Should You Apply to College Early?

Learn the Pros and Cons of Applying to College Early Action or Early Decision

Admissions Office at Harvard University
Admissions Office at Harvard University. Glen Cooper / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Most highly selective colleges in the country have a regular admission deadline sometime between the end of December and mid February. Most also have a deadline for Early Action or Early Decision applicants that typically falls in early November. This article explores some of the advantages as well as a couple disadvantages of applying to college under one of these early admission programs.

Fast Facts About Applying Early

  • At selective schools, applying through Early Decision or Early Action will often more than double your chances of being admitted.
  • Many top schools fill more than 40% of their class with early applicants.
  • Early Decision applicants are committing to attend if admitted, so they lose the opportunity to shop around for the best financial aid.

What Are Early Action and Early Decision? 

It's important to realize that Early Action and Early Decision admission programs have important differences:

  • Early Action: One of the most attractive options, Early Action allows students to apply to as many colleges as they want, and they are not obligated to attend if admitted. Students have until May 1st to make a decision about attending.
  • Single-Choice Early Action: As with Early Action, Single-Choice Early Action applicants are not bound to attend should they be admitted. Also, like Early Action, applicants have until May 1st to make a decision. Unlike regular Early Action, you can apply to only one college through an early application program (but you can apply to other schools through non-binding regular admission programs). This restriction helps the college better measure the applicant's demonstrated interest than is possible with an Early Action program.
  • Early Decision: The most restrictive of the early admission programs, Early Decision is binding and restrictive. You can apply to just one college through an early admission program, and if admitted, you need to withdraw any other college applications and attend. Early Decision is a poor choice for students who aren't sure where they want to attend.

Does Applying Early Improve Your Chances?

Colleges will tell you that they use the same standards, if not higher standards, when admitting students through their Early Action and Early Decision programs. On one level, this is probably true. The strongest, most interested students tend to apply early. Students who don't make the cut will often be moved into the regular admission pool, and the admission decision will be deferred. Students who clearly aren't qualified to be admitted will be rejected rather than deferred.

Despite what colleges say, the actual admission numbers show that your chances of being admitted are significantly higher should you apply through an Early Action or Early Decision program. This table of Ivy League data for the class of 2023 makes this point clear:

Ivy League Early and Regular Admit Rates
College Early Admit Rate
(Class of 2023)
Overall Admit Rate
(Class of 2023)
Type of Admission
Brown 18.2% 6.6% Early Decision
Columbia 14.6% 5.1% Early Decision
Cornell 22.6% 10.6% Early Decision
Dartmouth 23.2% 7.9% Early Decision
Harvard 13.4% 4.5% Single-Choice Early Action
Princeton 14% 5.8% Single-Choice Early Action
U Penn 18% 7.4% Early Decision
Yale 13.2% 5.9% Single-Choice Early Action
Data Source: Ivy League university websites

Keep in mind that the overall admit rate listed above includes the early admit students. This means that the admit rate for the regular applicant pool is even lower than the overall admit rate numbers. As an example, Harvard's overall acceptance rate for the class of 2023 was 4.5% whereas the early decision acceptance rate was 13.4%. This might seem to suggest that applying early makes admission about three times more likely. However, if we subtract out the early decision applicants from the overall acceptance rate, we find that the actual regular decision acceptance rate is just 2.8%. This means that students who apply early are almost five times more likely to be admitted.

Colleges Like Early Applicants. Here's Why.

Many top colleges and universities (including all of the Ivies) fill well over 40% of their class with early applicants. There are good reason why schools do this: 

  • Early applicants are motivated.
  • Early applicants have to be organized to get their applications ready by early November (or earlier).
  • Early applicants are showing a commitment to the school. Applying early is an important measure of a student's demonstrated interest.
  • The college can lock-in its in-coming class early and have less uncertainty in the spring.

Benefits of Applying to College Early Action or Early Decision

  • Improve your chances of being admitted.
  • Demonstrate your interest in a college.
  • Get your admission decision before Christmas, and if the news is good, save yourself from a stressful spring.

Downside of Applying Early

  • With Early Decision, you must attend if admitted.
  • With Early Decision, you won't be able to compare financial aid packages, and you'll have less leverage for negotiating your aid.
  • You need to have your application polished two months earlier than regular applicants.
  • Any SAT or ACT exams after October will probably be too late for consideration when applying early.