Early decision: four considerations before your child applies

After researching and/or visiting colleges, there’s one school clearly on top of your child’s wish list. Is it worth applying early?

Image shows a teenager and her mom looking at the display on a laptop computer.

Think of early decision as potentially being in the VIP line for college admissions. While most admissions applications are due in January, early decision allows students to apply to their first-choice school by early November. If accepted, the student must withdraw any regular admissions applications and must attend the college.

There are benefits of choosing early decision: Your child will know as soon as possible and might have a better chance of being accepted; in fact, 61% of those who apply for early decision are accepted.1 Here are some key considerations for those thinking about early decision.

1  Does the school offer early decision? There are currently about 280 colleges that offer early decision. Most of them are private universities, including prestigious Ivy League schools such as Brown and Dartmouth, but a handful, such as the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, are public institutions. There are a number of websites that track which schools offer early decision, including this one

2  What's the difference between early decision and early action? Some schools offer early decision, some offer early action or both. Early decision is binding. Once your child is accepted, he or she must go to that school. Early action is more flexible. If accepted, your child can still decide to go elsewhere. A caveat: Some colleges won’t accept an early action student who has applied for early action at other schools. 

3  How will it affect the financial aid package? If you’re counting on financial aid to pay at least a portion of expenses, early decision may not be a wise choice. That’s because the deadline for early decision occurs before financial aid is calculated—and for many families, financial aid is key. Nearly three-quarters of families (72%) rely on scholarships and grants to help pay for their child’s studies.2  While early decision is binding, there may be exceptions made for those who can't afford it. 

4  Is your child sure of his or her decision? Before applying, it’s important to thoroughly research the university to understand its admissions standards, including grade point average, SAT/ACT test score ranges, acceptance rates, and average financial aid packages. It may also be worth talking to a guidance counselor or college consultant to gauge your child's probability of acceptance. 

The deadline to apply for early decision is typically either November 1 or November 15. Most colleges will inform students by December 15.3

Be sure to sit down with your financial professional, who can help you make decisions on affordability and can help you implement a plan, including the use of your 529 education savings account.