Deciding If You Should Apply to College Early

Let's examine the question of when to apply to college: early or not?

Elizabeth Hoyt

August 03, 2016

Deciding If You Should Apply to College Early

When it comes time to apply for colleges, there’s a lot to consider. Where to apply and when are the main aspects – once you have those figured out, it’s fairly straightforward. You know what you need to do to decide where to apply via your college search, so let’s examine the question of when to apply: early or not?

First, let’s start with the basics of applying early. There are two main ways in which students can apply to college early: early decision (ED) and early action (EA).

Read on to discover and compare differences between the two to help you understand if either are a good option for your student situation.

What Early Decision (ED) means:

• You apply to one college, the ED deadline is usually sometime in November

• You’ll hear back on ED decisions a few weeks before the regular admission deadline, usually in December

• It’s considered a binding contract if you are accepted, so you have to be sure you want to attend any school to which you apply ED

What Early Action (EA) means:

• You can apply to multiple college via EA

• Is not legally binding, so you’re still able to make a decision once you find out if you’ve been accepted

• You’ll have time to make your decision: even through you’ll likely hear back in January or February, you usually have a while (later in the spring) to decide

• Does not have as much impact on acceptance or financial aid

Early Decisions Decisions: Is ED the Right Option?

Early decision (ED) is likely a good option for…

• Students who absolutely want to attend one particular school

• Students who know they will absolutely qualify for financial aid

• Students who are not concerned about affording school and absolutely don’t need financial aid

• If your “dream” school’s net price is within the amount you can afford and you don’t think you’ll receive a better offer from another school

Remember, when applying ED, you may not hear about the financial aid you qualify for until months after being accepted. In the case that the aid granted doesn’t meet your need, you’re able to get out of the contract. However, it can leave you scrambling to apply to another school. You can determine your costs / needs via most college websites, with a net price calculator tool.

The main aspect to remember with ED is that you have to make a college decision at the START of the college admissions process or put all of your eggs into one college basket, so to speak.

It’s probably not in your best interest to apply ED if…

• You’d be happy at several different schools and are undecided between them

• You want to weigh different financial aid offers from various schools

• You’re looking for more money in merit aid – every school hands out their non-need based aid differently, some will offer more as an extra incentive to attend to undecided students in the spring

• You want to use different school’s aid offers as a bargaining chips against the others

Early Action Decisions: Is EA the Right Option?

Early action (EA) is likely a good option for…

• Students who are finished with their college search – who already know the specific schools where they’d like to apply

• Students who are impatient and don’t want to wait as long to hear back on admissions decisions

• Students with a limited number of schools they are considering

• Students who know they will absolutely (or absolutely will not) qualify for need-based financial aid

• Students who are not concerned about affording school and absolutely don’t need financial aid

It’s probably not in your best interest to apply EA if…

• You have to scramble to gather your application materials

• You’re not prepared in terms of recommendation letters, college essays, etc.

• You want to see if you can improve your SAT or ACT scores

• You aren’t sure which colleges you want to apply to and are still searching

Applying EA can be a great option for students who have their college search process completed early in the school year, know which schools they want to apply to and have their college admissions materials ready to go.

It affords more freedom than ED while still allowing you to apply earlier in the year, get your college applications out of the way and hear back from colleges earlier, while still allowing you to make a decision at the END of the process – rather than at the start as with ED.

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