In many cases, applying early to college can give you an edge.
“There is certainly an admissions strategy with applying early,” said Shannon Vasconcelos, senior director of college finance for child-care provider Bright Horizons.
But students would need to act soon: Whether it’s nonbinding early action or early decision, which is binding, the deadlines for these types of applications are typically Nov. 1 or Nov. 15 for a December decision, or even earlier for rolling admission.
Key factors to consider before applying early
“A lot of people view early action or early decision as interchangeable,” said Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm. However, “early action, in certain cases, makes no difference in admission.” Early decision, on the other hand, can “help leverage someone’s admissions chances.”
Despite the possibility of improving your odds of acceptance, there are other factors to consider, especially when it comes to financial aid.
With cost now the No. 1 factor when choosing a college for a lot of people, it’s usually the early bird who benefits, because some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, or from programs with limited funds. The earlier families apply, the better the chance to be in line for that aid, according to Rick Castellano, spokesman for Sallie Mae.
But pledging to one institution would mean forgoing the chance to compare different packages from other schools.
“You are committing to attend that school if they accept you, so you don’t get to shop around, you don’t get to see the offers from other schools or go back and negotiate based on other offers — that’s off the table if you apply early decision,” Vasconcelos said.
This year, there are additional challenges with a delayed Free Application for Federal Student Aid. For the 2024-2025 school year, the FAFSA filing season will open in December, two months later than in previous years.
“That puts students and their families in a bind,” said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review. ”Almost certainly, every student who is applying early will not have the ability to file their FAFSA form, so they will be going through the process but not have this guidance when they are making their decisions.”
The net price calculators on college websites may also not be up to date with the FAFSA’s new formula, Vasconcelos added, which was the best tool families had to compare college costs and determine what their price is likely to be if they get in.
For students who apply early without this key piece of information, there is a concession: Some colleges may let you off the hook if your early decision offer falls short of your financial aid needs. (Typically, a “better” offer includes more grant and scholarship money and fewer loans.)
“If the school cannot meet the student’s needs, it can be possible to walk away from an early acceptance,” Greenberg said. “I think that’s very fair.”
Still, “very few people know it,” he added. “Just check with the admissions office or financial aid office for that application year — this allows many more people who don’t have the means to pay full tuition to get the benefit of early decision.”
Early applicants tend to be less ‘price sensitive’
More often, it’s college-bound seniors with assistance from expert college counseling who are using early decision to better their chances of getting in. That implies they have the means and access to navigate this route, Franek noted.
“Students who are applying early are likely not as price-sensitive,” he said.
Although most families do not have this same level of support, books, webinars and the online tools on studentaid.gov can help level the playing field. “Look for the free resources that are out there,” Vasconcelos said.
For colleges, early decision is a win-win
For schools, offering students an option to apply early has clear advantages.
For starters, increasing the likelihood that a student will say yes improves a college’s yield — or the percent of students who choose to enroll after being admitted — which is an important statistic for schools.
In addition, getting a head start on the makeup of the freshman class helps admissions officers balance out enrollment needs with financial aid requests.
More schools — especially selective private colleges — now offer an early application, and those institutions accept more students ahead of the regular decision deadline, Franek said.
Of the schools on The Princeton Review’s Best Colleges list, 282 out of the 389 have an early action or early decision option in the beginning of November. (Some schools also offer another option, called Early Decision II, which is due in January.)
At those schools, including Emory University, Colgate University, Swarthmore College, Tulane University, Middlebury College and Washington University in St. Louis, as many as 50% or 60% of the freshman class comes from the early application pool, Franek said, although it could be even more than that.
At Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, 69% of 2022′s freshman class was admitted early.
Other considerations before applying early
For students, applying early may leave less time to work on their application, compare different types of colleges, visit campuses and prep and sit for standardized tests.
Some high school seniors could benefit by spending more time choosing a school or bolstering their own candidacy through classwork or extracurricular activities, including sports, community service or clubs.
“The only reason not to apply early action is if you are really not ready,” Vasconcelos said. “If it means throwing together a haphazard application, then you might want to wait to give yourself time.”