Questions.]

What is clear is that early applications have been rising steadily over the past 15 years — even by double-digit percentages in some years at some colleges.

For instance, the University of Georgia received some 17,000 early action applications for fall 2019 admission, which is a 14% increase from the year before and a 28% increase compared with five years ago. The University of Virginia received more than 25,100 early action apps, about 17% more than last year.

Overall, between fall 2016 and fall 2017, colleges reported an average 4% increase in early decision applicants and a 5% increase in early decision admits compared with the previous year, according to a 2018 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Applications through early action were up 9%, with admits rising 10%. Just over a third of colleges say they offer an early action program, according to the NACAC report, compared with only 8% in 2005.

In the case of binding early decision, the advantage to the school is clear: locking down great candidates as soon as possible.

But colleges with programs that don’t require a commitment say the early deadline allows them more time to review all applications, since so many students usually apply at the last minute. It also gives schools more time to sell those admitted early on committing to attend.

Thanks in part to the Common Application and other online application portals, so many students are applying early that some high schools are even attempting to impose limits.

In many cases, colleges aren’t increasing their class sizes, so with the glut of applications, “kids are just making it harder on themselves,” says Ellen O’Neill Deitrich, director of college counseling at The Hill School, a private boarding high school in Pennsylvania. At her school, usually at least 85% of each senior class of 150 or so files some kind of early app.

Deitrich counsels students to apply when they’re going to look the strongest in the pool — which may not be early. For instance, if you’re “a later bloomer” who only by junior or senior year has begun to take your school’s most rigorous courses and show strong grades, you may want to wait to apply regular decision and make that clear to the admissions office so the college can see the upward trend in your profile, she says.

[Read: 3 Reasons to Skip Applying to College Early.]

Perhaps the biggest driver of early apps is the widespread notion that applying by November to a highly selective college makes it easier to get in. Many college admissions deans dispute the notion that it’s quite that simple, but Gosselin does not. “There will be a benefit — not that we’re lowering our academic standards, but in the pool itself,” he says.

This year, BC predicts 2,500 to 3,000 early decision applications, from which it expects to fill roughly 40% of the incoming class. The rest will come from the regular decision pool, where roughly 25,000 applications are expected. “With regular decision, we’re splitting hairs between equally qualified students and not really sure which students actually want to come here,” he says. “So yes, the admit rate at the early decision pool will be higher.”

At Emory University, which offers two rounds of binding early decision, 32% of applicants to the class of 2023 in the first round and 10% of applicants in the second round were admitted, compared with about 14% of those in the regular pool. There were about 3,300 applications in the two early rounds (deadlines of Nov. 1 and Jan. 1, with results in mid-December and mid-February, respectively), while the school saw some 26,700 apps in the regular round.

“Honestly, we don’t look at early decision applications any differently than we do regular ones,” says Giselle Martin, Emory’s associate dean of admission.

No matter what a school’s options are, applying early can have an impact on financial aid. Some schools say a student receives the same aid offering no matter when they apply.

“Ours is need-based, so you get the same package you’d get in March,” says Nancy Meislahn, the retiring vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which offers two rounds of binding early decision. At the University of Arkansas, about 85% of merit-based scholarships are awarded to those who apply by the school’s Nov. 1 nonbinding “priority application deadline.”

Some colleges have little incentive to offer their most attractive financial aid packages to students who apply early and are anything less than “rock stars,” says Mark Montgomery, a Denver-based college consultant. Because colleges’ aid approaches can differ, Montgomery counsels students that they can use early application to their advantage by picking a school where they fall into the top end of the admissions pool, so the place would be keen to admit them and perhaps sweeten the financial aid offer.

[Read: How Applying Early for College Affects Financial Aid.]

As with all things application-related, it pays to confirm the details of each school’s policy. Most places with binding early offers of admission have an escape clause only if financial aid is insufficient. Prospective students should keep a record of how aid deadlines compare with application deadlines. When in doubt, ask the school for clarity.

College-bound students should be careful not to apply early just because it seems like everyone else is, cautions Yelena Shuster, a New York-based independent admissions counselor. She won’t work with high school sophomores (“They have a lot more growing to do,” she says), and she recommends not diving into the admissions essay until late junior year or the summer before senior year.

That way, “students will have had more experiences that might make good topics,” she says, not to mention improved writing skills.

Shuster points to a client who wrote an essay about his passion for magic. Only by the fourth revision did he realize that the hobby helped him communicate and made him less shy, she says. He was accepted early to Columbia University‘s class of 2022.

Keep in mind that applying early is meant to help you focus on the right school for you, not just accelerate the application timeline. Grace Gong from Newark, Delaware, was admitted to Princeton University with her early action application (due Nov. 1), so she had time to weigh that early acceptance alongside offers from the University of Southern California and the University of Delaware.

Applying this way can give you “more of a chance to find a school you enjoy,” says Gong, now a sophomore at Princeton. Plus, “it will give you some peace of mind.”

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2020” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

More from U.S. News

3 Reasons to Apply Early Action to College

Ask Yourself These 4 Questions Before You Apply Early Decision

Early College Admissions: What to Do If Deferred, Denied

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