Early Decision or Regular Decision: Which is Better?

Does the early bird get the worm?

This is the time of year when I get calls from parents and students asking whether they should apply to college via early decision or regular decision. This decision is a very important one, especially if you are considering some of the more selective colleges and universities in the country.

For those new to the process, perhaps it might be helpful to clarify some of the jargon.

Regular decision is the normal process by which students apply by published deadlines, with promise of receiving an admissions decision no later that April 1 of their senior year.  Some colleges will give admissions decisions well before April 1, but the student is under no obligation to make a decision about whether to attend until the common response date of May 1.

Early decision is binding promise.  Under this program (also known as ED), students apply early (usually by November 1 or November 15, depending on the college), and will receive their admissions decisions early–usually by December 15.  In return for this early decision, the student, parents, and school counselor sign a pledge that, if accepted, they will attend that college. The student agrees to withdraw all other applications, and not accept any other offers of admission.

Early action programs are a hybrid.  Students may apply early under these early action (EA) programs and receive an early admissions decision.  However, the student is under no obligation to accept the offer of admission and can wait until May 1 to select which college to attend.  For purposes of clarity, this post will focus exclusively on the differences between early decision (ED) and regular decision.

So when should a student apply under an early decision program? I advise that students apply ED only when the college in question is far and away the student’s first choice, and when the family is not “price sensitive,” meaning that the family is willing to forgo the possibility of comparison pricing.

Let’s take each of these conditions in turn.

Is this college really my first choice? Some students are very confident in identifying their first choice college.  I was.  But many students are still confused in the fall of their senior year.  Both my brother and sister had some ideas of what type of college they wanted, but no institution really stood out in their mind.  I applied early because there was no doubt in my mind that this one college was where I wanted to go.

Some people point out that, statistically speaking, it is easier to get into a college during the ED process than during the regular process.  Thus, they ask  me whether it isn’t a better strategy to apply early.  The answer is yes–but only if you agree to forsake all other admissions and financial aid offers.

Many colleges accept as much as 30-35% of their entire freshman class in the ED process, and usually the pool of ED applicants is smaller than the regular pool.  So in a statistical sense, a qualified applicant has a better shot of admission in an ED process than in the regular process. (For more on the statistical analysis of how this works, see the book The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser.)

However, keep in mind that what may be statistically true for an entire pool of applicants may not be true for an individual applicant.  Admission is not a matter of randomized statistics. If a student does not possess at least the minimum requirements for entrance to a particular college, she will not somehow sneak past the admissions gate in the early round.   The fact is that every selective college has many more qualified applicants than space available.  The students who are admitted early are just as talented and capable of doing the work at that college. (Again, if you are interested in the intricacies of how this works in practice, and the slight differences in applicant “quality”, read The Early Admissions Game).   Early applicants are still judged on their merits in the early process.

So why, then, do colleges like the early decision process?  Why is it in their interest to accept a third or more of their class ED?  The best way to explain this is to talk about William Shatner and Priceline.com.

Early Decision, Price Sensitivity, and Priceline.com

Priceline is a website that allows you to bid the price you are willing to pay for air tickets and hotel rooms. You name your price.  Then through a process of computing magic, airlines and hotels decide whether they will accept your bid.  priceline1But, in return for bidding a low price, the consumer agrees to two things.  First, they agree to pay the price bid.  A bidder has to submit credit card information, with the understanding that if the bid is accepted, the card will be charged. Second, the bidder cannot choose which airline or hotel will receive her business. For airlines, you can choose how many stops you are willing to tolerate.  Hotel bidders  can choose the general geographical area, and they can choose the general quality rating (number of stars) of  the hotel.  But by bidding for a low price, Priceline customers are giving up control of important aspects of their purchase.  They are trading control for price.

This sort of arrangement is good for those involved on both sides of the Priceline transaction.  Hotels and airlines boost capacity or occupancy rates.  Customers often get great bargains.  But by agreeing to Priceline’s terms of sale, customers give up their ability to choose.

So how does this relate to early decision in college admission?  As with Priceline, an ED candidate gives up the right to certain aspects of his “purchase” of a college education.  What does the ED candidate relinquish?  The right to comparison shop based on price.  Thus ED is sort of the reverse of the Priceline:  name your school, but agree to pay the price offered.

ED and Financial Aid:  The Jewelry Store Analogy

The conventional wisdom is that a student’s financial aid package under the ED program will be lower than if he or she is admitted under regular decision.  In general–and again, statistically speaking–this is true.  Why?  Because colleges do not need to offer discounts in the form of merit scholarships to students who make the early decision agreement.

Think about it.

You walk into a jewelry store and tell the shopkeeper, “I’d like that diamond ring, and only that diamond ring…I intend to buy that ring.”  The shopkeeper thus knows he has a red-hot customer, and has no incentive to offer you a discount because he is absolutely sure you will buy.  He may offer discounts to other customers who are doing more comparison shopping, or who are looking at diamonds and rubies and sapphires and haven’t made up their mind about which ring to buy.  He knows that unless he offers discounts,  those other potential customers may walk out the door and he’ll lose a sale. But with you, the determined buyer, he can smile and read you the price tag, knowing you will not walk out of the store without paying the full price.

How does this work for colleges?  It depends on whether the college awards merit-based financial aid. Some elite colleges award financial aid only on the basis of need (more on those colleges in a second).  But the hundreds of colleges that compete for students by offering deep discounts and other financial inducements to bring in the customers, colleges love ED because they need to discount much less–if at all–for those customers who walk in to their office with a signed promise to buy the diamond ring.

This does not mean, however, that a student who has financial need should necessarily avoid ED altogether. Many colleges, especially those that do not award merit-based aid anyway (e.g., the Ivy League), will still award solid financial aid packages based on the family’s ability to pay. Students with high financial need should be able to get a solid, early offer of financial aid from an ED institution.  (And since insufficient financial aid is the only legitimate reason to be released from the ED commitment to attend, financial aid offices do have good reason to work with less affluent students who are accepted under the Early Decision programs).

Still, the ED system tends to discriminate against students with high financial need in other, more subtle ways–ways that are not easy to prove.  If a student with high financial need is qualified for admission, but not necessarily a clear stand-out in the eyes of the admissions officers, he may be deferred to the regular round to compete for an offer with everyone else.  The reason?  A high-need student costs the institution more money.  If the admissions office feels that they will have to pay a heavy price (in tuition discounts or scholarships) to admit a student in the ED round, then the college may as well release the student from the ED agreement so as to “shop around” for better customers.

To return to the jewelry store analogy, let’s say you walk in to the shop and point to the ring you want to buy:  this one and only this one.  But then you tell the shopkeeper that you will buy it only if the price is right.  You promise to pay, but only if the price is low enough.  Now the shopkeeper has a different incentive.  If he doesn’t know your ability to pay–but knows he must discount–he may decide it’s not worth discounting too much just to get the sale.  Furthermore, if our jewelry store clerk (like our admissions officer at a selective college) looks around the store, he’ll see that there is a long line of potential customers winding out the door and down the street, all of whom are waiting to buy that same diamond ring–and a large percentage of them are willing to pay full price.  Why should he offer a discount to you, if others are willing to pay full price?  His incentive is to pass you by and see if the next customer is more attractive.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it?  Selective colleges choose their customers!

College admission is not like any other consumer transaction we ever make.  In most any other business, it is illegal to pick and choose customers.  In any other business, the producer sets the price and sells the product or service to the first person who slaps down the greenbacks.  Not so with colleges and universities in the US.  Because college admissions officers are not only sales and  marketing professionals, but also social engineers, they not only permitted, but required by their bosses (i.e., the faculty)  to be selective about the people to whom they sell their diamond rings.

So what does all this mean for you?  Should you apply early decision, or not?

You should apply early decision if you meet two basic conditions:

1.  The college in question is far and away your first choice. You want this particular diamond ring above all others.

2.  You are not price sensitive, meaning that you are so enamored of a particular school that you do not mind foregoing your right to compare one financial aid package against another.

So for students with high financial need who are determined to pay the lowest price for a college education, ED is not a good idea.

The one exception might be for a student with high financial need who is also a standout, both inside and outside the classroom, and who is sold on a particular college. If offered admission in the early round, this student can work with the financial aid office to come up with a reasonable financial aid package.  And the student should make it clear that if the package is not good enough, he will have to be ask to be released from the ED promise to matriculate.  Quality students with high financial need may very well be deferred to the regular round.  But if they are accepted under ED, then they suddenly have more power to bargain for a good package.  But even in such cases, students lose the right to comparison shop:  unless they go to the regular round, they will never know what sweet financial deals they might have received from another college.

Generally, I  advise all my clients who are sensitive to price (regardless of their true ability to pay) to pass up the Early Decision option and apply regular decision.  This is the only way to comparison shop.

For an additional point of view on Early or Regular Decision see Andrea’s post on the subject: Is It “Easier” to Get In Early Decision? 

Mark Montgomery
College Counselor




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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. I have read this article and can say that it was really helpful, but still have a question: If I apply to college on ED and I’m accepted, but did not like the financial aid package, can I without any problem don’t agree this offer and apply RD?

  2. aba,

    If you apply ED and “don’t agree” with the offer, then you turn down the offer of admission and you must apply RD somewhere else. Keep in mind that international students, generally speaking, are offered little to zero aid at many US colleges and universities. There are a number that do offer international students financial aid.

    If you need financial aid, the ethical thing to do is not to apply ED anywhere. You will have to compare financial aid offers. Some may offer you a lot. Some may offer you zero. If you want to get a low price, you have to wait until the RD round.

    If you decide to apply ED, then understand that they will give you their best offer. If you “don’t agree,” you can ask for more. But they are unlikely to give it. If you find the package unacceptable, you will have to ask to be released from the ED agreement, withdraw your application from that university, and you will have to apply somewhere else. This is a BIG problem. And it will have a negative impact on anyone else from your secondary school who wants to apply to that same university. They will figure that students from your school are not serious.

    If you need financial aid, don’t apply ED.

    Hope this helps.

    Mark Montgomery

  3. If a student applied early decision and did not withdraw their college applications from the other colleges they applied too; what would be the consequence? Further what would happen if a student ended-up accepting other offers from colleges?

  4. Early Decision is a contract. Your parents have to sign it. More important, your high school counselor or other representative will have to sign it. Thus, if your high school signs the form and you are accepted ED, they are bound not to send transcripts to other schools–unless they see you are released from your binding ED decision by the college in question. If you accept another offer from a college that is not the one with which you signed the ED agreement, then other kids at your school will suffer in the future from your unethical behavior. Believe me, I’m not in love with all these ED/EA regulations. But they are the rules of the game. And there are consequences for cheating–for you, for other kids, for your school, and for the colleges in question. Play by the rules.

  5. Does applying ED really give a student a higher chance to get accepted slightly or significantly?

  6. Hi, Raj.
    You won’t like this answer, but “it depends.” On the college. On the student.
    If the student does not need financial aid, is a legacy, and is highly competitive for admission, ED will help. IF the student needs heavy amounts of aid, does not have a “hook” at the college, or is not really all that competitive, then ED is no advantage. All things being equal (and they never are), ED gives a slight advantage. But the general rule never applies in a specific case.
    Best of luck!

  7. I was an ED2 international applicant of Gettysburg College and I was rejected. Maybe I should have read your advice about the need sensitiveness first, because I am fighting for a full schoolarship 🙁 (which becomes more and more hard/ completely impossible for intl’s). However, on Gettysburg’s website is written: ” In most cases, students applying for ED who are not offered acceptance will automatically be considered for Regular Decision admission upon receipt of subsequent semester grades and test scores from the senior year.” What does it mean? How can I understand whether I am on the RD round now??

  8. Hi Vicky,

    Usually if you are being considered for the RD round they send you notice that your application has been deferred. Have you asked Gettysburg if you are in the RD round?

    Katherine Price
    Senior Associate

  9. You say that the financial aid package will be lower. But what happens if an applicant is 100% eligible for FULL financial aid and gets accepted Early Decision (ED)? They can’t just reduce his aid amount, can they? I mean, say, a student is applying to need-blind colleges ONLY,because of his financial condition, in that case, they can’t just say, “Oh, you’re attending our school NO MATTER WHAT, so we’re gonna cut off that AID shit you like so much!” (Lol).
    But no seriously, CAN THEY?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  10. Hello. Thanks for your question. They won’t “cut off that aid shit” for ED candidates who have full financial need. But, keep in mind that colleges have only so much financial aid to hand out–even if they are allegedly “need blind.” They can’t give money to every deserving student, or they’d go broke. So the reality is that the more financial aid you need, the more difficult it will be to get in on the early round. What colleges don’t tell you is that ED is not just about “filling the class with kids who want us;” it’s about budgeting. Many of the students accepted in the early round are full-pay students.

    So to go back to your question, just because you “qualify” for full financial aid doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Furthermore, if you need full financial aid, you had better be a superstar, because if they are going to give you a 100% full ride, then the college has to really, really, really want you enough to cough up the dough. As you note, the wealthier, “need blind” colleges are more likely to hand out free rides. But they won’t hand them out willy nilly. They simply cannot.

    Hope this helps.

  11. Hi,
    You are correct that if a student is eligible for full financial aid, he or she could certainly get a full financial aid package. But one school might offer a package that includes a mix of loans and grants VS another college which wants the student more and offers them a package of grants only. I hope that helps.

  12. Hi,
    I am an international student (from France) currently interested in applying early decision, and I’d like to know if this would forbid me to apply to other universities located in Europe ?
    Thank you in advance !

  13. If I’m applying ED to a university that I’m really not sure I’ll get accepted to, is it safe to apply to another university ED too? I really need the ED advantage of better acceptance rates!

    Also, if I only apply to one college ED, and they accept me, is there any way to withdraw the acceptance and just go on and keep applying to other schools RD? (Not that I’ll be changing my mind on a school that I’m applying ED to, but I’d just like to ask in case!)

    And lets just say I do apply to two schools ED, is there any way that I can withdraw my application to one school and go to the other, if I get acceptances from both?


  14. When you apply Early Decision to a school, you are telling that school that if they accept you that you are committed to going there. Early Decision is binding. This means that you can’t apply to more than one school ED because if you should get accepted to both, you can’t attend both! Also, if you do choose to apply ED to more than one school and the schools find out that you’ve done this (and they do find out!), then you are likely to lose any chance of acceptance at both schools.

    If you apply ED and are accepted, you are not permitted to withdraw the acceptance. Again, ED is binding. The only situation where a student may withdraw is if the student has applied for financial aid and did not receive the amount of funding from that ED school that they need in order to attend.

    The bottom line is, don’t play games with Early Decision. It is meant for students who know for sure where they want to go to express to the ED school that that institution is their top choice and that they will attend there if they are accepted. No ifs, ands, or buts.

  15. Thank you so much for this great article. Im currently getting ready to apply to colleges, and Im so glad I seen this, because if I did not, I would have totally applied early decision to Rice University, and Im not totally sure yet that thats where I want to go.

  16. I’m still puzzled about the effect on financial aid of applying early decision to a “need blind” college. If the college is truly and honestly need blind, then it would not be able to favor candidates able to pay full price, would it? My understanding of “need blind” is that the class is selected without regard to a student’s ability to pay (presumably ED or RD). Then if it admits a student, the college will meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. What am I missing?

  17. Sean,
    You are correct that if a college states that it is “need blind” then it commits to accept students regardless of their financial need. That said, even if a student is accepted, “need blind” does not mean that the school will meet 100% of the student’s need. There are only a handful of schools which are “need blind” and also who commit to meet full need. Those schools then fall into two categories: 1) Schools who will provide financial aid in the form of grants, loans, and work-study; 2) Schools who have a “no loan” policy and will fulfill the student’s financial aid package with a mixture of grants only and potentially some work-study. This latter category tends to be quite small and is comprised of only the most academically selective schools. The former category means that a student who gains admission to that school could end up with a financial aid package that has a significant skew towards loans.

    So, if a student applies and is accepted ED to a school that is “need blind”, they may end up only receiving a part of the financial aid that they need. Or, they may end up receiving all of the aid that they need, but the package may be very cumbersome with lots of loans that the student will have to repay. Yet, the student is committed to go to that school because he/she applied ED. The reason to apply RD, instead, is so that the student will have the opportunity to see which school will give him/her the best and most favorable aid package and then decide where they want to attend based on comparison shopping.

    Andrea Aronson

  18. So, I understand that if you apply ED to one school, this does not prohibit you from applying RD to other schools.
    My scenario/question is if get accepted to ED school and financial package to ED school is just not doable, can you keep your RD applications out there to wait for decisions on whether you got in? In other words, if the ED is just not feasible, can’t you still have RD potential options instead of withdrawing applications? The time frames in which you find out financial packages and acceptances into RD schools is tough.
    Do you have to withdraw your other applications only once you have received the financial package from the ED school and it’s doable?
    Hope this makes sense! Thanks

  19. Hi Kelly,
    If you get accepted ED and the aid package is not enough, then you can keep your RD applications out there. However, you cannot and should not send in your matriculation deposit to your ED school. This deposit clearly signifies your intention to go to that ED school, and once you’ve paid your deposit, you must withdraw all of your other applications.

    This deposit will most likely be due prior to hearing from all of your RD schools, so your best bet is to contact the financial aid office at your ED school and explain the situation. Many aid offices will try to work with you to get things sorted out. Not all will, however, so you have to be prepared either way. If you have notified your ED school, and they are not willing to work with you on the aid package, then the ED school is obliged to let you back out of your ED agreement to see where the chips fall with your RD schools. That said, all bets are off as to whether or not you will still be able to keep you admission standing at your ED school once you have notified them that you want to back out of the ED agreement. This issue is the reason why we encourage students not to apply ED if they want to compare aid offers.

  20. Andrea –

    You are too extreme with your opinion of the results of withdrawing your application after an ED acceptance. A non-acceptance of a financial aid offer is an acceptable and common reason for withdrawing the application. I encourage parents to speak to the guidance counselors at your child’s school and ask them the frequency of ED applications being withdrawn. We did and at our high school it occurs one or two times every year and becoming more common as the tuition keeps going up and FA becomes less predictable.

  21. Dear Collegedad,
    Thanks for the good advice. You’re right that more and more ED applications are being withdrawn, and that the costs of higher education are the reason. However, it is also true that the net price calculators on every college’s website have helped us to demonstrate to families that aid offers will not likely be as generous as they might hope. This is especially true for the schools that offer no merit aid whatsoever. In my own family, we ran the calculators before applying, and the aid offers that finally came in were very similar to what the calculators gave us.

    So from a strategic point of view, it may not be wise to apply ED to a school that is very unlikely to offer the financial aid the family would require.

  22. If I sent an ED application and have NOT received an answer yet, can I change my mind and ask that tha application be changed to RD. is this ever done? will that put me in an unfavorable position for acceptance. I may want to see where else I get accepted.

  23. Hi Ann,
    Thanks for your question. The answer is that yes, you can change from ED to RD if you haven’t yet received a decision, however, you should contact the Admissions Office of your ED school immediately to let them know that you have changed your mind. As to whether or not it will put you in an unfavorable position for acceptance, that is hard to say, and probably depends on the school. In theory, it shouldn’t work against you. But, in reality, you are telling the school that it may no longer be your top choice and, if they admit you, they can’t necessarily count on you to come. That said, if you are not 100% sure that you do want to go to that school, then you should probably not apply there Early Decision.

    Hope that helps!

    Andrea Aronson

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