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The Early Application Dilemma

Early application plans pose a dilemma. Early Decision (ED) means that a student applies to one school, usually in November, receives a decision in December, and is then obligated to attend if accepted. Acceptance rates are higher at most schools for Early Decision applicants, sometimes significantly so, and students may feel pressured to apply ED to a college without considering whether the school is truly a good match, for fear of missing out on the competitive edge.

For a student who is passionate about one school, applying Early Decision can get the stressful college application process over with and allow him to enjoy his senior year. The risk is that his passion may fade, but he’s made a binding commitment. What started as a way to lower stress may end up making the student feel trapped.

Early Action (EA) also often has a November deadline and December notification, but the student has until May to decide whether to accept the college’s offer of admission. You secure a place early at that college and hold onto it while going through the regular decision process at other schools. For students who have done their re-search early and identified the schools that meet their needs, these early notification programs can reduce the stress of applying to college. But applying early isn’t for everyone. Make sure there really is a strategic advantage to applying early. It doesn’t make sense to apply early if a student is not a strong candidate. If it looks like his grades will improve senior year, or if he’s only taken the SAT or ACT once and believes he can increase his score, it may be better to wait.

There’s another, more practical consideration in applying Early Decision. If the student is applying for financial aid, he may need to consider the financial aid package in determining which school to attend. Some packages may offer more grant money while others are largely loans. If a student has four or five acceptances, he can compare financial aid packages, but with Early Decision, there is no option for comparing student aid offers. Although most colleges allow ED and EA applicants to apply to certain other Early Action colleges (i.e. public institutions), a few institutions restrict this through their restrictive early action (REA) agreements. Check rules carefully when applying.

While it may seem as though you could wait until you receive responses to your EA or ED application, continuing to research and create other applications helps to take the pressure off the one Early application. Though your chances are higher with an Early application, there are no guarantees you will be chosen. You may be denied, or your application may be deferred and reviewed again during the Regular Decision period. In either case, you will need to submit a flurry of strong applications to other colleges in a very short time period, often by the end of December. Avoid that panic and pressure! Have thoughtful applications ready to go. If you receive an acceptance letter, you’ll be happy to end the year with a celebration! If not, you’ll feel secure that you can move ahead without skipping a beat.

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