In my high school English class senior year, 14 out of 15 of us got into our first choice colleges. The only one who didn’t was the only one who did not apply early. Case closed? Not exactly. Some of my classmates regretted landing where they did, while the one girl who went to the state school she got into Regular Decision not only had a great time—she also managed to save a huge amount of money. The truth is, there is no one answer to the question of Early vs. Regular, and feel free to walk away from anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. What is right for you will depend on your unique combo of circumstances, ambitions, and constraints. Check out the different options broken down below.
EARLY DECISION (BINDING)
Apply to one school in November, hear from that one school in December. Then, depending on the results, kick your feet up and get ready to enjoy a reduced-stress senior year, or race to get the rest of your applications in by the Regular Decision application deadline.
Most attractive option for monogamists. Students who have their heart set on one competitive school that feels like a good fit or is a slight reach can do well applying early, especially if they can articulate why they go starry-eyed at the mention of Sarah Lawrence. Schools love to be flattered and they especially love to be told they are a person’s first choice.
Also, students who don’t have to worry about financial aid, since whatever package the school offers is non-negotiable. Schools usually have more money to play around with at the end of the process, so students in search of the best deal should opt for Regular Decision.
EARLY ACTION (NON-BINDING)
Apply to one school in November, hear from that one school in December, and then decide whether that school is, after all, The One.
Most attractive option for waverers. Because early action is non-binding, this works well for students who need an acceptance to come equipped with a parachute. Those who weren’t offered as much aid as they had hoped for can choose to try their luck with the Regular Decision applicant pools at other schools, and students who think they might change their minds between November and December can act on their new agendas without penalty.
Apply to several schools in November, hear from those schools in December, and, if you are accepted at more than one, make your decision.
Most attractive option for players. Students who want the advantages of applying early minus the disadvantages of having to commit will like this option. In fact, doesn’t it sound a bit too good to be true? It may be: only a handful of schools offer this option.
Apply whenever, hear whenever, choose whenever.
Most attractive option for commitment-phobes. The truly deadline-averse and those who weren’t accepted anywhere in April can rest a little easier knowing that some schools—generally large, less selective ones—keep the admissions process open through the spring.
Upside: students usually receive an answer less than a month after they apply. Downside: a university with a free spot in mid-May might have already doled out all of its aid and housing.
And, finally, REGULAR DECISION
Apply to a range of schools from reaches to safeties in December, hear from them in April, and make a choice. This is the Easy Bake Oven of admissions procedures—so easy a six-year-old could do it, as long as that six year old has a good grasp of deadlines.
Most attractive option for almost everyone. Although some applicants feel that their fate hinges on an acceptance at UNC or Notre Dame, plenty of others understand that most people can be happy at most schools. That being the case, why go through the intensity and pressure of applying early? Applying RD allows for more time to assemble applications and more choice in the spring, when alluring weather makes touring colleges more fun.
The nation’s most prestigious schools are in the midst of an ongoing debate about how to handle an application process that seems to favor the rich, because students who don’t have to agonize over aid packages are generally the ones who can benefit from applying early. That benefit is nothing to sneeze at, either: for Columbia University’s entering class of 2007, the Regular Decision acceptance rate (10.4%) was less than half the Early Decision acceptance rate (24.4%). And wealthier families already have a leg up, as they are more likely to be able to afford helpful perks like SAT tutors and classes for their children that often produce higher scores.
In order to strive for fairness, in 2007 Harvard and Princeton decided to make Regular Decision their only option. Yale is retaining its single choice Early Action protocol (and is working to address the underlying issues in other ways), while the rest of the Ivies continue to offer Early Decision—at least for now.
Though at some schools the advantages of applying early may seem clear, make sure you do your research. Some schools actually accept a higher percentage from their RD pool, possibly because the ED/EA pool is stronger. Check out this chart for more information, some of it pretty surprising.