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College Planning Center
The benefits and drawbacks of applying early

The benefits and drawbacks of applying early

  • Counselors hear it all the time: "I don't know where I want to go to college, but I know I need to apply for early decision!"

  • Early decision and early action plans can be beneficial to students—but only to those who have thought through their college options carefully and have a clear preference for one institution.

Early decision versus early action

Early decision versus early action

  • Early decision plans are binding—a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend the college.

  • Early action plans are nonbinding—students receive an early response to their application but do not have to commit to the college until the normal reply date of May 1. Counselors need to make sure that students understand this key distinction between the two plans: binding is binding.

  • About 400 colleges have early decision or early action plans, and some have both. Some colleges offer a nonbinding option called single-choice early action, under which applicants may not apply ED or EA to any other college.

  • ED plans have come under fire recently as unfair to students from families with low incomes. In 2002 both Stanford and Yale universities replaced their binding early admissions programs with nonbinding early action plans.

ED applicants

ED applicants

  • Apply early (usually in November) to first-choice college

  • Receive an admission decision from the college well in advance of the usual notification date (usually by December)

  • Agree to attend the college if accepted and offered a financial aid package that is considered adequate by the family

  • May only apply to one college for early decision

  • May apply to other colleges under regular admission

  • Must withdraw all other applications when accepted by ED

  • Usually must give a nonrefundable deposit well in advance of May 1

EA applicants

EA applicants

  • Apply early

  • Receive an admission decision early in the admission cycle (usually in January or February)

  • Do not have to commit to an EA college

  • May apply to other colleges under regular admission plans

  • Must give the college a decision no later than the May 1 national response date 

Who should apply early?

Who should apply early?

 Applying to an ED or EA plan is most appropriate for a student who:

  • Has researched colleges extensively

  • Is absolutely sure that the college they is applying to early is a first choice

  • Has found a school that is a strong match academically, socially, geographically, and so forth

  • Meets or exceeds the admission profile for the school for SAT scores, GPA, and class rank

  • Has an academic record that has been consistently solid over time


Applying to an ED or EA plan is not appropriate for a student who:

  • Has not thoroughly researched and visited colleges

  • Is applying early just to avoid stress and paperwork

  • Is not fully committed to attending the schools to which they are applying

  • Is applying early only because friends are

  • Needs a strong senior fall semester to bring grades up

The benefits of applying early

The benefits of applying early

For a student who has a definite first-choice school, applying early has many benefits besides possibly increasing her chance of getting in. Applying early:

  • Reduces stress by cutting the time a student spends waiting for a decision

  • Saves students the time and expense of submitting multiple applications

  • Gives students more time, once accepted, to look for housing and otherwise prepare for college

  • If student is not accepted, having this information gives that student time to reassess options and apply elsewhere

The drawbacks of applying early

The drawbacks of applying early

Pressure to decide: Committing to one college puts pressure on students to make serious decisions before they've explored all their options.


Reduced financial aid opportunities: Students who apply under ED plans receive offers of admission and financial aid simultaneously and so will not be able to compare financial aid offers from other colleges. For students who absolutely need financial aid, applying early may be a risky option.


Time crunch for other applications: Most colleges do not notify ED/EA applicants of admission until December 15. Because of the usual deadlines for college applications, this means that if a student is rejected by their early-decision college,  they will have only two weeks to send in other applications. Encourage those of your students who are applying early to prepare other applications as they wait to hear about admission.


Senioritis: Applicants who learn early that they have been accepted into a college may feel that, their goal accomplished, they have no reason to work hard for the rest of the year. Early-applying students should know that colleges may rescind offers of admission should their senior-year grades drop.

Does applying early increase the chance of acceptance?

Does applying early increase the chance of acceptance?

Many students believe applying early means competing with fewer applicants and increasing their chances for acceptance. This is not always true. Schools vary in the proportion of the class admitted early and in the percentage of early applicants they admit.


Higher admission rates for ED applicants may correlate to stronger profiles among candidates choosing ED. Students should ask the admissions office whether their institution's admissions standards differ between ED and regular applicants, and then assess whether applying early makes sense given their own profile.

The ethics of applying early decision

The ethics of applying early decision

The Common Application and some colleges' application forms require the student applying under early decision, as well as their parent and counselor, to sign an ED Agreement form spelling out the plan's conditions.


Make it clear in your school handbook and at college planning events that your policy for early-decision applications is to send the student's final transcript to one college only: anything else is unethical.


Keep in mind

  • EA/ED program specifics vary, so students should get information as soon as possible directly from their first-choice college admissions staff.

  • EA/ED applicants must take the October SAT and/or SAT Subject Tests in order for these scores to make it to the college in time.