One of the least favorite things a guidance counselor likes to hear from a senior in September or October is: “I am going to apply Early Decision, I just don't know where.” Early Decision is a binding proposition. A student applies early, is notified early, and if accepted agrees to withdraw all other college applications and commits to attending.
“That is putting the cart before the horse. It just doesn't make sense,” according to Lin Shropshire, chair of counseling at Charlotte's Myers Park High School. “We encourage students to do their homework and if they identify a college that they're 100 percent sure is a good fit for them, then and only then does it make sense to apply Early Decision.”
The process can get a little confusing, because there are a handful of college application deadline options:
Early Decision (ED): May only apply to one college; need signature of guidance counselor. Binding.
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Early Action (EA): Apply early, notified early, non-binding.
Single Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action (REA): Non-binding, but students can only apply to one college with any “early” program.
Regular Decision (RD): December, January and February application deadlines with notification in March and April.
Rolling Admission (RA): Schools review applications as they're submitted and notify students on an ongoing basis.
About 300 colleges offer early decision or early action programs. Many colleges and universities provide a menu of programs including Early Decision I and II, both binding but with different submission dates, as well as the non-binding Early Action.
Advantages and disadvantages of Early Decision:
Advantages: The reasons many students are interested in applying early are twofold: They are notified earlier, which can relieve some stress during senior year; and the well-documented higher rates of acceptance with these programs. A 2002 study at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard equated the advantage of applying early to a 100-point increase in your SAT score.
Disadvantages: Since Early Decision is binding, the biggest drawback is that students will not be able to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools. Also, there is the possibility that your student might change her mind or stumble across another “perfect” college during senior year.
There are few downsides to Early Action programs. If accepted through Early Action, students still have all of their options open to them and are not required to make a decision until May 1.
Talk to your guidance counselor before committing to an Early Decision application. Be sure this is a true first choice.
Don't apply Early Decision because you believe you'll have a better chance of acceptance.
Be aware of testing deadlines and testing requirements. Many Early Decision colleges require SAT Subject Tests.
Understand that colleges will not see your senior grades. If your academic record will be aided by a strong performance in your senior year, an early program may not be for you.