You've written the college essay, signed the application and sealed the envelope, all before the deadline. Now, you'll spend the next four months wondering if you'll be accepted to the college you love, or if you'll need to rely on your safety school.
Fortunately, many schools permit students to apply for "early decision" or "early action." Both options allow students to submit their applications early, usually in November, and find out if they've been accepted by December. But before you apply for early decision, make sure you've made the right decision.
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Early decision is binding, which means you must attend that college or university if it accepts you and gives you a reasonable financial aid package. If you are accepted, you must withdraw any applications sent to other schools.
"When you apply early decision, you're saying 'If I get in, I'm coming there,'" says Roz Bolger, former director of development at Emory University. "If you know where you want to be and there's no doubt, you get to know early. And early decision can be a real enticement to admissions counselors."
But early decision isn't for everyone. Apply for early decision only if you're absolutely sure about where you want to go to college and are reasonably sure you'll be accepted (i.e., your profile is similar to other students who go to that school). It's not a good idea to apply early if you're worried about the financial aid package or if you're curious about other schools.
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"There are no real disadvantages to early action," says Ted O'Neill, former dean of admissions and now humanities professor at University of Chicago. "Early action enables students to apply early in the fall and get a response by the middle of December. But admitted students have no obligation; they can still apply to other schools, and they don't have to tell us anything until May 1."
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Unlike early decision, early action gives you the opportunity to compare admissions and financial aid offers. But read each college's guidelines carefully, because policies vary.
You should only apply for early action if you have a very strong interest in a school and you can compete with other early action applicants.
The Pros and Cons of Early Decision and Early Action
- If accepted, you can bypass all the admissions stress that comes with senior year.
- If you aren't accepted, in most cases, your application is deferred until the final acceptance decisions are made—so you have more than one chance to get in.
- Applying through one of these plans is a good way to communicate your interest in a school, which may convince admissions officers to consider your application more seriously.
- You'll have less time to explore your options. You'll have to rule out other schools that may offer more attractive financial aid packages.
- You won't be able to improve your profile with your first semester grades and activities.
- Early decision and early action candidates are usually very qualified, so it's harder to make your application stand out.
If you're interested in early action or early decision, speak to your guidance counselor, ask your prospective school for more information and read the guidelines carefully. Then, you can decide if early decision or early action is right for your situation.