Early Decision typically requires that you submit your complete application by November 1st (or in some cases, November 15th). Colleges will make their decision by mid-December. Early decision involves a binding commitment, meaning that if you end up getting admitted to your ED college, you are expected to attend that school and withdraw any outstanding applications.
For this reason, you would only want to apply ED if one college emerges as a clear top choice. Otherwise, if there’s any possibility that you might later end up wishing that you had a chance to hear back from other schools on your list, then it’s usually safer to push things off to the regular decision deadline.
Because you are helping colleges project their yield — the percentage of accepted students who end up matriculating at that college — applying early decision typically carries at least a slight boost to your chances of getting in. But since you are obligated to attend the school if accepted, you want to be careful that you won’t feel any “buyer’s remorse” and end up wishing that you had a chance to hear back from other colleges if you get good news from your first school.
Sometimes, colleges will defer their decision… essentially turning you into a regular decision applicant and postponing their verdict until late April. In this case, you would be released from your commitment and free to decline their offer even if they ultimately accept you.
Early Decision II
Some colleges, like NYU and Pomona, offer a second round of early decision. This usually includes a deadline in early January — right around the regular decision deadline for most colleges. Otherwise, the process is essentially the same: you’ll hear back in a month or two, and you are still required to accept the offer if admitted.
This can be a great option if you don’t get good news from the college you applied to for the first early decision deadline. Alternatively, if you feel like your application would benefit from including anything you’re doing in November and December, then Early Decision II still allows you to take advantage of signaling your commitment to the admissions team.
Early Action is a similar timeline, but does not require a commitment to your college. You would apply by November 1st* in most cases and hear back by mid-December. But unlike early decision, you are free to apply to any other colleges on your list… even if you are admitted.
While early action doesn’t carry the same explicit boost to your admission rate, it can still be relieving to get good news in December. If you get into a top choice college, then you can run through your list and only apply to the colleges that you would legitimately consider attending over the school to which you were admitted.
*Be aware that for some colleges, the early action deadline can be as early as October 15th: Georgia Tech, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Stanford with an Arts Supplement
Getting good news in December also mitigates the need for adding any additional safety schools to your list. On the other hand, if you get denied or deferred from your college, you can always identify a few additional schools to add to your list just to be safe.
Unless schools specify otherwise, you’re welcome to apply to as many colleges for early action as you want.
Some colleges, like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, offer what’s called Restrictive Early Action (sometimes also referred to as Single Choice Early Action). In this case, you are still applying by November 1st and you are not under any obligation to attend the school if you are admitted. But under restrictive early action, you would not be able to apply to other private colleges for early action.
While many students will end up applying somewhere early, you may decide against it if your application would benefit from including anything you’re doing between November and January: any standardized tests that you’re taking, any projects or extracurricular work that you’d like to include in your app, or if you decide that your essays would benefit from some additional time.
Once you make your decision, be sure to inform your school counselor and any teachers that you plan to ask for your letters of recommendation so that they can submit their letters ahead of your deadlines.