Early Decision & Early Action

Early Decision and Early Action are more popular than ever, and it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of these programs.

Early Decision serves many colleges well. Students applying Early Decision agree to attend if they are accepted, which enables admissions officers to lock in a percentage of their freshman class. They get to spread out their workload so they aren’t quite as overwhelmed with applications in January.

Students can also benefit from Early Decision. They get a decision in December, which can make for a more enjoyable winter break and early end to the stress of senior year. They may have a better chance of being admitted as applying Early Decision is the ultimate in demonstrated interest.  However, this admission edge will only help students who are already strong candidates. If your junior year grades or SAT/ACT scores are not as high as they could be, you may be better off improving your grades and test scores this semester and applying through the Regular Decision process. You want to submit your strongest application. If you are denied admission through an Early Decision or Early Action program, you cannot apply to that college again through Regular Decision.

Too many students apply Early Decision because they don’t want to miss out on the potential edge in admission. This is a big decision about where you will spend the next four years of your life, and you want to make it in a thoughtful way. Acting out of fear doesn’t usually lead to the best decisions. Students who are not really enthusiastic about a college but are applying Early Decision just because they don’t want to lose the opportunity for an edge in admission may put together rushed essays that don’t enhance their application.

If you are applying Early Decision, you need to be absolutely sure that you want to attend this college. Many students find that their first choice is very different in the spring. The students who are happy with their Early Decision acceptance have thoroughly researched the college. One of my students recently spent two days at the school he was considering. He sat in on three classes during his visit, ate several meals in the dining hall, spent time with a friend who is a student at the school, and attended a party in the residence hall. He came away with a very clear picture of life at this college and is ready to make the binding commitment. Because he spent so much time on campus, this student is able to prepare a thoughtful application that, combined with his strong academic record, will give him the best prospects for admission.

But even for a student who has identified his first choice college and has excellent grades and test scores, Early Decision may not be the best choice. If the family wants to compare financial aid packages, applying Early Decision is not an option.

Schools with Early Decision or Early Action programs can admit, deny or defer students. If you are deferred, your application will be considered again in the Regular Decision process.

Early Action does not typically offer as much of an admission advantage, but is still helpful at some schools. An admissions officer at one university told me several years ago that if a student didn’t apply early action, she wondered if the student was seriously interested in the school.

Some colleges, like Georgetown University, will defer all or most early applicants. But others, including Stanford, will make final decisions on the majority of early applications. It may be painful to get a rejection in December, but it also enables students to move on and invest emotionally in more accessible schools.

Students need to make sure that they understand the rules for Early Decision and Early Action at any colleges they are considering. If you apply to college through a binding Early Decision program, you can’t apply Early Decision to another college at the same time. You must withdraw all other applications once you have been admitted to your early decision school.

Early Action applications are not binding, and you have until May 1 to consider other offers. While most colleges allow students to apply Early Action to as many schools as they want, some Early Action schools do place restrictions on submitting other early applications. There are some variations in their plans, but all allow you to apply early to any public institution in your own state as well as to any college’s non-binding rolling admissions process.

If you find the rules confusing, you’re not alone. And colleges can change their policies from year to year, so check with each school on your list to make sure you understand the rules before applying.

Success Stories

  • Russ M., San Gabriel
    "Just wanted to let you know that we are very relieved and want to thank you for your help in this stressful process. Terry received an acceptance from Swarthmore on top of a Grinnell acceptance (that one included offer of an $18,000 a year merit scholarship). Oberlin and Rochester are offering nice merit scholarships as well. Thanks again for your counsel, both practical and psychological, on Terry's college application journey."
Independent Educational Consultants Association