Will Early Decision Increase my Chances of Acceptance?
Updated: May 26
In today’s higher education landscape, most colleges offer a path for students to submit their application materials before an early deadline—generally fall of senior year.
This process has been on the rise in recent years. As the National Association for College Admission Counseling shared in their 2019 “State of College Admission” report,
“Between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018, colleges reported an average increase of 11 percent in the number of Early Decision applicants and 10 percent in ED admits. The number of Early Action applications increased by 10 percent and the number of students accepted through EA increased by 9 percent.”
Essentially, applying to the early decision (ED) timeline is your way of telling a school, you are my first choice. The application stipulates that if you are accepted, you commit to attending the school (barring extenuating circumstances) and must withdraw all outstanding applications to other colleges.
In other words, the early decision application option is binding. In contrast, early action applications, if accepted, are non-binding and allow more flexibility. You are only allowed to apply early decision to one school.
While there are some potential benefits to applying early decision, it does not guarantee your acceptance to a school that might otherwise be out of reach. Moreover, early acceptance rates are not identical across schools. Selectivity, class size, and other logistical factors also play a role.
A 2019 Forbes article notes, “Unlike many other strategies students use to get an edge, applying early decision is an option that is equally available and accessible to every student.”
Considering this, you cannot afford to take this option lightly. It will pay to be strategic about your early decision plans: Understanding if, when, and how to use the early decision option is key. Read on for a rundown of best practices, key considerations, and hypothetical scenarios to get up to speed on all things ED.
What Happens If You Apply Early To Two Colleges?
There is no acceptable reason or excuse to apply via early decision to more than a single school. Because it is blatantly against the rules, it is unethical for prospective applicants to do this—no matter the circumstances.
Admissions teams talk to each other, and if admissions officers hear that you attempted to cheat the system, you run the risk of being blacklisted by any school you apply to. To reiterate: Unless you want to risk your admission offer to either school, do not do this. (Imagine you were accepted by both—only to have both offers rescinded when the schools find out!)
Once a student applies early to a single school, they will either receive an acceptance, a rejection, or a deferral, which means that your application will be reviewed again in the regular admissions round. In the meantime, if deferred, you are welcome to apply to other schools while they await a final decision.
Remember, if you receive an ED acceptance letter from a school, then you have essentially committed to accepting your place in their incoming freshman class.
With that in mind, there are a few reasons why a student might forgo applying early decision. For instance, if you and your family would benefit from comparing financial aid packages you may be offered by other schools, then it makes sense to not submit an application for early decision.
However, if you already have a clear plan in place to cover the cost of college, then this may be a less critical consideration.
Alternatively, you can explore applying via the early action route, which runs on a similar timeline to early decision though does not obligate you to attend if accepted.
Is Early Decision More Competitive? Will It Increase My Chances of Acceptance?
In short, yes and yes. Though there’s a catch. To better understand why, first know that colleges can be considered in tiers; that is, colleges can be grouped by their caliber, with Tier 1 being the highest (and most competitive) down to Tier 5 and below.
Similarly, prospective students can be categorized by their qualifications (including academic, intellectual vitality, and extracurriculars), with Tier 1 being the highest and so on down the line.
Your self-assessment will guide which schools you apply to, because ultimately, your tier should match the college’s tier where you apply.
Now back to the question. Applying early decision will only increase your chances of acceptance if you apply early to a school that falls, at most, no more than two tiers—and ideally no more than one tier—above your tier at the time of application.
The strategically wise applicant will deliberately not overreach in choosing the school they apply early to. After all, the ED/EA system is designed to admit only competitive candidates, not any student whose dream it is to attend a university.
Another key concept to be aware of is this: a college's “yield” or the percentage of admitted students who actually end up enrolling. From a financial (and rankings) perspective, colleges benefit from the ability to make accurate predictions about their anticipated yield, thus their emphasis on early decision applicants.
By locking in a number of students early, admissions teams are simultaneously working to guarantee incoming tuition and meet their specific financial goals. That said, Ryan Aldrich, Director of College Counseling at The White Mountain School, shared with the Unigo community, “Generally speaking, students have a better percentage, even if it may be 1-2%, of being accepted if they apply early decision.
Early action often does not offer a higher acceptance rate but provides the benefit of learning early what the admission decision from the college is. On the other hand, students often do benefit from getting their application in early.”
Upon submitting an early decision application in November of senior year, students will generally be informed of the college or university’s decision by December. This can save successful ED applicants significant time and stress as their final year of high school wraps up.
What Happens If You Apply Early Decision and Don't Attend?
While the early decision process is taken seriously by colleges, technically it is not a legally binding agreement.
Nevertheless, if a student walks back on their honor-bound pledge to attend a school that has accepted them, it can often lead to a negative ripple effect on their ability to pursue other schools and even tarnish their future career opportunities.
As Forbes points out, “When other schools you’ve applied to discover you’ve broken your ED agreement, they are likely to remove you from the applicant pool or rescind your offer of admission.”
Remember, the college admissions process does not happen in a vacuum; admissions teams absolutely talk to each other.
While you would not necessarily have legal action taken against you if you did not attend your ED school, the reality is that it would make your ability to go elsewhere more challenging.
Can You Transfer After Accepting An Early Decision Offer?
When in doubt, you should always ask a college admissions officer directly if you can transfer after accepting an early decision offer.
If you find yourself in an extenuating situation that compromises your ability to accept an offer or attend your ED school (e.g., a significant change in financial circumstances or a personal or familial health issue), the college is more likely to help you navigate and explore alternative solutions if you are communicative, transparent, and respectful of the process you initiated.
And if, after much consideration, you reach the conclusion that your ED school is just not right for you after all? Again, speak up as soon as possible to the college admissions team.
While it is not 100% guaranteed they will remit your binding agreement (some schools take this extra seriously), if you make a clear and compelling case, it may be possible.
If you feel overwhelmed or uncertain about how to navigate early decisions or early action, know that you are not alone. There is a lot to consider!
Beyond selecting your favorite school, you will need to weigh several other factors in your college selection process: from realistically evaluating your odds based on the strength of your candidacy to considering the specific long-term financial implications for you and your family.
Luckily, Bentham’s consulting and coaching team has supported many students in strategizing around this process through the years, and we are on call to do the same for you.
Bentham’s team of college consultants is experienced in guiding students toward making the most well-informed, strategically positioned choice regarding which school to home in on for their early decision application.