You’ve decided which colleges you want to apply to. Now, for the next step: figuring out exactly when to apply. Generally, many colleges offer a few options: regular admission, early decision, and early action. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Early decision requires a commitment. Students who apply for early decision (usually in October and November) lock themselves in to attend that college if they’re accepted. For students who are confident in their first-choice school, early decision has its benefits: You only have to pay one application fee, and in some cases – according to college-ranking website College Factual – early decision can give students a leg-up on the competition.
“You can get a jumpstart on applying for [school-specific] scholarships, since you know where you’ll be going,” says Shaun Moore, an admissions representative at Full Sail University. “And, you can spend senior year taking classes that can help you prepare for a specific school, like programming electives for students who plan to study game development.”
The disadvantage: Early decision is a binding decision, says the College Board, so it’s not the best choice for those who haven’t researched their options. A possible alternative to consider is early action, which gives students the option to apply a bit earlier – though not as soon as early decision – but they don’t have to commit to the school if they’re accepted.
Both of these early application options don’t allow senior-year grades to count, which may be helpful for students hoping to boost their GPAs on their applications. The College Board also states that committing to one school makes it harder for students to consider the financial aid options offered through different colleges and universities. For students still deciding which college is best for them, applying during the regular admission period may be ideal.
Be sure to weigh your options, advises Moore. “My biggest fear is that a student gets six months in and realizes they’re in the wrong program,” he says. If you’re not ready to commit, don’t feel pressured to apply early, but, if you know exactly where you see yourself going after high school, early decision can give you the chance to get a head start.