Applying early may secure you a spot, but does it ruin your chances for adequate financial aid?

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To apply early or to apply regular decision? Many prospective college students wrangle with this question. If you've been wearing your dream school's colors since you were an infant, and you can't wait to enroll as a freshman, early decision might be the way to go. When you apply to a school early decision, you find out your admission status earlier than other candidates and enter into a binding agreement with the school, committing to enrollment. Deadlines for early decision applications are usually in early November, while regular decision applications are due around January. Early decision candidates are usually informed of their admission status by early January.

If you apply early, you'll know where you're headed much sooner than most of your friends. And some research even indicates that your chances of getting in are better if you apply early decision [source: Kaplan].

Sounds likes a pretty sweet deal, right? And it can be, if you're certain that you'll be able to attend a school regardless of the cost of tuition. But what if you know you'll need to rely on financial assistance to attend a school? With college tuition costs soaring to more than $40,000, many people need aid in the form of grants, scholarships, loans and work-study positions. If you enter into a binding agreement with a school, you won't have the opportunity to compare aid packages between schools in the spring. If you accept an early decision admissions offer, you're eliminating the possibility of negotiating one offer based on another school's offer.

Despite the financial uncertainty that might come with applying early decision, it's generally a popular option for both applicants and universities. In addition to potentially giving the student a better chance at admission, early decision guarantees the college a student who's committed and willing to pay whatever the tuition fee might be.

Like most of the college-admission process, choosing an admission plan can be complicated and will vary depending on the school to which you're applying. On the next page, we'll take a look at the factors that influence the decision to apply early and what motivates colleges to accept both early and regular decision applicants.