The Truth Behind Early Decision College Applications


Before we dive in, it’s important to understand the differences between early decision, early action, and regular decision when you’re applying to colleges. Here are the basic definitions of each one:

Early Decision: It’s binding, so you have to go to the college if you get in.

Early Action: It’s non-binding, so you don’t have to go to the college if you get in. The benefit of Early Action is that you get an answer on your admission status in December, much earlier than Regular Decision.

Regular Decision: It’s also non-binding, but you will have to wait until the spring to hear back from colleges.

For as long as those three options have existed, students and parents alike have been trying to figure out which one provides the best chance of acceptance. The short answer? It depends.  I know, I know, that’s a terrible answer, but it’s true; it totally depends on the individual students and universities.

For some colleges, there’s very little difference in acceptance rates between the binding Early Decision and the two non-binding options. If that’s the case, there’s little to no reason to forfeit all your flexibility and apply with Early Decision.

However, some colleges (mostly the elite, Ivy League ones) have significantly higher acceptance rates for students who use Early Decision. For example, Northwestern’s Regular Decision acceptance rate is 7.2%, but its Early Decision acceptance rate is 26.9%  You’re nearly 4 times more likely to get into Northwestern if you apply Early Decision! So if that’s your dream school, by all means, use Early Decision.

The most important first step when you’re trying to figure out which application lane is best for you is simply to do some research. This link shows the differences in acceptance rates for over 100 schools, so take a quick look and see if your schools are on it. The general rule of thumb is to avoid Early Decision unless it at least doubles your chances, and even then, you have to be absolutely sure you aren’t going to change your mind. That’s a pretty tall order given the fact that you might have changed your mind multiple times this morning just deciding what to wear. But if you can check both of those boxes, then go ahead, cross your fingers, and give Early Decision a shot.