Understanding Early Action and Early Decision

Over the last few decades, both the raw number of high school graduates applying to college and the percentage of high school graduates applying to college has increased dramatically.  One of the results of this trend has been that many colleges and universities have become more and more selective.  One extreme example of this is universities like Harvard or Yale, which both went from accepting approximately twenty percent of applicants in the 1970s and 1980s to only accepting approximately five percent of applicants now.  The response of many students to the lower rates of acceptance by top universities is to explore the options of early action and early decision.

Early decision is when a student chooses one of the college or universities to which she is applying and decides to both apply early to that college and commit to attending that college should she be accepted.  By applying early decision, the student is publicly declaring that this college is the student’s first choice.  While most colleges and universities have application deadlines between January 1st and February 15th of students’ senior year, the early decision deadlines are often November 1st or 15th.  Subsequently, rather than an April notification of the college’s admissions decision, students applying early decision can expect to be notified of the college’s decision by mid-December, well before the application deadlines for any other colleges to which they might apply.

Early action is similar to early decision, in that students apply early to college, but there are several differences.  First, and most importantly, early action admissions are not binding.  A student accepted to a college or university via early action admissions is not committed to that school and may continue to apply to other colleges.  Second, there are two types of early action: restrictive and non-restrictive.  While colleges that employ restrictive early action require students to select only one school when applying early action, similar to early decision, schools that employ non-restrictive early action admissions allow students to apply to several colleges via early action. Should a student gain acceptance to a school via early action admissions, that student can apply to additional colleges through regular admissions and make a decision after seeing what colleges accept her and after comparing financial aid packages.

Early decision and early action both have a reputation for being an easier path to admissions.  This is based on the fact that even the most selective colleges, like Ivy League schools and other similarly prestigious institutions, have slightly higher acceptance rates for students applying early. The problem with this reputation is that the community of students who apply early is generally a self-selecting group.  These are students who have built impressive application packages, have tended to take a number of high-level classes, including Advanced Placement (AP), through junior year, and have very high standardized test scores.  Students who do not fit that profile may find that early admissions programs do not help them gain admittance to highly selective colleges.

A common critique of early admissions programs is that once a student is accepted early, that student’s options are limited.  There is very little opportunity to change one’s mind once a student has accepted an offer from a college early.  There is no chance to compare financial aid offers, which could lead to tough decisions further along the process.  Even early action admissions limits options.  A student applying early action is still very likely to accept an offer of admittance from a college and forego applying to the rest of the colleges on her list, once again eliminating the chance to compare financial aid packages or consider other colleges.

Additionally, successfully achieving admittance through early decision or early action is not guaranteed. If a student is not admitted early, that student may be deferred, meaning the application will be considered during regular admissions along with all of the other applications.  A student may also be rejected, meaning the school has said no thank you.  And in that case, the student cannot apply again to that college through regular admissions.  Early rejection can be devastating and may negatively affect a student’s attitude and confidence leading into the regular admissions deadlines.

This is not to say that early decision and early action programs are always negative.  There are students with impressive application packets who are confident that they have identified the perfect fit school.  Whether a student has chosen a college based on reputation, recruitment, or romanticism, some students know where they want to go. Early decision and early action can be a strong signal to a college of the student’s intent and coupled with an impressive application, may lead to early admittance.  And that could lead to peace of mind and a marked reduction in anxiety during senior year.