By Sean Nyhan

A high school senior stares at the polished college application essay before her. It’s still early fall, and the leaves outside her window have only just begun to change. Everything is perfect, she thinks. She has the right grades, the right extracurriculars—the right everything—for this one college. When she closes her eyes, she sees the future with perfect 20/20 vision.

Is she a superhero? A genetically engineered super soldier? No, she’s none of those things. She’s the Impossibly Prepared College Applicant! For this “super student,” applying Early Decision is a no-brainer.

If every student had this special power, applying early decision or early action would be an easy choice. Unfortunately, most students don’t possess the psychic prowess to achieve such certainty. For the rest of us, deciding whether to apply early requires a lot of research, help from the experts, and a deep meditation on our expectations for higher education.

There are two primary types of early applications:

Early Decision (ED) is a binding agreement between the student and college, in which the student commits to attend the college if accepted.

Early Action (EA) is a non-binding agreement, which does not require commitment on behalf of the student until the normal reply date of May 1.

“Early Decision seems only right for a segment of the applicant pool,” says Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College (CA). “Given that 17-year-olds are evolving and growing rapidly during their senior year, ED is really only for those students who have spent a significant amount of time researching their options, visiting campuses, and talking over their decision with others, like their guidance counselor and parents.”

Allen has seen a higher number of students applying early in recent years, and he attributes that trend to the growing competitiveness of the general admission pool. Early decision/action applicants have fewer peers to compete against, by definition of the process. They’re betting that their interest in a single school will set them apart from their peers in the general pool. Additionally, if they’re accepted, they can focus on the remainder of their senior year without the added distraction of the admission process.

However, gambling on the chance of an earlier decision comes with a cost. Students applying early, especially under a binding agreement, are essentially condensing their application process and foregoing additional time to research other options. And time is a valuable commodity for high school students. Classes, homework, sports, volunteering, clubs, jobs, and other extracurriculars fight all for your attention. Figuring out how to balance these responsibilities, along with the admission process, becomes increasingly challenging with an early application. The last thing you want to do is make a potentially binding decision without enough consideration.

With that said, applying early can be a smart strategy for students who feel confident in what and where they want to study. A unique offering like a semester-at-sea, a strong connection to the campus culture, or a lifelong dream to attend a certain business school, for example, might provide enough incentive for an applicant to send in an early application.

Just remember, finding your best-fit college requires time and effort. If you’re serious about applying early, check out the College Board’s Early Action/Decision Calendar to help manage your admission process.