Before answering this question, we need to get our terminology clear:
Early Decision is a BINDING contract between the student and the school. If you are accepted, you are going, no ifs, ands or buts (the one exception to this is if you are not offered a financial aid package that meets your actual financial NEED – not what you think you need, but what the government determines you need.) Your deposit will be due within a few weeks of hearing of your acceptance. You should apply Early Decision to the one college on your list that is your absolute number-one choice.
Early ACTION is a favor the colleges do for students who are able to submit their grades, test scores, essays, recommendations and other application materials before the rush, usually by November 1, but in some cases, November 15. The favor they do for you is that they will let you know of your admissions decision earlier than everyone else – usually by mid-December. This is NOT a BINDING decision, meaning you have until May 1 to respond to their offer, if you are admitted.
Some schools have Early Decision, and some have Early Action. You may only apply Early Decision to ONE school. You may apply Early Action to multiple schools, with a few exceptions – some colleges have a restricted form of Early Action (called Restricted or Single Choice Early Action) which says that you may ONLY apply to their Early Action program, no others (Yale and Stanford have this type of plan).
If your #1 top choice college has an early decision option, you should review the checklist below, and if you can check every box, you should apply Early Decision! If you’re admitted, you’ll have this whole college admissions thing wrapped up before Christmas, just as your friends are starting to freak out big time.
And you should know, the statistics show that at some colleges, the acceptance rate for Early Decision applicants is higher than in the regular decision round.
If you can’t quite put your finger on which school is your super-duper #1 choice (here’s our acid test: if you were accepted to every single college on your list, where would you go? If you can answer that NOW, that’s your ED school!), then you probably shouldn’t apply Early Decision, if that’s the only early option.
We love Early Action programs and strongly recommend them to our clients. There is just no downside – and the upside, aside from getting your admission decision sooner, is that you will be done submitting applications, at least for a few schools. It’s a great incentive to force yourself to get those essays done sooner instead of waiting for the very last moment.
Even if you aren’t quite able to finish everything and submit before November 1, don’t wait until the last minute to submit applications! Assume that some computer system will crash at 11:52 the day it’s due, and get it in before that! When we create task lists and deadlines for our clients, we almost never have them submit their applications the day or the day before the deadline. If it’s January 10th, get it in before Christmas and be done with it. This is the hard part – the part where students are putting themselves and their credentials out there for judgment. We know it’s difficult – but life will be much better when applications are submitted and decisions are in someone else’s hands.