This article appears in College Prep 2019.

If your student is ready to apply to college and confident he or she has met all requirements, applying early should be a consideration. Early decision and early action can be beneficial to your student, but first understand the benefits and risks of each.

What is early decision?
Applying ED means less competition for admission slots. It also means your student receives a decision early, before regular offers. However, more students have elected to apply early decision, which means your student’s application must be stellar to compete.

That said, students who have decided firmly on their dream college should consider applying early decision. ED application deadlines are around Nov. 1, with decisions from the college coming in early to mid-December.

Early decision students have a significant advantage at many colleges. For instance, data collected from a 2018 study by the Independent Educational Consultants Association show that, overall, 22% of Brown University applicants were admitted. But 42% of ED applicants were admitted, as compared to only 7% admitted on regular decision.

Applying ED is serious business. A student should only apply ED to a college when he or she is absolutely in love with it and cannot picture going anywhere else. Once offered admission, a student is obligated to attend and cannot apply to any other colleges during regular admission cycles.

Early Decision II offers students the option to apply in early January and receive a binding offer of admission by February. The application deadline for this option is the same as for regular decision applicants, but these students receive admission offers sooner and must commit on acceptance.

The greatest disadvantage to applying ED is that if your student is admitted, he or she is obligated to accept the offer.

Another disadvantage is the inability to compare financial aid offers. Most ED applicants apply knowing they are prepared to pay for college without financial assistance. This does not mean the college won’t offer financial aid, but the aid it offers will be the only option. Applying early decision could mean your student might miss out on scholarships and merit aid opportunities at other colleges.

If an early decision applicant is deferred, the college will review the application again with the regular decision applicants. Because the odds of being admitted from a deferral are slim, your student should regroup and start looking at other colleges. He or she may only have a few weeks to apply by the Jan. 1 regular decision application deadline.

What is early action?
Early action offers students the flexibility to receive a decision early in the process even if they are not comfortable committing to one college. If your student’s application is already top-notch, applying EA to a desirable college would mean he or she wouldn’t be competing with the droves of applicants who apply regular decision. Early action affords your student the luxury of more time to decide on a college and evaluate financial aid offers if they apply to multiple schools. EA deadlines are around Nov. 1 with decisions arriving early to mid-December.

Early action programs vary widely. Some restrict participants from simultaneously applying early to other schools. Other programs allow students to apply early to other colleges that interest them. Still other programs have complex rules. It’s crucial to understand the types of early action programs available:

- Early Action: Colleges that offer this option promise a quick response if your student submits a completed application by their deadline. Students admitted EA don’t have to promise to attend; they just want to hear back sooner than usual.
- Restricted Early Action: Sometimes known as Early Action Single Choice, this option works much like standard EA admissions, but students are limited in the number of other colleges where they can submit early applications — and that number is often zero. Colleges do this for a number of reasons, but they most often want the student to show a special commitment to their college.

The obvious benefits to applying early action are, the student is not obligated to attend that college and has the freedom to wait until May 1 to make a final decision. Because students can usually apply to other colleges when applying early action, they have the luxury of weighing their options when offers of admission arrive. Applying EA also offers your student the flexibility to compare financial aid offers from other colleges before committing.

If your student is interested in one college but wants to keep his or her options open, applying early action is a wise choice. It has the benefits of ED without the risks of a binding commitment. The only risk your student may be taking is a time crunch: If your student applies EA to only one college and is not offered admission, there are only a few weeks left to submit other applications before the January regular decision deadline.