In case you thought college applications weren't complicated enough already, there are up to three additional options offered for submitting the actual application. I don't recommend leaping into a decision, although these early alternatives can give you an advantage. (Namely, if you've been accepted into your dream school, you don't have to keep applying to other schools and can immediately start focusing on finding housing and choosing a great class schedule.) First and foremost, I urge you to consider how an early application could impact your financial aid.
There are three common types of deadlines schools offer for students like you who want this early edge: Early Decision, Early Action and Early Notification. Some offer a combination of these, while others offer only one or none of these options at all. And while there's a lot more that goes into each of your early options than just finances, here's a guide to how each of them impacts you in that regard.
Early Decision is the most binding of the three — you're only allowed to apply ED to one school. And unless you're sure the tuition is something you can afford outside of aid, this can be a pretty big gamble. Since you'll only be receiving an aid package from one school, you will be forfeiting your ability to compare aid packages, which can be a crucial advantage if you decide to make an appeal. (Do note that while Early Decision is binding, if you make an appeal for more financial aid and are unsuccessful, your obligation to attend will typically be forgiven.) My verdict on Early Decision? If the tuition of your Early Decision school seems unaffordable, it might be best to wait it out or choose another early application option.
Unlike Early Decision, Early Action provides you with an early notification of acceptance, but does not bind you to attend that school. Another difference between this and ED is that you're allowed to apply to more than one school. (If you're still unsure of a best fit, keeping your options open is a savvy move!) Hearing back early can help to immediately end your search if you get an offer you're excited to accept, but if you remain on the fence, it gives you more time to compare financial aid offers and make appeals accordingly.
Schools that have rolling admission will sometimes offer this, sending out acceptance letters as decisions are made. You still have until the usual early-May deadline to let a school know if you're accepting an offer, but there are some instances in which a school might want you to declare a decision earlier, which will be the only financial aid implication here. If a college is putting pressure on you to accept an offer before you've heard from other schools, there can be an implicit squeeze put on your ability to compare financial aid packages, much like with Early Decision. If this happens, simply tell the admissions office that you have until May 1 to reply and that you are waiting to hear back from other schools. Don't be afraid to stand your ground! It is a violation of accepted good practice to ask for a deposit before May 1 unless you applied Early Decision.
For a deeper breakdown of application deadlines, the variety of early options offered, how many students take advantage of them, and the pool of peers you'll be applying alongside, check out our books The Complete Book of Colleges and The Best 385 Colleges.