Should I Apply Early Decision to College?

By: Caroline Koppelman

When you apply to a school Early Decision you are making an unbreakable commitment. You’re telling the school, “you’re my first choice and if I get in I promise to attend.” There’s basically no caveats, exemptions, or options. If you apply to a school Early Decision and you get in, you’re going. If this sounds a little scary, that’s because it should be. Choosing to apply early is a big decision with ramifications for you long beyond the college process. It’s vital to thoroughly weigh the pros and cons. Early decision isn’t for everyone, and often times when students apply ED for the wrong reasons the college process can become even more stressful. 


When you apply early decision and make that binding commitment, it demonstrates your interest in the college. It tells the admissions officer that the student wants to go to their school more than any other, and is willing to forsake any other possible opportunities. It’s the application equivalent of putting your money where your mouth is. Colleges want students who want them, and you can prove that to them by applying Early Decision. Elite schools are filling more of their classes with ED applicants. Last year Northwestern filled 50% of its 2020 class with ED applicants, and this has been increasing among most elite schools. As such, colleges are more inclined to take applicants who fall in the lower range because of their passionate about the school.


Knowing this, many students follow what we call the early decision strategy. Students who fall just a little out of range for an elite school apply early decision when they see that ED acceptance rates can sometimes be more than 10% higher than regular decision. When their chances improve that much simply by applying earlier, many students tell themselves that it would be foolish not to do so. There are many reasons this is not true.


First, the early admission statistics can be deceptive. The early decision pools often include large numbers of legacy students, athletes, and applicants with connections to the university who have a much better chance of getting in due to other circumstances. While they are technically Early Decision candidates, these student’s applications are commonly not representative of a school’s actual admission rate. These applications can many times inflate the early acceptance rates schools release.


Second, and most importantly, students should never forget that Early Decision is binding and virtually non-negotiable. If you get in, you go. You should only apply early if you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is the school for you. If you’re a qualified applicant who has been dreaming of attending Dartmouth since you were 10 years old, spending months crafting your supplements and picking out which professors you’re hoping to study with, then Early Decision may be for you. But if you’re simply applying for the percentage boost or to try to get the process over early, you’re making a mistake.


There’s a high probability that you won’t know what school you want to go to by November 1st. Picking the school for you requires months of research, exploration, and discovery. It’s an arduous process but it can also extremely fun, giving you a glimpse at exactly what kind of place you want to spend the next four years of your life. Having the choice afforded to you by non-binding early or regular decision can help you refine and realize what you’re looking for from your college experience. Some of our students have even expressed relief at being rejected early decision because they had the chance to find a better fit for them.


Finally, applying early decision will not be a band-aid to other issues with an application. While applying ED does show interest and can increase your shot at getting in, if your grades and test scores are not reasonably within the school’s admitted range you’re still unlikely to be admitted.


As we keep saying, early decision isn’t for everyone. For those students who are strong candidates, who have their heart absolutely set on a school, it is often the right choice. But for those who are applying for less passionate reasons, they may find themselves frustrated and disappointed whether they get in or not. So, carefully weigh your options. College will be some of the best years of your life. Don’t make a mistake early that could put you in a bad position.