Demystifying Early Decision

October 7, 2021
A post by Brian Wiora, Admission Counselor

Deciding where to attend college is likely one of the hardest, most stressful decisions you’ll make in your life. There are so many wonderful universities out there. How do you pick just one? That’s why the idea of Early Decision, a commitment to attend one single university if accepted, seems like such a scary proposition. It is my belief, however, that Early Decision can be the best application plan if you can answer a few key questions with confidence: is it the right fit socially, academically, and financially? We’ll get to those in a moment.

But first, a brief aside. As a high school senior, I was so daunted by the idea of choosing a college that I ended up applying to seventeen across Early Action and Regular Decision application plans (pro tip: do not do this!). I applied to all kinds of universities: big and small, urban and rural, from California to Massachusetts. By April of my senior year, this application strategy left me with a mess of pros-and-cons lists, waitlist phone calls, and above all, an overwhelming sense of anxiety and regret. I ended up happy with my college choice. But could I have been happier with another one? More successful? More at peace? These are questions I still wonder about today. But looking back, I now recognize that cutting through the noise by committing early to one institution could have gotten me to a great undergraduate experience sooner.

It’s time to revisit and rethink that term “binding agreement.” One feature that makes Early Decision potentially unattractive is the contractual commitment. The truth is—you will make a binding decision. You can apply to five, or twelve, or even seventeen colleges. You cannot attend all of them. You will, eventually, only attend one college. So the question isn’t: should I bind myself to one university? The question is: when should I bind myself to one university? 

There are advantages to making that binding agreement sooner. Applying Early Decision can increase your chances of acceptance. It’s appealing to an admission office to fill a portion of the class with students who really want to join our community—students who are just as committed as we are to the institution. This does not mean we will lower our standards for a student just because they applied Early Decision. Rather, I consider Early Decision a facet of a student’s profile—like an extra class they got an “A+” in, or an activity in which they excelled. Since the Early Decision applicant pool is typically smaller than larger rounds like Early Action and Regular Decision, and we review you within the context of your chosen application plan, Early Decision applicants sometimes get an extra level of attention. 

Applicants who apply Early Decision also find out their admission decision earlier. This may seem obvious, but it is extremely important. Early Decision applicants typically find out their decision within five to six weeks after the deadline. There are three possible outcomes. The first is acceptance. When this happens, congratulations! You did it! Now the college search process is over. You get to actually enjoy your senior year, without the worry of more applications, waiting for decisions, and then having to decide between a slew of excellent choices. 

The second outcome is a rejection. When this happens, it’s unfortunate, but now you have options. You’re released from your contract and still have time to apply to other colleges, perhaps even one with Early Decision II. Being rejected is a tough, often depressing feeling. But when one is rejected earlier in the process, it makes the college search process clearer. Something is, for once, off the table. You simply have more time to move on. 

The third and final outcome is a deferral. This is the hardest to process, as it means that your application moves to a later and larger Regular Decision pool of consideration. But, deferral from Early Decision also releases you from your commitment. You can now “play the field” and consider other options, even while your top choice still remains in play. Keep in mind that there’s often not one clear reason for deferral – or anything in particular you can do from here to improve your odds of admission. It’s simply a sign that we, as an admission committee, need to review you in the context of the full applicant pool before rendering a final decision.  

With all this said, it is important to acknowledge that Early Decision is certainly not for everyone. If you’re truly undecided about where to attend college, if you’re fixed on a particular major and your potential Early Decision school does not offer it, or if you need to see your financial aid package before committing, I cannot advise the Early Decision application plan. Again, my passion is to help students make the right choice, not simply the easiest. We want you to consider all factors up front, so you can avoid the possibility of needing to break a contract and withdraw from an Early Decision agreement. That’s difficult for you, and for us.

There is one final myth I wish to debunk. You’ll sometimes hear the pervasive idea that there is a perfect college out there for everyone, similar to the idea of a soulmate. That a student steps onto a campus and instantly feels at home—that there is no other place that could compare to this one college. The truth is, if a student is considering ten colleges, they would probably have a wonderful experience attending at least five, if not all ten. There are many colleges that offer incredible academic experiences, vibrant social scenes, and opportunities that will prepare you for life after graduation. Applying Early Decision does not mean you have found the perfect college. It means you are willing to commit yourself to one of the many excellent options available. It doesn’t have to be as scary or as stressful as it seems!