Should you apply to college through early decision?

Are you truly ready for the commitment of early decision?

Should you apply to college through early decision?

During the summer, each and every one of your friends has fallen in love with the perfect dream school. They’re all applying to college early (or so it seems), saying things like, “An early decision (ED) app is the equivalent of an extra 100 points on the SAT.”

All the hype is making you feel as if you better jump on that ED bandwagon. But should you?

First, let’s clarify some terminology.

Early decision, ED, is binding. Generally, you apply in the fall by a certain date set by the college, and you’ll learn in December whether you’re admitted or not. You express your commitment to that school, and the admission office knows you’re serious. You may only apply to college ED to one school.

If you’re accepted, you must attend; you withdraw all your other applications as soon as you hear. If you’re deferred, your app goes in the regular pool to be considered again with all the others.

Early action, EA, is not binding. You apply to college in the fall by a certain date set by the college, and you’ll be notified early as to whether or not you’re accepted. Generally, you may apply EA to as many colleges as you wish. The college commits to take you (or not), but you need not make your decision until May 1.

And just to make all this even more complicated, some colleges have ED I and II. Why? Well, it might work like this: Suzy Sunshine has her heart set on Ivy Super-Selective. She knows they only take one in 17 applicants, and she figures her chances will be enhanced by an ED bid. But despite her near perfection, she’s deferred. So she considers her second choice, Almost-Ivy Great College, which offers ED II in January specifically to scoop up some terrific students who were passed over by the even more selective schools in the ED I round.

So, we go back to the basic dilemma: should you apply ED or not? If you’re not 100 percent, absolutely, positively sure that the college is your first choice, ED is a terrible strategy.

Warning: What happens if you back out?

Early decision is binding, and while you won’t go to jail if you back out, you may wish you had those bars separating you from an angry admission office.

After a student had backed out of an ED acceptance, one admissions officer required the student to write letters of apology to both institutions—each of which had withdrawn their acceptances—and explain what happened. Yikes.

The one instance where you will grab a strategic advantage by using ED on a long shot is when you’re an alumni’s child.

Many colleges (though not all) will go out of their way to accommodate the offspring of alums when they know the student will come if accepted. 

ED might make sense if you...

  • Are sure the school is really your first choice.
  • You’ve visited similar schools to see how your choice compares.
  • You’re ready to accept no matter your financial aid situation.
  • You’re ready for a college to see your record this early in the process.

Eric Dawson and Lynda Herring are the authors of How to Be Irresistible to Colleges, available in bookstores nationwide and at Get more of their advice on their blog,


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