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Applying Early to College: Is it Worth it to be an Early Bird?

February 12, 2023 :: Admissionado Team

The early bird gets into their top choice school, so they say (don’t they?). It’s never a bad idea to be ahead of the game, especially when it comes to college applications.

Is it Worth it to be an Early Bird?

Beyond simply reducing stress, applying early action or early decision can have measurable benefits, such as saving time and money, improving the chances of acceptance into one’s top choice schools, and giving accepted students more time to prepare for college. In other words: YES, it is worth it!

For example, if you apply early and get into your top choice school, you can use all that money you saved on application fees to, say, throw yourself a party (if you do, invite us)! In addition, at many schools applying early means fewer applicants and therefore an increased chance of acceptance. Harvard admitted 14.5% of its early action applicants for the class of 2022, but only 4.59% of its regular decision applicants. Most schools perceive an early action or early decision as a higher level of commitment from the student, and that’s always an app booster.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

Don’t be thrown by the industry jargon–both Early Decision and Early Action offer prospective students the opportunity to receive an admissions decision months before the usual acceptance date. 

1. Early Decision is binding, while Early Action is not.

This means if you apply Early Decision and are accepted, then you are committed. No time for cold feet, you’re in it for the long haul (or for four years, at least). Additionally, the student must withdraw any applications that have been sent to other schools. Early Decision is not legally binding, which means the school won’t take legal action if you break the agreement and turn down an acceptance. However, the school may likely notify other colleges that you apply to that you have broken your agreement and any other acceptances may be rescinded. Early Action, by contrast, is the keepin’ it casual version of early apps—you are signaling that you’re into them, but not walking down the aisle just yet. This allows you to apply to other schools, compare admissions offers and then make a decision.

2. When application results come out and when you need to decide.

When do early action decisions come out? December. What about early decision? Also December. With Early Action, you generally have until the late spring to make your final decision. With Early Decision, you will find out in December and you are locked in.

3. How many schools can you apply early action to?

You can apply to multiple early action programs and accept or turn down offers as you wish. You can apply to only ONE early decision school. Got that? Uno. The top schools share this info and honor each other’s agreements, so if you break it by applying to more than one early decision program…. you’re REALLY hurting your chances in the other top programs. 

What is restrictive early action? (also known as SCEA or single choice early action)

To put it bluntly, it’s more serious than Early Action, but less serious than Early Decision. 

Confused? Let’s explain…

Some of the top programs want to keep their competitive and exclusive edge, which brings us to restrictive early action. This is pretty much a hybrid of early action and early decision, which gives you the option to accept or turn down your admissions offer when it comes and frees you up to apply to other programs after you’ve received the school’s admissions decision. That said, you can only apply to ONE restrictive early action program, just like early decision. The benefits of this? Well, if you don’t get in, it’s still early enough to apply for regular decision programs everywhere else. It also frees you up to do more with your senior year of high school when it comes to taking more challenging classes, if you’re worried about hurting a stellar GPA. 

What are those possible admissions decisions? Well, you’re in, you’re out, or you’re deferred, meaning that they think you’re great, but they want to see how your senior year goes so they can compare you to their regular decision applicants. It’s kinda like getting waitlisted, and they’ll automatically keep your application active for this consideration unless you withdraw it.

How to decide whether to apply early

Applying Early = Higher Acceptance Rate (Usually)

When you apply “regular decision,” your chances of admission, as reflected by the “acceptance rate,” will be X. (We’re talking raw statistics here.) If you were to apply “early” to that same school, you’ll notice that the acceptance rate is usually a higher number. Before you conclude that this means that your actual chances of admission are higher, just accept that that’s NOT necessarily the case. We’re not gonna get into the details of that issue here, but just to give you a sneak peek: many will argue that the pool of applicants is stronger, so while the acceptance as a percentage is higher, the difficulty of piercing through remains just as hard, possibly even harder.

If you allow yourself to get sucked into that “well which is it, easier or harder?” game, you’re only gonna end up conflicted, confused, and worst case, it can cripple the entire process. We prefer a simpler approach that slices clean through the debate, and allows you to push the ball downfield, and progress. Here it is: “apply early.” See how easy that was? Here are some uncomplicated arguments for why we suggest this:

  1. It forces you to begin the process early. Super early. And in our years of experience of reviewing thousands of applications, there is a curious correlation of success at the TOP universities (literally the most ELITE universities like Harvard and Stanford and the like) between students who start VERY early, and those who ultimately get into those places. So, to exaggerate the point, whether you actually submit Early Action or not, if it forces you to begin the process way ahead of time, generally, desirable results are in your future.
  2. Even if you “go through the motions” to complete an early application for a school you have only mild interest in, the very act of developing a complete application AHEAD of the late December deadlines, puts you in an excellent position for the remaining schools on your list. Being ahead of the ballgame is worth its weight in gold. It allows you to add schools and take risks. It allows you to avoid confused applications that tend to result when they are RUSHED. This list could go on. Take our word for it, being ahead of the eight ball here is wise.
  3. What if it does help your chances, probabilistically? Even the possibility that that’s true makes it worth taking a shot at at least one (and maybe even a few) programs. If you’re wrong, so be it. You’ll prove it by getting into a bunch of schools through the regular decision pool instead.

Now, if for whatever reason you are NOT able to push any applications early, not to worry. Hope is not lost, by any stretch. Consider that most of your classmates will have gotten accepted during regular decision. But, the idea here is, if you’re a Junior, and you have the option, rather than spend precious energy agonizing over should, could, does, if, etc… just go for it. And start actually working on cementing your profile. Get ahead of the game. Start early. Apply early. Don’t get stuck. To sum it up:

Is Early Action worth it?

No brainer – of course! Apply to as many as you can!

Is Early Decision worth it?

First and foremost, you have to ask yourself, are you really ready to “put a ring on it” (to borrow a phrase from Queen Bey)? Is your heart completely and utterly set on attending THAT school? Does this college offer the exact academic and social environment for you to excel as a student? Have you visited the campus, spoken to students, faculty and/or alumni? Are you a strong match academically, as measured by your SAT scores, GPA and class rank? If you’ve done your research, visited campus, taken in sage advice, and generally jumped through all the hoops, and your answer is still an emphatic yes, then fill out those forms, write those essays and send that app! You’ll have a higher chance of acceptance than regular decision applicants and even early action applicants. 

However, since it’s a binding agreement, you won’t get to see financial aid packages from other schools. You could turn down the offer if the financial aid isn’t adequate, but by then, it may be too late for you to apply anywhere else. 

Should I apply for restrictive early action or single choice early action?

(You’re pushing the  “It’s complicated” territory.)

Remember, this is like early action because it’s nonbinding; however, you cannot apply early to any other private university until you’ve heard back from your restricted early action school. Once you’ve gotten the school’s decision, you can apply to other schools.


If you apply early action or restricted early action, you probably won’t get the same admissions edge as you would applying early decision, but you’ll have the chance to compare financial aid offers before you make a decision. If you’re still choosing between schools and financial aid packages, early action and restricted early action will give you some flexibility to make your decision. If you’ve done your research and are 100% committed to your dream school, then apply early decision. You’ve got better chances of getting in, and you can rest easy in December while your friends panic until May.

Did you want more? Fair enough. Watch the short clip below and read on.

How to Prepare

Most early applications are due in November, which means you will need to plan ahead. Students who hope to apply early should begin touring prospective campuses. Remember, you want to make a well-informed decision regarding early applications, and boots on the ground is the best way to do your research!

Early applicants must also take any standardized tests no later than October of their senior year. We suggest taking the test the summer before your senior year in case you feel you want to retest in October. Requests for letters of recommendation must be made by the end of September to ensure your recommender can meet your early deadline. And of course, early applicants should begin their application, including their personal statement, as soon as possible—the Common App goes live August 1st!

Applicants seeking financial aid will need to complete their FAFSA prior to submitting early applications as well. The FAFSA opens on October 1 so you’ve got plenty of time to get your financial documents ready to go. After you’ve submitted your early applications in November, and have taken one deep breath, it’s important to focus on completing your regular decision applications. Trust us, you don’t want to be scrambling during the holiday season if your early application doesn’t work out.