Am I at a Disadvantage if I Didn't Apply Early Anywhere?

I am just starting the application process, and I waited until the Regular Decision (RD) round on purpose. But now everyone I'm talking to is done with apps and some are even starting to hear from colleges, and I feel really behind. Some of my classmates are now telling me that I'm at a disadvantage by not applying Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED). Is that true? Is RD seen as a negative?

Early Decision does provide an acceptance-odds boost, so "The Dean" does often encourage ED applications, but only if the circumstances are right. (By "right" I mean that the family doesn't have to wait until the spring to compare need-based aid or merit aid offers; that the student's junior grades were as good or better than usual; and that, above all, the student is ready to make a binding commitment to one school.) Some colleges and universities will fill a large chunk of their class in the ED round, so it can be a small detriment when students wait for Regular Decision ... especially those without "hooks" (e.g., underrepresented minority students, first-generation to college students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds).

Early Action, on the other hand, rarely offers a bump in admission chances. While colleges do like to see that their EA applicants are eager and organized enough to apply by November, they don't want to save a spot for borderline contenders who may ultimately never enroll. So, while Early Decision might improve admission odds, Early Action probably won't.

But this year is unlike any other that "The Dean" can recall. The COVID craziness has thrown application patterns out of kilter. Many seniors who might have submitted all their applications by now in a more typical year are, instead, waiting until the RD deadline.

So what does all of this mean for YOU? For starters, try not to feel "behind" because, statistically, you're right in the middle of the pack, with the majority of your peers just beginning their essays or even still figuring out their college lists. But if this is keeping you up at night, here are a few strategies you can consider:

1. Early Decision II: Many colleges that offer Early Decision also offer an ED II round with a deadline at the beginning of January. ED II provides an acceptance advantage just as ED I does because the admission folks favor candidates who are willing to commit. So if you've decided that you actually do have a top-choice college that offers a second shot at ED, and if you meet the other conditions named above, you can aim for ED II. (Note that if you apply ED and also apply for financial aid, you can walk away from the binding obligation to enroll without penalty, if the aid award is inadequate.)

2. Rolling Admissions: Many universities (and even some smaller colleges) have "Rolling Admission" policies. This means that an application submitted in December could spur a response in January. If accepted, you won't have to commit until May 1, but it might help you to relax, once you get at least one verdict before spring. So if you don't have a Rolling Admissions college on your list, it could be time to add one.

3. Declaring True Love: As noted above, admission officials like ED candidates because — barring financial snafus — they can count them as "sure things" and won't have to worry if an admitted applicant will or won't show up in September. But even if you aren't applying ED, if you have a college that you really want to attend, send an email to your regional admission counselor (the staff member who oversees applicants from your high school) and explain that this is your number-one school. Obviously, your karma will be lousy if you pledge your allegiance to more than one "first choice." And this gambit certainly won't guarantee success. But declaring true love can sometimes push a borderline candidate into the "In" pile. And if you don't feel comfortable saying that any college is your favorite, it's still important to show all of the colleges on your list that you are truly interested. With so many student unable to visit campuses this year, it's more critical than ever to attend virtual info sessions or tours, open emails from your target colleges (and respond to them as appropriate), and write to your regional rep to say howdy and to ask questions (but only genuine ones. Those created for "suck-up" reasons are obvious!)

Bottom Line: Although it's surely frustrating to see your friends and classmates piling up acceptances now, if you meet Regular Decision deadlines, you are in good company — especially this year — and definitely not "behind." So focus on making your applications the best they can be, try to submit them at least a few days early so that you don't encounter the tech snafus that the 11th-hour rush can spawn, and then make sure that all of your colleges know that you'd be delighted to attend — even if you won't have your decisions for a while.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at