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By Kaitlin Mulhere
September 29, 2015

You know the adage about the early bird and the worm. It holds true in college admissions too.

Applying early can boost your odds of acceptance by up to 30 percentage points, roughly the same as scoring 100 points higher on the SAT, according to research by Harvard professor Christopher Avery, co-author of The Early Admissions Game.

But while an early application might make it easier to get into college, it could also make it harder to pay the bill.

There are two main ways to apply early: early decision (ED) and early action (EA). With ED, which is considered a binding contract if you’re accepted, you apply to just one college, usually in November. You’ll get a yes or no sometime in December, a couple of weeks before the regular admissions deadlines.

EA, which isn’t binding, lets you apply to multiple schools. You’ll hear back in January or February but don’t have to commit until later in the spring.

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EA won’t have much impact on your acceptance or aid prospects, but it might make sense if you can’t bear the tension of waiting to hear. So the more important question is whether it makes sense to apply ED. Here are some guidelines.

Apply early if …

You’re pretty sure you’ll qualify for ample financial aid. One problem with early decision is that your aid offer could come months after your acceptance letter. If the aid package doesn’t meet your needs, you can be released from the contract. But that could leave you scrambling to apply to other colleges.

For an estimate, use the net price calculator on the college’s website. Bear in mind that your actual aid could swing a couple of thousand dollars in either direction, says Kathy Ruby, director of financial aid at College Coach, an advising service.

If you know how much you can afford to pay, your dream school’s net price is in that range, and you aren’t concerned that another one might make you a better offer, applying early decision can make sense, says Robert Massa, vice president of enrollment and institutional planning at Drew University in New Jersey.

Some colleges will provide more definitive estimates for students considering ED, says Chris Hooker-Haring, dean of admissions and financial aid at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. So it’s worth asking. About half of potential ED applicants at Muhlenberg decide to go through with it after getting this “early read” on their aid, Hooker-Haring adds.

Money is no object. If you can afford your dream school regardless of aid, go for it. Early decision might improve your chances, although probably not by 30 percentage points except at certain elite private colleges. At most schools, the difference is closer to 10 percentage points. To get an idea of the potential advantage, ask about the school’s early acceptance rate and how much of its freshman class is filled that way.

But wait if…

You’d be happy at any of several schools. Applying ED means you’ll lose the opportunity to compare aid offers from different schools or to use an offer from one as a bargaining chip with the others. “If the primary driver of the decision is ‘Who is going to make me the best deal?’, then early decision may not be the best route,” Hooker-Harris says.

You want more merit money. If you’re hoping for merit aid, you could be better off waiting. Every school hands out its non-need based aid differently. Some colleges hold back a portion of their merit aid until spring to use as an extra incentive for students who are still undecided.

For more advice on applying to college, visit the new MONEY College Planner.

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