The Ups and Downs of Applying Early

The Early Application (EA)/Early Decision (ED) deadline is fast approaching! For most schools, November 1st is that big day. Early decisions come out in mid-December. For successful applicants, acceptance paves the way through senior year all the way to college. For not-as-successful early round applicants, an early rejection or deferral suggests to students that there may be some elements of the application that need improvement. The “Early Round” offers an interesting and complex dimension to the arena of college applications. In this post we hope to answer some fundamental questions: how does when decide whether or not, and where to apply early?


  1. The Early Round allows students to apply by November, and get results by mid-December.
  2. In general, Early Action means non-binding, and Early Decision means binding.
  3. Only students who are ready with their application materials by November can and should apply early. Know and love the school you are applying early to.
  4. Although for many schools acceptance rates in the early round are higher, the pool of competitors is often stronger on average.
  5. ED to a college you see yourself at; if accepted, you sign a contract to attend (finances permitting).
  6. You may EA to a top priority school, or EA to a school you would be satisfied with; acceptance is not binding.
  7. Students who apply early to SCEA schools sign a contract forbidding them from applying early to any other school
  8. Conduct a mental cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether or not to apply early, and where to apply early if you choose to do so.

EA vs ED

First: let’s clear up some differences. EA schools like Stanford and Yale will accept early applications from a self-selecting group of students, and accept, reject, or defer applicants. A rejection is a rejection: the student cannot apply to the school again. A deferral means the student will be reconsidered in the regular round (i.e. when everyone else applies). A student who is accepted early to an EA school wins a slot in the freshman class, but has the right to apply to as many other schools through regular decision as he or she wants. Schools like these often operate under “SCEA”—Single Choice Early Action. This means that the applicant signs a contract allowing him or her to only apply to that school for the early round. Getting accepted EA is a luxury: the successful applicant will have the school “in the bag,” turning Harvard or Stanford or Yale into a backup. Applying in the regular round will add schools to the student’s list of acceptances without nullifying the early acceptance (i.e. best possible winter break).

Early Decision schools like Johns Hopkins have a slightly different policy: students who are accepted early are bound by contract to attend that school. If accepted to Hopkins or Cornell early, for example, and student forfeits the chance to apply anywhere else, and must attend that school. The school guarantees a slot for the student, and the student guarantees that he or she will attend.

So how does the distinction between EA and ED affect the acceptance rates in the early round?

In general, EA rates stay about the same, if only slightly higher. Many of the toughest schools offer SCEA, among them Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. These schools allow the best of the best to apply early and secure a spot, but do not bind them to taking the offer. It’s as if the school is confident that it is one of the applicant’s top choices. On the other hand, many ED schools, such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, have much higher Early Round acceptance rates. They know that the students they accept early will commit (as a result of the binding contract), thus increasing their yield (number of students attending divided by number of students offered admission). So if your top choice school is an ED school and you think you are ready, take advantage of the higher percentage of students who are accepted in the early round. Again, keep in mind that many early applicants are very, very strong students.

So why apply EA if the acceptance rates are not that significantly affected? First of all, receiving a decision by December could, potentially, help the successful applicant breathe a little easier: if accepted, you will likely apply to fewer schools in the regular round. Also, applying early can be interpreted as you the applicant telling the school that it is your top choice. Again, schools want to increase yield, so showing your preference by applying early could be seen as a plus. Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the ups and downs of EA. When deciding, gauge your level of preparedness: are you ready to show the school of your dreams that you’ve got what it takes?

Applying early is a harder pool

Simply put, students who are ready to apply by November tend to be more competitive for several reasons. First: by having their stuff together by November, they indicate that they are organized and on top of things; this trait often manifests itself in grades, extra-curricular activities, etc. Second, students who apply to school X early often have school X as their top choice. Thus their applications are tailor-made for that particular school, and they see themselves thriving in that school.

From a financial standpoint…

Applying early gives the student the chance to bypass the expensive application process. If accepted in the early round, a student who chooses to not apply anywhere else will save SAT costs, costs of sending SATs, application costs, and the time required to tweak an application to pseudo-perfection. In other words, students who are accepted early can potentially save thousands of dollars.

However, ED is sometimes criticized for being unfair towards certain applicant groups, as detailed in this section from “The benefits and drawbacks of applying early.“

ED plans have come under fire as unfair to students from families with low incomes, since they do not have the opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This may give an unfair advantage to applicants from families who have more financial resources.