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Applying Early to College

Many colleges offer early application programs that allow students to apply in the Fall of their senior year and learn the status of their application in December or January (as opposed to March or April for regular decision). The College Board established the Early Decision Plan Agreement so that students with a strong desire to attend a particular college could apply early to that school, and thereby demonstrate his or her singular preference for that college.

There are three main types of early programs:

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Early Decision (ED): You can apply ED to only one college, and those who are accepted are obligated to attend (i.e. the admission is binding). 

Though there is no official penalty for withdrawing from your ED agreement, other colleges may withhold or withdraw their admissions offers if they learn that you broke your agreement. In addition, since you are required to accept this offer of admission early, you cannot compare financial award letters from one college to another. (Please note, however, that for low-income students, inability to pay for a college due to an inadequate financial aid package can be a valid reason for breaking an ED agreement.)

Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA), or Restrictive Early Action (REA): You can apply SCEA to one college without any obligation to attend if the college accepts you early. You can wait until the spring to make your final decision, allowing you to compare financial aid awards with colleges to which you applied for regular decision. As with ED, you cannot apply SCEA or REA to more than one institution.

Early Action (EA): Under EA, you may apply early to multiple colleges. Students accepted to a college through EA are not obligated to attend, and they may wait until the spring to notify the college of their decision.

Even if you apply early to a college, you should still prepare applications for other schools for the regular decision cycle and have them ready to submit in case you are not accepted. You may not have much time to prepare new applications between the time you are notified by early admissions and the application deadline for other schools. In fact, some schools, such as the UC schools in California, have admissions deadlines that fall before the release of early admission decisions.

Is Applying Early Right For You?

Applying to college early has its pros and cons. On the plus side, the rate of admission is often higher for early applicants (although colleges do not typically disclose the early admissions rates). However, the pool is typically very strong because many high schools encourage their top students to apply early.

Keep in mind that because competition is fierce in the early round, many applicants are deferred to regular decision, which means that the college wants to consider your application in light of the bigger pool of applicants. Often, if you are deferred, your final decision will result in either being accepted or denied, but not waitlisted, so that you have final closure after waiting for your deferral decision.

Applying early also requires significant advance preparation in writing essays, taking tests, and securing letters of recommendation. In general, you should only apply early to your first-choice college.

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Some questions to consider in deciding whether to apply early:

•    Am I absolutely sure I want to attend this school?
•    Does this school provide generous financial aid to low-income students?
•    Are my standardized test scores in a competitive range for this school, or should I re-take exams in November or December to try to improve my scores?
•    Does my transcript reflect the degree of excellence this school desires, or should I wait for regular decision so that my fall term grades can enhance my academic record?
•    Are my essays ready?
•    Are my recommendations ready?

If you feel you can prepare a very strong application and you know you want to attend a particular college, applying early may improve your chances, as it signals your commitment and interest in a school.

Remember that you are applying to your first-choice school and that early application pools are highly competitive. Any advantage you may have as an early applicant will not overcome the damaging effects of an under-prepared application. If your essays are not ready, or you could improve your GPA or test scores given the extra time, it may be a good idea to wait until the regular decision round.

An Alternative Early Admission Program

Applying to the National College Match is an alternative to applying to a specific college’s early admission program. The National College Match is similar to ED in two ways:

•    In most cases, students make a binding commitment to matriculate if a college they apply to accepts them.
•    Students cannot apply early action or early decision to other colleges if they choose to apply to the National College Match.

The National College Match is different from the ED process in the following ways:

•    College Match scholarship awardees are assured that they will receive full scholarships, including tuition, room, and board, so they will not have to forego the opportunity to attend their preferred college because of finances.
•    The College Match allows students to apply early to up to eight colleges that they are certain they would want to attend if admitted. Students rank their colleges in order of preference.
•    The application for the College Match is completely free-of-charge.

Read more on the National College Match process.

QuestBridge finalists who do not “match” in this early process are still eligible to apply to our partner colleges through the QuestBridge Regular Decision process.

One more note: Since QuestBridge partner colleges are highly selective schools, you should make plans to apply to additional schools representing a range of selectivity in regular decision to secure your options.

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