Around 450 US colleges offer early admission for students who want to apply before the regular decision deadline. Early decision plans are binding, meaning that if you are accepted, you must attend that university as long as the financial aid package is reasonable for your family. You can only apply to one institution early decision, and any regular decision applications you submit to other universities must be withdrawn upon acceptance. Institutions offering early decision usually enforce a deadline of early November and notify applicants of acceptance by early December.

Why Apply Early Decision?

If you and your family have a clear first choice institution in particular, then applying early decision is a smart tactic. It conveys a strong level of interest and a dedicated commitment to the institution that is not otherwise apparent in a regular decision application. You are telling the institution that if they accept you, you will definitely attend, which is an attractive position for them to be in. If they consider your application to be strong, they might as well accept you now to guarantee a filled spot in their incoming class. Regular decision applicants are not committed to an institution upon acceptance, meaning they can choose to attend wherever they want with no strings attached. Institutions are pressured to hit attendance targets every year and want to reach them as quickly as possible.

If your application is right on the fence of acceptance, there is a better chance that they will accept you early decision than regular because of that pressure. There is no guarantee that a regular decision applicant with a stronger application than yours will end up attending, so as long as the institution is not sacrificing too much quality by accepting your application, then there is a solid chance they may do it.

If you wait to apply regular, a sizable portion of allotted acceptances will already be issued, and the institution will aim to fill the remaining acceptances from the large pool of highly talented regular decision applicants. The early decision pool of applicants is much smaller than the regular decision pool, which decreases the direct competition that your application initially faces. By applying early decision to your first choice institution, you increase your odds of acceptance

When Is Early Decision Not The Right Fit?

Waiting to apply regular decision is better for students and families who do not have one favorite school, or who want to consider financial aid packages. Early decision plans are often criticized by lower-income families who lose the opportunity to consider multiple financial aid packages because of the binding commitment to one institution. Financial aid packages issued after early decision acceptance are often not as generous because institutions know they have you locked into the prior commitment.

You should not apply early decision just to save time and stress on submitting multiple applications, or because other friends are applying early decision. You should genuinely be passionate about attending the institution and have researched other college options in order to make a well-rounded decision.

What Happens If You Are Not Accepted Early Decision?

If your application is not accepted the early decision, it is for one of two reasons:

  1. The institution rejected your application and you are not offered admission.
  2. The institution has decided to defer your application and revisit it after considering regular decision applicants. There is a chance you may still be offered admission.

Since regular decision application deadlines are early January, this leaves less than a month to submit these applications to other schools on your list. If your application is deferred, it is put away for the next few months and you have the opportunity to update your application with additional supplemental materials.

Once all regular decision applications have been considered, admissions committees usually leave spots open for deferral candidates. However, they have a much more stringent evaluative process at this point. Since they have already seen every deferral application, they separate them into two categories: those with supplemental updates, and those without. Those without any updates are rejected, and those with updates are given another consideration amongst this newly reduced group. Approximately five percent of deferral candidates are offered admission, while the rest are either rejected or waitlisted.

I was deferred from Cornell University’s Environmental Engineering program early decision and ended up being accepted. There are a number of actions I took to improve my application upon deferral, including sending an updated resume, my mid-year grades, a couple of additional non-academic letters of recommendation, and a personal letter to the admissions committee. The personal letter reaffirmed my first-choice interest in the institution and program and articulated specific ways I planned to make my mark on campus. I also asked my high school guidance counselor to call Cornell and lobby on my behalf, which she did.

These additional voices strengthened my application, and my letter helped admissions officers visualize me making a real difference on campus. It is essential not to sit tight while waiting for a final decision on your deferral. It may seem like the work is done, but additional materials that add to your case separate you from the deferral candidates who choose to do nothing more.