Early admissions programs are becoming more prevalent, but they may be the most enticing and confusing part of the college admissions process. The benefits, requirements, and definition of terms for these programs vary from school to school, so it is important to read the obligations for the schools to which you plan to apply.
These programs can benefit you as much as they benefit the school. For you, it means knowing if you are admitted to a school early in your senior year. You can enjoy the rest of the year without worrying about keeping applications and deadlines straight or waiting anxiously for decisions. For the school, it means locking in students who are interested in their school early in the admissions process. This helps schools better estimate their incoming class.
Early decision programs allow you to apply to a school early (usually in November or early December). You will receive an admission decision from a school in advance of their usual notification date. However, these programs are “binding.” If you apply as an early decision applicant to a school, you agree to attend this school if admitted. Usually, you are offered an ample financial aid package, but because you are committed to this school, you have little room to negotiate a better financial aid package if you are unsatisfied with a school’s original offer.
You are expected to apply to only one school on an early decision basis. However, you may apply to other schools using their regular application deadlines. If you are admitted to your early decision school, you are expected to withdraw all other applications or decline admission to any school to which you are admitted.
Early action programs are a little less of a commitment. Similar to early decision, you apply early and will learn of an admission decision from a school earlier than students who apply using regular admissions deadlines. Unlike early decision programs, most early action programs are not binding, and you are not committed to attending that school if admitted. You may apply to other schools and compare admission and financial aid offers.
If you are unsure which school is the best fit for you or if you believe your senior grades and achievements will strengthen your application, do not apply to a school under their early admissions program.
However, if you plan to apply under any early admissions program, it is important to do your research on all your top schools. Prepare your application files carefully, talk with admissions counselors, visit campus, and talk with current students to make sure that your early admission school is your top choice.