Early Decision and Early Action: What’s the Rush?

More and more students are applying to college early in their senior year, months before the regular admissions deadline. What’s the rush? Should you hurry up—or wait?

Early Decision vs. Early Action

About 470 U.S. colleges offer Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) programs.

Both programs allow students to apply early and hear back well in advance of traditional deadlines, reducing the amount of nail-nibbling waiting time that can make senior year so stressful.

However, you need to be aware of a crucial difference between the two programs: ED is binding and EA is not.

a female student run

Commitment vs. No Strings

Students who apply for ED must make a firm commitment to attend if they’re accepted, provided the financial aid package is satisfactory. That means withdrawing all other applications, refusing all other acceptances and usually paying a deposit shortly after acceptance.

Most colleges prohibit ED applicants from applying ED anywhere else, though they may file for regular admission.

Under EA plans, on the other hand, there’s no commitment. Students hear back in January or February, but they don’t have to make a final decision until the national regular admissions deadline of May 1.

ED = Early Drawbacks?

One often-cited drawback of ED is in the area of financial aid. With no other offers to compare against or use as bargaining chips, accepted students may have to take the package they’re offered instead of being able to negotiate for more. Rejected students face a different problem: they don’t learn that they didn’t get in until mid-December, giving them only a few weeks to pull together other applications.

Early Application = Early Advantage?

Is applying early worth it? Are students who apply early more likely to get in than those who wait?

That depends on the school—and requires careful evaluation of the data. If a school’s admissions profile shows a higher percentage of successful early applicants than traditional ones, it may be because the first wave of students is simply more qualified. You need to check your school’s data through the high school guidance office.

No Slackers Allowed

For some students, part of the allure of early application is a vision of a no-sweat post-acceptance senior year, replete with gut courses and minimal study time. That kind of thinking could be fatal to a college career.

College acceptances, early or regular, are contingent on maintaining good grades and taking a full complement of challenging courses. Colleges can—and do—rescind offers if senior year is sub-par.

What’s Right for You?

Is Early Decision the right decision for you? The answer is more likely to be “yes,” if:

  1. Your high school academic record and personal profile are stronger than the college requires.
  2. You don’t need senior year to fill in academic or extracurricular gaps or shore up test scores.
  3. You’re absolutely positive that this one school is the perfect fit academically, geographically and socially.

Even if you meet all the above criteria, try to start other applications as back-ups in case of rejection. For most students, though, Early Action will provide the relief of acceptance, with no strings attached.