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Early Decision or Early Action: Strategies for College Applications

Should I apply Early Decision or Early Action? This is one of the most common questions I get from high school seniors and their parents. As students begin the process of completing college applications, they are faced with the challenge of deciding which application deadline they should be using. Because of the complexities in college admissions today, students need to be thoughtful and strategic about when they submit their application to each college. The “when I get around to it” mentality of many students will not serve them well in this process, and applying the same logic to each college is not wise either.

First, let’s look at the most common early application deadlines: Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA). Students may also see priority deadline, ED II, EA II, Restricted EA, etc. Each college or university creates their own application types, deadlines, and requirements, which just adds to the complexity.

Applying ED, (usually the earliest application deadline) is a binding, contractual obligation to attend that college, if accepted. Applicants may only apply to one college ED. The consequences of breaking this rule can be devastating if caught (student gets denied or has acceptances rescinded at multiple colleges). It has happened.

The advantage of ED for the college is that they can fill a percentage of their freshman class with little effort and few incentives because the student is completely committed to attend. Once a student is accepted ED, all other non-binding applications to other colleges must be immediately withdrawn. The advantage for the student is that at many, but not all colleges, the acceptance rate is higher for ED than EA or regular decision deadlines.

Early Action is simply an opportunity to apply early with the intent of getting a decision by December or January of senior year. EA deadlines can also be tied to scholarships, merit aid, honors programs, housing, etc. EA is not a binding application, and the student is free to apply to other colleges EA at the same time. Colleges like the EA deadline because they can continue to fill the class early, and identify demographics, majors, and programs that still need to be filled in regular decision; however, students normally are not required to commit to the school until later in the spring.

Restrictive, or single choice EA is an option at some very selective colleges such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Notre Dame. Restrictive EA is a hybrid between ED and EA. Students are only allowed to apply to one college EA, but the application is not binding. The student is free to apply elsewhere during the regular or rolling admissions period.  

Colleges with the early application deadlines also have a regular decision option. The deadline usually occurs around February or March, but it can extend into the summer at some less selective colleges. Another application method some colleges and universities use is called “rolling” admission. These colleges accept applicants throughout the admissions cycle and make decisions as they applications come into the admissions office. Essentially, this is a first-come, first-serve admissions method with decisions and notifications being made continually. Students applying to these schools should be aware that the earlier, the better, particularly because financial aid may be scarce later in the application season.

So how does a student decide on which application deadline they should use for each college? This is where some research, family discussion and knowledge about the acceptance rates for each college comes into play.

 

Early Decision

Last year selective colleges that offered ED saw an increase in ED applications. What was once a strategic advantage for students willing to commit early to their college of choice, is becoming less of an advantage as more students send ED applications. So is applying ED worth it? Maybe not. At least not for everyone.

Here are the things to consider when contemplating whether to apply Early Decision.

  • This is usually the strongest applicant pool a college will receive. Based on GPA, high school course rigor and test scores, as a group, they are generally qualified to attend that college.
  • When applying ED, the family needs to be prepared to commit to the cost of the college without seeing the final price tag. This can be a deal-breaker for most families. To help families get an estimate of the expected cost with financial aid considerations, a Net Price Calculator can be found on the college’s website. Also, it may be worth a phone call to the institution’s financial aid office to see if they can provide any more guidance on available grants, scholarships, etc.
  • Students that are marginally qualified for the school may want to use this option to increase their chances at some colleges.
  • This option is not recommended for students that feel that their 1st-semester senior year grades or another round of standardized testing is needed to put them in the running.

Early Decision Bottom-Line: If a student’s first-choice college offers ED AND the student is well qualified OR the student is marginally qualified academically but has a desired skill, talent background or demographic, AND the family can afford the cost of the college, AND the college has a significantly higher acceptance rate for ED, then ED is probably a good choice. Otherwise, no. Simple right? The problem is, most students don’t have the data to answer those questions. A high school counselor or an Independent Educational Consultant can be a valuable resource if ED is being considered.

 

Early Action

For many students, Early Action has its advantages. First, getting applications out of the way before the end of the first semester of their senior year allows seniors to get their decisions early and enjoy the end of their high school experience. Or, if a student doesn’t get in or is deferred in the Early Action round, the student still has time to apply to other colleges where they have a better chance of getting accepted.

Students should consider Early Action to a given college if:

  • It is one of their top-choice colleges, and the admit rate is below 50%
  • They are ready to apply and don’t need improved grades or test scores to be in the running
  • They qualify for honors programs with early deadlines

Early Action Bottom-Line: Typically, there is little to no acceptance rate advantage with Early Action, so marginally qualified students (who probably will not qualify for honors programs) that can show improvement in grades or test scores in the spring, should probably not use this option. Otherwise, it is a good option, particularly for reach or good match colleges.

Looking for more tips on the application process? Check out this blog post about 7 of the most common mistakes students make during the application process.

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