Early decision shouldn’t be an easy decision

Photo by Wofford College/Mark Olencki

One of the least favorite things a guidance counselor likes to hear from a senior in September or October is, “I am going to apply early decision, I just don’t know where.”

Early decision is a binding proposition. A student applies early, is notified early and, if accepted, agrees to withdraw all other college applications and commits to attending.

Deciding to apply Early Decision before deciding which college you love is putting the cart before the horse – it just doesn’t make sense. Students should be encouraged to do their homework and if they identify a college that they’re 100 percent sure is a good fit for them, then and only then does it make sense to apply early decision.

It can get a little confusing because there are a handful of college application deadline options:

  • Early decision: This a binding decision. Students may apply to only one college, and students and parents must sign a “contract” that the student agrees to attend if accepted. It also needs the signature of a guidance counselor.
  • Early action: Apply early, get notified early and, if accepted, students are not required to attend. It’s non-binding.
  • Single choice early action or restrictive early action: It’s non-binding. These schools do not allow a student to apply to any other school early decision and some have restrictions about where else students are allowed to apply early action. These programs are typically offered at the most selective schools.
  • Regular decision: December, January and February application deadlines with notification in March and April.
  • Rolling admission: Schools review applications as they’re submitted and notify students on an ongoing basis.

Approximately 300 colleges offer early decision or early action programs. Many colleges and universities provide a menu of programs including early decision I and II, both binding but with different submission dates, as well as the non-binding early action.

Advantages and disadvantages of early decision:

Advantages: The reasons many students are interested in applying early are two-fold: One is that they are notified earlier, and that can relieve some stress during senior year. Two is the well-documented higher rates of acceptance with these programs. A 2002 study at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard equated the advantage of applying early to a 100 point increase in your SAT score.

Disadvantages: Since early decision is binding, the biggest drawback is that students will not be able to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools. Also, there is the possibility that a 17- or 18-year-old might change his or her mind or stumble across another “perfect” college during senior year.

From a student’s perspective, other than having to get the application done early, often in October or by Nov. 1, there are no downsides to early action programs. If accepted through early action, students still have all their options open to them and are not required to make a decision until May 1.


  • Talk to your guidance counselor before committing to an early decision application. Be sure this is a true first choice.
  • Don’t apply early decision simply because you believe you’ll have a better chance of acceptance
  • Be aware of testing deadlines and testing requirements. Many early decision colleges require SAT subject tests.
  • Understand that colleges will NOT see any of your senior grades, and if your academic record will be aided by a strong performance senior year, then an early program may not be right for you.

North Carolina colleges that offer early decision:

  • Davidson
  • Duke
  • Elon
  • High Point
  • Meredith
  • Wake Forest
  • Warren Wilson

South Carolina colleges that offer early decision:

  • Furman
  • Presbyterian
  • Wofford