Every year, students ask me if they should apply early, expecting a simple yes or no answer. The reality is that this question is far more complicated, and that every student with hopes set on a particular school should ask themselves this.
Before we begin, I’d like to explain the difference between two types of early applications: Early Action and Early Decision. Some schools offer one; some schools offer both. Some schools offer neither one. (In fact, I got into Princeton via Early Action -- they did NOT have Early Decision!) Early Action is a non-binding early application -- this means that you are under no application to attend the school that accepts your early application. Early Decision, however, is a binding application, meaning that you must attend the school that accepts your early application. In the case that you’ve applied to other schools, you must also withdraw those applications.
But what’s the benefit of applying early?
(Photo credit to IvyWise.)
Not all schools like releasing statistics, but, generally, the chances of getting in are higher with Early Decision/Early Action. Harvard, for example, accepted 13.9% of its Early Action applications in 2019 -- compared with its standard 4.5% acceptance rate. Stanford accepted 9.52% of its early applicants -- compared with its standard 4.4% acceptance rate. But if those odds don’t seem very good to you, let’s take a look at some less competitive universities: Boston College accepted 37% of its Early Decision applicants -- filling 42% of the incoming class! Compare this with its 27.9% acceptance rate. This seems like a good sign -- after all, many admissions officers will profess to preferring early applicants because they’ve demonstrated their commitment to their university.
But it’s not as simple as it seems. Sure, some early applicants are gaining acceptance because they’ve demonstrated passion for their dream school -- but many others are legacy applicants, meaning that their parents have attended the school. Some universities don’t care about this, but others really do -- and you can see this in their acceptance rates of legacy students.
But should you apply early?
I’m a big advocate of early admissions. That’s how I got into college! But here’s the method that I’ve found most helpful in making this decision:
I would recommend going through your whole schools list to see what schools have early application plans and which ones don’t.
Which one is your top school? If you were accepted via Early Decision (i.e. a binding plan), would you be happy? Are there several schools that offer Early Action (i.e. a non-binding plan)? Could you apply to multiple?
Where are you a competitive applicant -- i.e. where would an early application help your chances? Consider your extracurriculars, standardized test scores, grades, letters of rec, etc. Don’t apply early to your safety school: that’s why they’re your safety school! Apply early to the places where your odds are good, but not where you have any kind of certainty that you’d get in. This should be a school from your dream list, in my opinion.
Are you ready to do the extra work? Early applications always require that you turn your essays in early. Do you have it in you to turn in your early essays two months earlier than your other ones?
These are all questions to consider as you begin your college applications. I hope that this has been helpful and that your early applications help you land a spot at the school of your dreams!