Should My Child Submit an Early Application to U.S. Colleges?

Timio Colistro

The talk about early application to U.S. colleges can get confusing. And like most questions about post-secondary options, the answer is more complicated than just yes or no.

For students entering Grade 12 who might apply to American colleges, their thoughts at this time of year turn to the question of early applications. Specifically, whether to submit one. This is an important question and the answer can change how the first term of their final year unfolds and where the stress points are likely to be.

It’s helpful first to take a step back to understand the language and rules around early applications to U.S. colleges before evaluating the pros and cons of submitting one (or several).

Early Application, Early Decision and Early Action

The term “early application” can be a bit misleading for Canadian students, as most U.S. colleges’ regular deadline of January 1 already comes earlier than Canadian university deadlines. Some schools, like the many state university systems (University of California or University of Washington), don’t offer early application. Of the 450 or so remaining schools, the “early application” deadline is November 1 of a student’s graduating year. How’s that for early?

Early applications come in two flavours: Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA).

By far the most important distinction between the two plans is that ED is binding. A student who is accepted under an ED plan must attend that institution. For applicants with financial need, this arrangement prevents them from being able to compare different financial aid packages at other potential schools.

EA plans are non-binding. A student who is accepted under an EA plan is not obligated to attend that institution and can apply to other schools before the regular deadline of January 1.

It’s important to note that students don’t get to choose between ED and EA; each college’s admissions office uses either one or the other.

Is an early application right for my child?

As usual, the answer is: it depends on their situation.

Many students over the years have chosen to forego submitting an early application. This could be because they did not have a single clear choice or because they knew the additional two months leading up to the regular deadline would allow them to do a better job on their application.

For students who identify with one or both of these reasons it can be a mature decision to spread the workload out over a longer stretch. Some have said this reduced the stress of the entire process and let them better balance the other academic and extracurricular commitments in their lives. For those who wished to have one more shot (or two) at the SAT or ACT, a later application deadline afforded them more study time and allowed them to send the more recent scores to colleges.

But there are good reasons to submit an early application, depending on the student’s goals and motivations. Early applications, and especially ED plans, can be beneficial to students who have already researched lots of colleges and emerged with a strong, clear choice of where they would be happy to live and study. Submitting an early application gives them an opportunity to signal their commitment to a particular college. Although students shouldn’t embark on the early application journey just to be done with it sooner, it is a relief to have an offer in hand by mid-December.

Can my child submit more than one early application?

Yes, under certain conditions.

Students obviously cannot apply to two ED schools because of the binding commitment. But EA plans can be similarly limiting at times. Some colleges, like Stanford or Yale, have EA plans called Restrictive EA or Single Choice EA that limit students to one choice only. You are not obligated to attend if accepted, but you can only submit an early application to that one school.

Other than these exceptions, students can and do submit an ED application alongside an EA (ie, non-binding) one, or submit multiple non-restrictive EA applications.

Next steps

Students who intend to apply to U.S. colleges should ask themselves three primary questions to determine whether an early application is worth submitting:

  1. Is an early application option even offered where I wish to apply? As mentioned, many institutions will have only a single deadline.
  2. Do I have a clear preference of where I wish to spend the next four years of my life? One school that appears a strong match based on extensive research (and ideally a campus visit)? A place where I would cut off my left arm to attend? (Okay, that’s technically three questions.)
  3. Do I have enough time and energy to commit myself to finishing a demanding application process two months sooner than is strictly necessary?

If you answered “yes” to all three, an early application may be for you. And if that’s the case, do not be shy to seek all the help you can get: parents, peers, teachers and, of course, your friendly university counselors!

VICE Fair (October 10)

A big part of deciding to submit an early application is researching whether there is an American school that is your clear No. 1 choice. Representatives from nearly 40 U.S. colleges will be at SMUS on Tuesday, Oct. 10 for the Vancouver Island College Event. Students and parents should come learn about the schools and ask the tough questions to help you better decide if they are the right post-secondary institution for you. The event happens in the single gym from 3:30-5:30 p.m.


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