Ask a College Advisor: I Want to Apply Early Decision. When Should I Start My Application?

Hear from one of our education professionals on the timeline you should follow for early decision college applications.
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Question: I want to apply early decision. When should I start my college application?

Answer: Standard college applications are typically due in January or February of the year you plan to attend college. Early decision (ED) applications are generally due in November, while early action (EA) applications typically have a December or January deadline. For students who want to apply early decision, it's especially important to get a jump start on those applications.

Most college advisors recommend starting an ED or EA application the summer before they are due. According to the College Board, approximately 450 institutions in the U.S. offer early decision or early action options for applicants.

Early Decision vs. Early Action

Applying early decision means you are applying during a special application period where you'll be considered before other applicants. If accepted, you are committing to attend that school, and that commitment is binding. For ED, you typically apply by November and are notified by December.

Early action is also a process of applying early, but it is nonbinding. You can apply to as many schools as you choose and then compare financial aid offers. You would not have to withdraw other applications, and you could change your mind and decide not to attend a school. Many schools have early action I and early action II periods.

Deadlines for ED and EA can vary from institution to institution. Be sure to stay organized so you don't miss important submission dates.

When to Apply

Most early decision deadlines are in November, while most early action deadlines are in January or February. Based on these timelines, most counselors recommend starting your applications in the mid-to-late summer, several months before application deadlines. For high school students, this is the summer before senior year.

Binding vs. Nonbinding

A binding agreement means you have agreed to attend an institution if you are accepted. This includes withdrawing any applications from other academic institutions. However, in some cases, exceptions are made.

The most acceptable reason for backing out of an early decision offer is being accepted through the early decision admissions process but not receiving enough financial aid. Although many colleges promise to meet the demonstrated financial need of ED students, this is not always the case. Other reasons include family emergencies or circumstances that would prevent you from starting college in the fall.

Restrictive Early Action and Single-Choice Early Action

Restrictive early action (REA) limits the number of applications you can submit, but it is nonbinding. It is important to fully understand the limitations of REA. For example, some private schools have REA policies that do not allow learners to apply to other private schools during this window, but do allow them to apply to public schools.

Some colleges offer another nonbinding option called single-choice early action, where prospective students can only apply to one private school early. This policy is essentially the same as REA. It's just known by another name.

Pros and Cons of Early Decision

Pros

  • Increases chances of acceptance and demonstrates serious interest in a particular college
  • Submitting your application early can reduce the stress of working on applications and school work simultaneously
  • Receiving your college acceptance letter early can help you plan the year ahead

Cons

  • ED options do not give students the chance to compare multiple financial aid letters
  • ED forces learners to narrow down their top choice early in the application process
  • Students accepted to their college of choice early in the school year may feel less incentive to keep up their grades during their senior year of high school

Summary

If you have a definitive top school you know you want to attend, applying early decision or early action could be the right choice for you. Make sure to complete all application requirements, including essays, letters of recommendation, and school-specific financial aid forms.

November 1st is a common early decision deadline, so students should begin their applications in mid-to-late summer.


DISCLAIMER: The responses provided as part of the Ask a College Advisor series are for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact a professional academic, career, or financial advisor before making decisions regarding individual situations.