College & Career

The choices on college applications can be confusing, but you need to know the difference between early decision, early action and regular decision. MASH PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

By Emma Harrison
Hinsdale Central

With the first round of college applications submitted, seniors who chose to apply early decision or early action can take a step back until the next wave of regular decision and scholarship applications rolls around. But for those who haven’t applied to college just yet, the decision to apply early decision, early action or regular decision is something to start thinking about now.

The Mash talked with Elizabeth Pleshette, a former admissions officer at Columbia University and current director of college counseling at the Latin School of Chicago, about the ins and outs of the early decision process.

1. Early decision is binding. This means if you get in, you’re going. Although some students take advantage of this process to secure a spot at their No. 1 school, Pleshette warns that students who choose early decision simply to speed up the process.
“The main thing all students need to remember when applying early decision is to think about the entirety of their process. In other words, the best advice is to hope for the best but plan for the worst,” she says. “While you may hang your hopes on an early school panning out, it’s foolhardy to not think about and invest some time and effort into all of your schools. Your list needs to be both manageable and comprehensive.”

2. Be realistic. Although there are advantages to applying early decision, Pleshette says, don’t be confused about your chances. There are often higher rates of admission associated with the early decision round at most colleges for students who meet or exceed all admission requirements.
“It can be a distinct advantage if a student has found a first choice, is within the profile of what the college typically admits in the freshmen class, and wants to jump start their process to apply early decision,” says Pleshette. She lists other advantages such as pushing the application process forward and cutting short the anxiety of waiting to hear back.

3. Cost counts. When you apply early decision, you’re somewhat blind to what kind of scholarships or financial aid packages you may be awarded. Be mindful of this and prepare in advance by using online financial aid calculators such as the one at and school-specific sites to see where you lie financially and what kind of financial help you can expect if you are accepted.
“Every student and their parents should explore a net-price calculator and understand what might be expected of them in terms of cost from any college,” Pleshette says.

4. College is not an impulse buy. Whether or not to apply early decision takes some serious thinking. If you’re admitted, you must withdraw all other applications. If you’re not sure that your early decision school is where you want to spend the next four years of your life, it’s not something to leave up to your mood or the flip of a coin, although Pleshette says there’s one circumstance where you might be able to get out of an early decision committment. “Typically colleges will release families from an early decision commitment if the cost of attending is far from what was expected based upon the family’s original calculations and investigations.”

5. Early action is the best of both worlds. Seeing the early action option under the “future plans” tab on the common app is always a nice surprise. Unlike early decision, early action doesn’t require students to make a commitment,” Pleshette says. “Oftentimes, schools will not necessarily calculate a financial aid package or estimate the cost of attendance until the spring when a student applies (early action), but must do so if they are going to make an early decision commitment.”

The thought to get it all over with and apply early decision might seem appealing, but to juniors, sophomores, and freshmen beginning to get into the process, the advice is clear: think twice before writing off four years of your life with the click of the submit button just because it might be easy.

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About The Mash

Maura Wall Hernandez is digital editor of The Mash.

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