How to Pick Your Early Decision School


How to Pick Your Early Decision School

Imagine opening an acceptance letter from your early decision school months before March and knowing you’ve already been admitted somewhere that’s a great match for you. You’ll be able to enjoy the rest of your senior year free of the pressure of wondering whether you’ll get into a school of your choice.

Early decision (ED) is a binding admissions process where students apply to a single college earlier than the regular deadline, usually in November of senior year. Colleges typically send out admissions notifications in December. If accepted, students are automatically committed to attend. But how do you choose your early decision school? You only get to pick one college out of hundreds of options, so it’s not a decision to be made lightly. 

Early decision vs. early action

Early decision (ED) is different from early action (EA) and restrictive early action (REA). If you apply to a school through its EA program, then you will be notified of the results months before the RD admissions candidates, but the acceptance is not binding. Moreover, you can apply to multiple schools EA. If admitted, then you are free to accept the offer or wait to hear results from other schools. 

Schools often have higher early decision acceptance rates for several reasons. More spots are still available in the new class when you apply early, and that helps boost acceptance rates. Colleges also use ED to project their yield for the upcoming year, since every student they accept is automatically enrolling. Because of this commitment, colleges are more likely to admit students who apply early decision. Since EA does not guarantee a high yield (admitted students don’t necessarily have to enroll), your chances of EA admission are generally the same as applying regular decision.

Restrictive early action is used by highly competitive schools such as Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. When you apply REA to one of these schools, you cannot apply early to any other institution. There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, if you pick Yale as your REA option, you may apply to other schools with nonbinding rolling admissions programs or apply ED II to another college if you’ve been rejected in the REA round.

What is an early decision agreement?

ED programs are the most restrictive. When you apply to a school under its ED program, you and your parents must sign an early decision agreement which binds you to attend if admitted. If you are admitted to the school, the early decision agreement also obligates you to withdraw your applications to other colleges. You must be aware that ED programs are single-choice. That means you can only apply to one school ED. 

If you don’t honor the ED agreement (i.e, change your mind and try to enroll somewhere else), your other offers of admission could be rescinded, and future applicants from your high school may have a harder time being taken seriously by admissions officers at the college whose agreement you broke. All of this means you need to be completely confident about your choice of an early decision school

If you’re confused about which of these rounds your top choice schools use, make sure to check their early decision and early action policies and due dates before making up your mind. 

How to choose an early decision school

Think of applying ED as an irreversible choice, or at least, a choice that you cannot change for at least one semester of college. Given the seriousness of this choice, you should only apply ED to a school after becoming very, very well informed about it. To choose an early decision school, ask yourself the following questions about the college. If you can answer them affirmatively, then you should seriously consider applying early:

1) Have I done enough research to really know the school? 

Do exhaustive research! 3rd party websites like U.S. News and World Report are useful because they contain many data points, but they don’t help you form an impression of the school’s community and culture, nor do they give specifics on academic programs. Consult The Fiske Guide’s write-up on the school; examine college websites for their curricula, including their course offerings in your planned major, and check for any special programs or undergraduate research opportunities. Never apply to a school ED if the only reasons you can cite are features that any number of schools possess: pretty architecture, nice library, wide curriculum, study-abroad programs, school spirit, etc. My point is that you must cross-reference and not rely on any one source for information.

2) Do I know what would make me happy?

Work out a matrix of criteria underscoring what you most value in your undergraduate education and experience. The criteria should address all major areas of importance: curriculum, extracurricular opportunities, community, and culture.

Don’t apply to a school ED just because your friends told you it’s a great college. Ideally you should visit the campus, and, if possible, sit in on some classes. When traveling isn't possible, look out for a regional or online information session. Ask your regional admissions officer to connect you with a current student who might be willing to share their experience. You’re making a decision that is going to have a deep, long-term effect on your future, so you need to consider more than academic features.

Having completed thorough college research, review your notes and ask: does the school align with the criteria I’ve identified as necessary? If not, then you should remove the school from ED consideration. 

3) Do the major and extracurricular offerings align with my interests?

Your early decision school should be a choice made on more than just fuzzy impressions based on the prestige attached to its name. If you want to attend an undergraduate business school but assert that your dream school is Columbia, it won’t make sense as Columbia Business School does not offer undergraduate degrees. When choosing an early decision school, you need to make sure that there are majors and courses at the school that call out to you. You shouldn’t be feeling mediocre about them either - you need to be excited!

You’re not as restricted when looking for existing student organizations that match your interests. If a club you want doesn’t exist at your top choice school, you can always start one or find students with similar interests. But, it’s definitely a good sign if there is an acapella group or club sports team that you absolutely cannot wait to join!

Listen to Ben Schwartz, a Former Assistant Director of Admissions at Darmouth College, talk about choosing your early school in our podcast:

4) Do I have a shot at getting in?

It’s important that your scores are on the same level as those of admitted students when choosing an early decision school. Look through the average GPA and SAT scores, which are easily available on college websites. Don’t use your ED opportunity for a safety option where you feel completely confident that you would be admitted in the RD round, unless it is your dream school. By the same token, you should not waste your ED choice on a school that is completely out of bounds: where you don’t meet the threshold GPA and fall short of the middle fiftieth percentile for standardized test scores. Your choice should be an attainable dream, not a wild gamble based on a wish. 

For example, you should only apply to a top 20 school with a less than 10% admit rate if you are in the very top of your graduating class, have significant awards or leadership roles, and test scores at or exceeding the college’s 75th percentile. Otherwise, you are gambling rashly and will likely end up with a rejection.

If you are trying to decide between schools with ED policies where you feel that you are actually competitive, then there are two additional things that you can do:

  • Read the ED policies to see whether the schools explicitly state that there is a distinct advantage to applying early. Duke, for example, states that there is an advantage and has been filling nearly half its class in the ED round.
  • Speak to your school guidance counselor about the admissions outcomes for your graduating class the past five years. How many students, if any, have been admitted from your high school? Were they admitted RD or ED? Does your high school seem to have a good relationship with the college? 

5) Are there other students applying from my school?

Admissions officers read applications by region. This means that the same individual designated to evaluate your file will also be reading about all of the students from your high school. These students have the same school profile as yours, and likely a similar background. Their grades and extracurriculars might overlap as well since you have access to the same activities, teachers, and courses! Colleges are unlikely to admit multiple individuals who bring the same profile and perspective to the table. 

So when you choose an early decision school, talk to your counselor and ask them whether a lot of students are applying early to the schools you’re considering. It’s wise to look at colleges that have fewer prospective early applicants from your school, especially if you're all top students aiming for a highly selective college.

6) Do I fit the mold of what the school is looking for?

The college admissions process is a two-way street. Not only do the features at the college have to meet what you’re looking for, but you have to check all of their boxes as well. When researching your early decision school, look through the college website, read student blogs, and most importantly go over what makes up the school’s ideal candidate. Most top schools have certain criteria outlined for prospective students, such as a rigorous course load, demonstration of leadership, and more. You can find this page by searching “What does X School look for” or “What X University looks for in students” online. 

Let’s take a look at excerpts from different schools’ “What We Look For” pages:

Princeton University: “We look for students who make a difference in their schools and communities, so tell us about your leadership activities, interests, special skills, and other extracurricular involvements. Tell us if you’ve had a job or a responsibility in your home. Most Princeton students were academic standouts in high school. Most of them also invested their energy and talents in significant ways outside the classroom. We want to know what you care about, what commitments you have made and what you’ve done to act on those commitments.”

Vanderbilt University: “Our first priority is to ensure that students are academically prepared to succeed at a rigorous institution like Vanderbilt. Once we have ensured that you will be academically competitive in our process, we look to see what else you have been doing throughout your high school years. We do not value any one particular type of involvement over another – we want to build a community of students with many diverse interests – but we are looking in every case for both commitment of time and effort, and strong leadership skills.”

Boston University: “We’re looking for students who are likely to succeed at BU. Taking honors, AP, IB, or the most challenging courses available at your school is important. And yes, test scores matter. But we’re also looking for students who will create a unique, diverse community at BU. Those who are doers—volunteers, entrepreneurs, and artists. That’s why we consider extracurricular activities and interests, work experience, special talents and skills, along with recommendations from teachers, counselors, community leaders, and others who know you well.”

Similarly, many schools also outline descriptions of the ideal student, including tips on how to tailor your application and supplemental essays to include what admissions officers want to know about you. If you believe you meet the criteria mentioned on the website, then you are on the right track to picking your early decision school!

7) Will all the school-specific components be ready on time?

Since your early decision application obviously needs to be submitted, well, early, you’ll have significantly less time to complete everything than you do for your regular decision colleges. This includes your Common Application profile, activities list, and personal statement - plus supplemental essays and school-specific questions. 

With the pressure of senior year courses, extracurricular leadership, and the need to get all of the application components ready on time, you’ve got a lot on your plate. When you’re deciding your early decision school, make sure that you can meet all of the requirements before the November 1st deadline, because some colleges have more school-specific essays and questions than others. The early decision pool is full of high achieving and eager students who will be ready to go with impressive and polished applications. If yours isn’t at that level yet, you should consider waiting!

Where you apply early isn’t a choice that should be made on a whim. Go over the questions we’ve provided, dive deeply into the school research, and talk to your college counselor to make sure you’re making the right call for yourself. Hopefully you’ll know when you’ve found the perfect early decision school. Good luck!

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