Image from Pexels.

Image from Pexels.

On top of all of the seemingly monumental choices you are suddenly faced with as a high school senior wading into the college pool, you are confronted by the all-important element of good timing.

You see that if you apply to your top choice by November first, either “Early Action” (EA) or “Early Decision” (ED), you get to hear back by December! But if you wait and apply by January first just like everyone else, the “Regular Decision” (RD) route, you won’t hear back until March or April most likely.

You desperately want to know where you’re going to be spending the next few years of your life, and you’ve heard it’s easier to get in EA or ED, so you apply early, right? No-brainer.

Hold on. There must be more to it than that, otherwise everyone would apply early.

You have a lot of things to consider before hitting that “submit” button on an early application. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Do I really want to spend the next two, three, four or potentially more years of my life at this school, and will I still feel this way in six months?

You may be thinking you don’t have to answer this question yet—-it’s not like you’ve been accepted and have to decide where to make your deposit. However, if you’re applying ED and not EA to a school, that application is probably binding—-meaning that you are in fact committing yourself to attend that school if admitted. Yikes.

Schools do this to assess the interest level of their applicants. If you are confident enough in your application decision to bind yourself to that school, you must really like that school, and the school is more likely to like you. It’s like getting a note from your crush on Valentine’s day; suddenly you’re much more likely to give them a (chocolate) kiss than before, when you weren’t sure how they felt about you. Schools often have higher ED acceptance rates than RD acceptance rates because they know that ED applicants are committed.

EA has its risks as well. Many schools, especially private schools, only offer single-choice EA and/or ED. Meaning that, while EA is non-binding, you can only apply EA or ED to one school; all of your other applications must be made RD. There are some exceptions to this rule; sometimes you can apply EA to one private school and EA to one public school.

Thus, it is so, so, so crucial to be confident in your top choice before making the decision to apply ED or EA there. It can give you a powerful advantage over RD applicants, but only if you use it wisely.

How much of a reach is this school for me?

Okay, personal anecdote time. I applied EA. Yes, shocking, I know. But at the time I thought I had very good reasons for it: it was my top-choice school, it had all of the resources I could possibly need for the things I wanted to do, I’d been in love with it for years, I had a family member there, my best friend was also applying to it—-and there was no way in hell I was getting into it without the boost of an EA application.

My guidance counselors cautioned me against wasting my EA on this school, though, for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it was a reach school—-not a “oh just let me stand on my tip-toes” reach but a “maybe if I stand on your shoulders on a bucket on a ladder holding a ten foot pole” reach. Okay maybe that last bit is a bit of an exaggeration, but my choice wasn’t realistic; let’s leave it at that.

December rolled around and, big surprise, I got deferred. Ouch. So I submitted my RD applications and waited for the final verdict to come in April.

April came and my letter of admission did not. Very ouch. In fact, I got denied from a lot of my RD schools, including several I probably could have gotten into if I had saved my EA/ED for a more reasonable reach. It was a very “I told you so” moment.

I love the school I’ve ended up at, but I wish I had avoided the stress and pain of wasting my EA and being rejected. You, I hope, can avoid this yourself.

Dream big but keep your choices realistic. If you decide that it might not be your best option to apply ED/EA to your top choice, still apply to that school RD, but use your ED/EA to help you get into a school you really like that you only need a little bump up to get into. It’s a difficult decision to make, but you’ll thank yourself in the end.

Is November-me going to look just as strong as January-me?

The way you look on paper could drastically change in the two months between the EA/ED deadline and the RD deadline, and it could make the difference in your acceptance, for better or for worse.

If your junior year grades weren’t so stellar and you don’t like your highest ACT or SAT scores, you will have a stronger application if you wait to show colleges how your senior year grades have improved over the course of the first semester and retake standardized testing to get a higher score. In this case, RD might be the best way to go.

On the other hand, if you like where you stand academically and don’t see any major improvements happening by the end of first semester, EA/ED is still a good option. It might be even better if you’re enrolled in a difficult class senior year and think your first semester grades might not match your stellar performance record. Granted, even EA/ED colleges will see these grades eventually, but they might be less likely to affect your admissions decision if you apply before they come out.

Students get into their top choices EA, ED, and RD. As long as you’re thoughtful and realistic, you’ll make the right decision. Even if you don’t get into your top choice, it’s not the end of the world. You will be able to achieve your goals and you will be happy at pretty much any college you choose to apply to—-that’s why (or should have been why) you chose to apply to it.

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the author

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kate is currently adjusting to cooler climes as a first year at the University of Virginia. A prospective pre-med student, she enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics and contributes to her school newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, as a Health & Science writer. She mentors youth as a tennis coach and spends her free time on the piano, playing anything from Rachmaninov to the theme from The Chronicles of Narnia. An aspiring hiker, she hopes to one day complete a trek on every continent.

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