What is Early Decision?

Learn the pros and cons of applying to college through early an decision program

Sign for a University Admissions Office
Sign for a University Admissions Office. sshepard / E+ / Getty Images

Early decision, like early action, is an accelerated college application process in which students typically must complete their applications in November. In most cases, students will then receive a decision from the college before the new year. Applying early decision can improve your chances of being admitted, but the restrictions of the program make it a bad choice for many applicants.

The Benefits of Early Decision for the Student

At top schools that have early decision programs, the number of applicants admitted early has been growing steadily year after year.

Early decision has a few obvious benefits:

  • Frequently the acceptance rate is higher for early decision than it is for regular admissions. At many colleges and universities, early applicants are often more than twice as likely to be admitted. Some schools lock in nearly half of their incoming class through the early decision applicant pool.
  • Related to the point above, applying early decision is an excellent way to demonstrate your interest in a college. When you commit to a binding admission decision, you show that you are sincere about your desire to attend.
  • Students who aren't accepted early are often deferred and reconsidered with the regular applicant pool. Although there are steps you can take when deferred to improve your chances slightly, you'll still be stuck in what is often a frustrating and demoralizing limbo.
  • Students who are accepted early are done stressing about getting into college months before most applicants. Think about how great it would be to be able to enjoy most of senior year without the stress of college applications.

    The Benefits of Early Decision for the College or University

    While it would be nice to think that colleges offer early decision options strictly for the benefit of applicants, colleges aren't that selfless. There are several reasons why colleges like early decision:

    • Applicants who apply early decision are almost certain to attend if admitted. When the college doesn't have to worry about yield, it can better manage its enrollment strategy.
    • Applicants who apply early decision have made a clear statement that the school is their number one choice. This type of institutional interest and loyalty is valuable for a college both in terms of higher retention rates and future alumni giving prospects.
    • When a college can lock in a significant percentage of the incoming class by late December, spring recruitment efforts are much easier, and the college can better gauge how many resources need to be put into filling the class.
    • While applying early decision typically doesn't hurt an applicant's financial aid package, it does make it more difficult for the applicant to negotiate the aid package.

    Drawbacks of Early Decision

    For a college, there are few if any negative consequences in having an early decision program. However, for applicants, early decision is not as attractive as early action for several reasons:

    • Early decision is binding. If admitted, a student must attend the school or else lose a sizable enrollment deposit.
    • A student may apply to only one college early (although additional applications for regular admissions are allowed).
    • If accepted, a student must withdraw all other college applications.
    • A student accepted early must often decide to attend before receiving a financial aid package. This issue is better than it used to be because changes to the FAFSA in 2017 now make it possible for colleges to calculate financial aid packages for early applicants at the time of the admissions decision. Also, keep in mind that colleges do allow students to break the early decision contract if the school fails to come up with enough aid to meet a student's demonstrated need, but realize that the student's need is calculated by the school and the FAFSA, not by what students think they can afford.

      Because of the restrictions placed on applicants applying through early decision, a student should not apply early unless he or she is 100% sure that the college is the best choice.

      Also, be careful about the financial aid issue. A student who gets accepted through early decision has no way to compare financial aid offers. The money issue, in fact, is the main reason why a few schools like Harvard and University of Virginia dropped their early decision programs; they felt it gave wealthy students an unfair advantage. Some schools moved to a single-choice early action option that keeps the benefits of measuring a student's interest while doing away with the binding nature of early decision programs.

      Deadlines and Decision Dates for Early Decision

      The table below shows a small sampling of early decision deadlines and response dates.

      Sample Early Decision Dates
      CollegeApplication DeadlineReceive a Decision by...
      Alfred UniversityNovember 1November 15
      American UniversityNovember 15December 31
      Boston UniversityNovember 1December 15
      Brandeis UniversityNovember 1December 15
      Elon UniversityNovember 1December 1
      Emory UniversityNovemer 1December 15
      Harvey MuddNovember 15December 15
      Vanderbilt UniversityNovember 1December 15
      Williams CollegeNovember 15December 15

      Note that about half of these schools have Early Decision I and Early Decision II options. For a range of reasons — from standardized test dates to busy fall schedules — some students simply can't get their applications complete by early November. With Early Decision II, an applicant can often submit the application in December or even early January and receive a decision in January or February. There's little data available to state if students who apply with the earlier deadline fare better than those who apply later, but both programs are binding and both have the same benefit of demonstrating the applicant's commitment to attending the school. If possible, however, applying Early Decision I is likely to be your best option.

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      Grove, Allen. "What is Early Decision?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-early-decision-786929. Grove, Allen. (2017, October 29). What is Early Decision? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-early-decision-786929 Grove, Allen. "What is Early Decision?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-early-decision-786929 (accessed December 18, 2017).