Last updated March 8, 2023
How to Strategize Your Early Decision Application
There aren’t too many moving parts to nailing down a strategy for your college list itself. You have to come up with your school list, which is certainly easier said than done.
Once you’ve built a good list, the next thing you need to decide on is your early decision and early action plans. (Need a terminology check? Here you go.)
This post focuses on one half of that equation: your early decision applications (there are potentially two of them) and how to pick a strategy for yours.
This post is not about how to write the essays for your ED school(s). Rather, it’s about the decision-making process you need to go through in order to plan your ED I and ED II schools effectively.
Let’s start at the beginning — what is ED and who should submit an ED application?
Each application cycle, every student is allowed to submit one of their applications under a binding plan called “Early Decision” (hereafter ED). ED applications are submitted around the first of November, along with your Early Action (EA) applications.
Unlike EA applications, however, ED applications are binding—meaning that if you are accepted to your ED school, you are obligated to attend that school. This obligation is no joke. To apply ED, you, your parents, and your school counselor must all sign an agreement in writing that you will honor your commitment to attend.
If you get denied from your ED? No problem—you’re released from the agreement and you’re free to commit to another school. This is also when you’re allowed to apply to another school using the “ED II” option. Here you make another binding commitment to a second school after receiving the bad news from your ED I.
The benefit of submitting an ED application is obvious: you tend to have a much higher likelihood of being accepted from the ED pool than from the EA or regular decision (RD) pools. This is also true for ED II applications, but to a lesser degree.
You essentially trade flexibility for a bump to your admissions odds.
But not everyone should apply ED. Generally, we advise students to pick the ED option when they have high levels of:
- Knowledge about the schools on their list.
- Certainty about a top choice school, including understanding financial aid and your ability to pay.
When students are deeply informed about the schools on their list and have a clear top-choice school that offers the ED application option, they’re safe applying to an ED. When the opposite is true, we sometimes recommend students steer away from ED.
The worst possible world is to apply to an ED school without doing your research and find after you’ve been accepted that you don’t really want to go there or can’t afford it. Believe it or not, this happens.
Who should apply ED?
In our experience, the biggest question about Early Decision applications students face relates to which type of school one should pick for ED I. Let’s talk about that.
How to choose your ED school — two approaches
There are two primary ways to pick your ED school.
The first is risk-intense: you ED to the school on your list that is both the biggest reach and your top choice. You swing for the fences.
The second is less risky: You ED to a good-enough school (maybe a target-reach) where you are comfortably above the GPA and score medians, and where ED acceptance rates are high.
The strategy you pick comes down to your risk management preferences and the level of confidence you have in the rest of your school list.
Risk and Confidence
I try to encourage people to think about their school list, collectively, as a probability space. If you submit 15 applications to schools where you have a shot, your chances of having a good outcome are high.
But things fall apart when you look at any given school.
It’s like basketball—you can model a player’s performance across 100 free throws, but statistics tell you nothing about the shot they’re about to make.
The ED adds to your probability that your application outcome is positive. But it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get into your ED.
What’s the takeaway here? If your list is too top-heavy and comprises too many highly competitive schools, you may be putting it all on the line by throwing your ED after a top school rather than making a more conservative choice.
The solution here is not usually to change your ED but to de-risk the rest of your school list. Work backward to get a balanced list that supports a more risky ED pick.
The second approach is to make a safer ED choice. Using your ED at a less-selective school will increase the probability of having a good outcome in your application overall. This is the harder option to commit to. Everyone wants to imagine they have a chance at their dream school—which is usually the most selective one on the list. Not EDing to Brown or Cornell can feel like a waste of your chance at greatness. But if your transcript or resume aren’t spotless, we usually recommend hedging your bets and EDing to a target-reach, not a hyper-reach school.
For more information about the standards that hyper-selective schools use to evaluate students, read this post.
What’s the strategy for ED II schools?
If you’ve done your research and feel clear about your school list, you should apply ED I. The bump to your odds is significant.
ED II can be a different story. In principle, the same rules apply: if you’re clear about your second choice, and if your second choice offers an ED II option (not all schools do), then you can confidently apply ED II to your second-choice school.
Those are big “ifs.”
In reality, you probably won’t have many schools on your list that offer ED II. When you do have one, often that school won’t be your second choice—but perhaps your fourth or fifth.
This brings us to the second dilemma you might face when strategizing your Early Decision plan: deciding whether to apply ED II to a lower-choice school.
Now, depending on when you’re reading this post, this might not seem like a dilemma at all. “Nah,” you reason in September. “If I don’t get into my ED I I’ll just wait for the rest of the cycle to play out.”
If December rolls around, however, and you hear bad news from your ED I school, that confident logic might change real fast. Remember—at this point, your ED will likely be the only school you’ve heard back from.
Going 0/1 does things to people. You might second-guess your whole application strategy. You might compare the ED acceptance rate of your ED school (say, 26%) and spuriously reason that every school with a lower RD acceptance rate will likely reject you.
You shouldn’t do these things, but you might.
And if you do, that ED II might start looking tempting—even if the only ED II option available is your fifth or sixth-choice school. You might start to think that it would be better to secure a lower-choice school and forego the others. A bird in the net is worth two in the bush, after all.
Applying ED II to a lower-choice school is a judgment call. If your risk tolerance is low and you’d be more at ease locking in a safer pick, it might be the right call.
But we don’t generally recommend this approach. Instead we have our students apply a three-prong test:
- Did you build a strategic school list with targets and safeties matched up against prior admissions?
- Did you define a narrative strategy and personal application “brand” that helps contextualize your ECs and story?
- Did you put your best effort into your essays?
If the answer to those three questions is “yes,” we recommend not jumping the gun on your ED II. Let the cycle ride — you should have some solid options by March or May to choose from.