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Ultimate Guide to Early Applications

by Will Geiger, on Oct 10, 2019 1:51:25 PM

“What if I don’t want to apply anywhere Early Decision?” my student asked me.

I paused for a moment.

“Well, you don’t have to. There are other options…”

I proceeded to go through all of the different early application options, from vanilla Early Decision to Single Choice Early Action. As I went on, I saw the student’s eyes glaze over. I took a step back and tried to slowly work through each of the five early application options. When the student left my office, I wondered: When did early applications get so complicated?

There are at least five different early application options available to students, and it’s important to understand the differences between all of these early application options. As a former guidance counselor and admissions officer at a college that offered Early Decision, I can safely say that Early Decision is the simplest way to increase a student’s admissions chances. In fact, a Washington Post analysis found that students who apply to a school via binding Early Decision are admitted at a rate “significantly higher than total admissions rates…[and] that Early Decision fills a large share of the class at many schools.” In other words, if you don’t apply to the right colleges early (or simply decide not to apply anywhere early), you’re limiting your chance at the outcomes you’re hoping for. 

In this guide, you’ll learn about the major early application options that you’ll encounter, including:

  • Early Decision I
  • Early Decision II
  • Early Action
  • Restricted Early Action
  • Single Choice Early Action

You’ll also find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about early applications.

Early Decision I

Early Decision I is an early application process that is binding and requires students to attend the college if admitted (meaning that students can only apply to one Early Decision I college). In exchange, these students are given preferential treatment in the admissions process, because the colleges know that they will definitely attend if admitted. Early Decision I deadlines tend to be on either November 1st or November 15th, and students receive their decision in mid-December.

Early Decision II

Early Decision II is the same binding process as Early Decision, except the deadline and decision response date are later in the year. Early Decision II deadlines tend to be in early to mid-January and generally align with the college's Regular Decision deadline. Students will receive their Early Decision II results in mid-February. If students are not admitted to their Early Decision I college, they are free to apply to another college Early Decision II. 

Early Action

Early Action is an unrestricted early application process that allows students to apply to multiple colleges. Early Action has an early application deadline, as well as an early decision response date. Similar to Early Decision, Early Action deadlines can be as early as October 15th and as late as mid-November. Students will usually receive their decision from mid-December to mid-January. Note that students are free to combine both Early Decision and Early Action applications—though, because Early Decision is binding, students will need to withdraw their Early Action applications if admitted Early Decision. 

Restricted Early Action

Restricted Early Action is a non-binding early application process that is similar to Early Action In terms of deadline date and response date. The difference is that students can’t apply Restricted Early Action to a college and Early Decision to another college. With this said, students can apply to multiple Restricted Early Action colleges and non-restricted Early Action colleges. 

Single Choice Early Action

Finally, the early application option with the narrowest scope is Single Choice Early Action, which is offered by only four institutions: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Single Choice Early Action is non-binding but prevents students from applying to other colleges Early Decision, Restricted Early Action, and unrestricted Early Action at private colleges and universities. Students are free to apply Single Choice Early Action to one of these schools and to apply Early Action to public institutions (including the University of Virginia, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and University of Michigan). 

We recognize there’s a lot to digest here! If you ever have any doubt about a specific college’s early application policy, you should review the college’s admissions website or contact an admissions officer at the college for clarification. 

Now, let's talk about creating an early application strategy:

Give strong consideration to applying Early Decision 

Applying to a college Early Decision will give you an admissions advantage, so you should seriously consider it as an option. But picking your Early Decision school is important because you only have one shot—so focus on colleges that you are REALLY excited about. 

Make sure you choose a school where you think you have a decent shot at getting admitted—Early Decision is probably not going to make a difference for an extreme reach school. Additionally, you need to make sure that the college is affordable by using the Net Price Calculator.  

Finally, even though students who apply Early Decision get extra consideration in the admissions process, there are no guarantees, so don’t slack off on applying to other colleges via Regular Decision.

Combining Early Decision and Early Action

If you apply Early Decision to your top choice college, you’re usually still free to apply to other colleges Early Action (as long as those Early Action colleges aren’t Single Choice or Restricted). This means that you can combine Early Action applications WITH Early Decision.

As a rule of thumb, if any of the colleges you are interested in offer an Early Action option, you should apply Early Action (assuming this does not conflict with any of your other Early Action or Early Decision options). Applying Early Action will allow you to receive a decision more quickly, which will potentially give you more options earlier on in the process. This may mean that you don’t have to apply to other schools on your list (saving you time and money in application fees and bringing you peace of mind).

One of the benefits of this strategy is that even if you don’t get into your Early Decision college, you may get into an Early Action college or two, which takes a lot of the pressure out of the application process!

Now, onto some frequently asked questions about early applications.

What happens if I want to apply Early Decision, but need financial aid? 

Early Decision is a binding process, which means that you are potentially agreeing to attend a college without seeing your official financial aid package. If you are in this situation, you should complete the Net Price Calculator, which will provide you with an estimate of need-based financial aid (excluding potential merit scholarships). This is the best way for students to assess whether or not a college is affordable. If it is, you can be confident about applying Early Decision. You might be wondering: What if my financial aid isn’t enough? If you’re accepted to a school only to find that the offered financial aid does not line up with your Net Price Calculator estimate, you can request to be released from your Early Decision agreement, though this should be reserved as a last resort. 

Is there any advantage to applying Early Action?

Early Action does not give you an explicit admissions advantage the way Early Decision does. That being said, Early Action will allow you to receive your admissions decisions more quickly, which can potentially provide you with a few college options earlier on in the process (which removes some of the stress for students). Generally, it is a good idea to apply Early Action if you are given the option.

Are there any times when early applications are not a good idea?

For most students, early applications will make sense. The only situation when you may want to reconsider (and talk to your college coach or guidance counselor) is if you had a rough junior year academically. If this is the case, you may want to wait for a full semester of grades before applying.

Bottom line

Early applications are a good move for most students, particularly binding Early Decision, which will put you in the best possible position in a college’s admissions pool. However, because Early Decision is binding, you need to be certain that your Early Decision school is the one you want to attend the most. Because Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, and Single Choice Early Action all have earlier deadlines, you will need to complete your application on an accelerated schedule. Here are a few tools to help you stay on top of everything:

  • StoryBuilder helps students write powerful essays with a proven step-by-step process. StoryBuilder also includes free courses that focus on personal statements, supplemental essays, and scholarship essays. 
  • Story2's "The Only College Checklist You'll Ever Need". The admissions and financial aid processes include a LOT of steps for students to keep track of. This comprehensive checklist lists every essential step allowing you to stay on track!
  • Ultimate Guide to the Common App eBook. This eBook walks students through the Common App with tips and guidance on every single question. Additionally, students will learn how to use the Common App to tell their personal story.


Topics:college admission