Applying to College Early: Is It Worth It?

Many students will start applying to college as early as next month through a variety of early application programs. But before you submit that early application, be sure to consider all of your options.

Early Action vs. Early Decision: What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference between early action and early decision programs is your obligation: With early action programs, you are under no obligation to attend the school that admits you, but with early decision programs, if you are admitted, you MUST attend that school.

Early action programs allow you to:

  • Apply early to more than one college
  • Receive admission decisions sooner, usually by January or February
  • Apply to other colleges under regular admission programs
  • Weigh options and wait until May 1 to make a final decision

By contrast, early decision programs require you to:

  • Agree to attend that college if accepted
  • Apply to only one college through early decision
  • Send a nonrefundable deposit much sooner than May 1
  • Withdraw all other college applications if accepted

There is a third hybridized early admission program known as single-choice early action or restrictive early action. This type of program limits you to just one early application, but is not binding in the way that early decision programs are. Though this particular program is not as common as early action or early decision, several highly competitive schools use restrictive early action, including Harvard University. Under a restrictive early action program, you may:

  • Not apply through other early admission programs
  • Apply to other schools through regular admission programs
  • Weigh options and wait until May to make a final decision

The Pros and Cons of Applying Early

Early admission programs are popular for good reason. They allow you to:

  • Make college decisions sooner, eliminating a lot of the senior-year stress later in the year
  • Spread out the application workload by dividing the work between early and regular deadlines
  • In the case of early action programs, have more time to weigh options before making decisions
  • Have time to reassess options and apply elsewhere if not accepted early

But all is not rosy with early admission programs because they can also:

  • Create a time crunch for regular applications if you wait until you get your early admission decisions before submitting regular applications
  • Reduce financial aid opportunities for early decision students since colleges know you won’t be able to weigh other options
  • Increase pressure to make decisions sooner rather than later
  • Worsen the symptoms of senioritis since students who already know where they will go to college may be tempted to relax standards in spring semester

Does Applying Early Boost Chances of Admission?

One of the biggest reasons that a lot of students choose to apply early is because they believe that doing so will boost their chances of admission. But does it work?

Sometimes.

At some colleges, there is a significant difference in the admission rates between early application programs and regular applications programs. At other colleges, there is virtually no difference. And at a few colleges, admission rates may actually be higher through regular admission than through early application programs.

In other words, it’s worth doing your research to determine whether admission rates differ between early and regular admission programs at your potential colleges.

That said, there can be some benefit to applying early at particularly competitive colleges. At highly competitive schools, sometimes it is the smallest details that can make the difference between admission and rejection. By applying early, you send the message that you are incredibly interested in attending that school; this may make a very slight difference in admission decisions. Moreover, if you are deferred into the regular admission pool, your early interest may further emphasize your interest in the school, thereby slightly helping your chances of admission.