Colleges generally offer one to five Application Plans. By Application Plan, I mean a way of applying to their College, in terms of timing and the related terms. With the exception of Colleges that offer a Rolling Admission Application Plan, generally a College will offer a Regular Decision Application Plan and some sort of early Application Plan: Early Action, Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action.

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The terms of Application Plans include 1) when you apply 2) when you are accepted or denied 3) when you must commit to attend that College and 4) under what terms you can apply to other Colleges at the same time.

Early Decision (ED) is a binding application plan:  it is the most aggressive application plan.  ED or ED1 (some Colleges offer 2 rounds of ED) is often due in late October or early November. Students are generally notified whether they are accepted by mid-December.  Some Colleges offer ED2, which might be a good option if you have a clear first and second choice College. If you are not accepted into your ED1 College, you can apply to another ED2 College.

ED students tend to have the strongest academic profile. They are not waiting for their first semester senior grades to bring up their GPA, nor are they waiting to take the ACT and/or SAT again, hoping to raise their score. There are some exceptions to this tendency:

  1. Students who are reaching for a particular College may throw in their application ED hoping it might increase their chances.
  2. Student athletes applying to a Division 3 College may have a coach who carries some weight in the Admissions office. Some Admissions Offices give their coaches the option to turn in X number of names. (If you are an athlete, ask the coach directly if they have an influence on Admissions.) These students aren’t assured Admission, but they will be given the benefit of the doubt when being considered for Admission, because the Coach wants them. If a coach is going to offer your name as one of their picks, they want to make sure that you are going to enroll if you are admitted. Some coaches will require the athlete to apply ED, so they are committed.
  3. Legacies (children of alumni) may also receive special consideration, if they apply ED.

Check out The Application Process and Deadlines & Timelines to be prepared to apply ED.


To determine which application plans are offered at a particular College, type <school name> undergraduate admissions deadlines in your search engine.  You may also apply to other Colleges via Early ActionRegular Decision and Rolling Admission at the same time you apply to an ED College. But if you are accepted into your ED College, you must immediately withdraw your application to all other Colleges, because ED is binding. If you do not withdraw your application, there can be serious consequences. Some Colleges have their own policy for when/how you can apply to other Colleges, so be sure to check their admissions webpages to confirm.


ED applicants are willing to pay the bill, regardless of how much financial and/or merit aid they receive, because those numbers won’t be made available until after they have committed to ED. It’s my understanding that it’s difficult to back out of an ED commitment, so don’t think you can apply ED and then easily back out if the financials don’t work out to your liking. I have been told that some students have applied ED to one College, received a generous offer from an EA or Rolling Admissions College prior to their ED college’s acceptance or denial, and then withdrawn their ED application. This is a slippery slope, because you may not hear back from an EA or Rolling Admissions College prior to hearing back from your ED College. I have also heard of a student who did not withdraw their applications from other Colleges after they had received an acceptance into an ED College. The Colleges determined what was happening, and they all withdrew their acceptances. Proceed with caution!


  • Colleges don’t have to estimate the yield for ED students: if they are admitted, they will enroll, which makes it easier for the College to plan the size of their incoming class.
  • ED students increase a College’s admission rate (yield). Higher admission rates (yield) is considered a reflection on the College’s desirability/selectivity. In other words, a student is more likely to enroll into a College if they are accepted, if they believe other students are more likely to enroll into that College if they are accepted. They also are more likely to apply to that College if they consider it to be highly selective, which is reflected in both its acceptance and admission (yield) rates.
  • ED students tend to be organized, motivated, highly qualified students: Colleges get to snatch these desirable students up through the binding ED plan.
  • ED students have chosen that school above all others: they are both enthusiastic and likely a good fit.
  • ED students are more likely to be financially well-off,  so they don’t rely as heavily on financial and/or merit aid, which leaves the College’s treasure chest of aid in tact for the Regular Decision applicants. Some students who rely on financial aid may choose to apply ED, planning to wiggle out of the binding ED plan by arguing that they can’t attend the College because insufficient financial aid was offered, if necessary. It is unclear to me how successful this approach works.


  • Critics state that ED highly favors wealthy students, who can afford to commit to a school regardless of financial or merit aid.  This practice can reflect poorly on colleges who profess a holistic approach to admissions and might hurt their fund-raising efforts.


  • Colleges generally have a higher (sometimes much higher) acceptance rate for ED applicants. Some Colleges accept over half of their incoming class from ED applications.
  • The NY Times 2013 article lists Early Admission Rates for some Colleges. While many argue higher ED acceptance rates is because ED students are generally higher qualified, there may be other reasons a college accepts more ED applicants.
  • If you are reaching for a College, they may be more likely to accept you as an ED applicant instead of a Regular Decision applicant, for the reasons discussed above.
  • Colleges have a finite treasure chest for financial and merit aid. If a large number of eligible College students in the ED pool qualify for aid, there will be that much less aid available for the Regular Decision applicants.
  • It’s just nice to know by mid-December where you will be attending College and not have to worry about applications to Regular Decision schools that are typically due by late December/early January.


Applying Early Can be a Good Thing... Unless it's Not

Applying Early Can be a Good Thing… Unless it’s Not

  • It is difficult to have a complete understanding of all your College options so that you are equipped to make a decision to apply ED with certainty that this school is the best fit.
  • It sets a lot of expectations (“this is the one”) that can make a rejection that much more painful.
  • It is difficult to complete your application essay, Letters of Recommendation, etc. and to have accumulated your best possible test score and GPA early in your Senior year.
  • While most Colleges accept a higher number of ED applicants, a few Colleges (Occidental, for example), actually accept a lower percentage of ED students. I was told the reason why is that sometimes students who are considered a reach use ED as a way to increase their chances of acceptance, and in the case of a few Colleges, a LOT of students use ED to try to gain entrance to their reach College.
  • Some Colleges will defer ED applicants who are not accepted into the Regular Decision pool and some will deny all admission to ED applicants who are not accepted.  If your first choice College does not defer ED applicants to the regular pool, you take the chance you won’t be one of the highly competitive ED applicants who is admitted.
  • Some Colleges won’t bother to offer merit aid (and may reduce financial aid) to ED applicants, because they know applicants are committed, regardless of aid. I’ve read a counter-argument that Colleges don’t vary financial aid because of the application plan used – I don’t know who is right!
  • Determining that you are much more likely to be accepted into a College via ED, based on their ED and Regular Decision admittance rates may not be accurate. Since coaches may require athletes to apply ED, and Admissions Offices may require legacies (offspring of alumni) to apply ED, the effective ED rate for non-athletes and non-legacies may be substantially lower than the overall ED rate.
  • While you are waiting to hear from your ED College, you have to decide whether to work on your Regular Decision and/or Rolling Admissions applications. If you choose to wait and are not accepted ED, you will have a lot less time to complete your applications, while struggling with your emotions related to the ED rejection.
Does money motivate you?

When you apply may have a direct impact on how much aid you will receive.

Understanding a college’s policy regarding deferring ED applicants as well as the likelihood of financial and/or merit aid are important considerations that should be discussed with the College’s Admission Officer. They should be able to provide you with stats on what percentage of early vs. regular applicants receive financial and merit aid. It is also important to research and discuss admission rates for the different application plans at that College.

There are many articles regarding Application Plans.  College Board (who operates the SAT) discusses the Facts About Applying Early and the Benefits of Applying Early.

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