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Early Decision and Early Action: Does the Early Bird Get the Worm?

Senior year has just begun, but already your classmates are talking about applying to college. With all of the talk about college applications, you may be considering whether or not to take advantage of some colleges' early admission programs. But applying early is not a decision to make on the spur of the moment––no matter what your friends are doing. Take some time to think about whether these options are right for you.

Early Confusion?
Different colleges offer different "early" options—and even a single college may offer more than one early program. So your first task is to sort through your early options.

There are two main categories of admission options: non-restrictive and restrictive.

Non-restrictive application plans do not restrict students from applying to other institutions. You'll have until May 1 to consider your options and confirm enrollment. There are three application plans under non-restrictive:

  • Regular Decision
  • Rolling Admission
  • Early Action—this is an “early” option.

Regular Decision means that you turn in your application by the college’s deadline, and they let you know by a specified date.

For Rolling Admission, schools review applications as they’re submitted and make decisions throughout the admission cycle.

With Early Action, you just send your application in earlier, and the college sends you its decision earlier. Some colleges do have additional restrictions on their early action programs, though, so make sure to read carefully the instructions from each college.

There are two types of restrictive application plans:

  • Early Decision
  • Restrictive Early Action.

When you decide to apply Early Decision, you are committing yourself to going to that school. Early Decision is for those early-bird students who already have a clear first-choice college. If you're still comparing colleges and don't want to limit your choices yet, Early Decision is not for you. Why? Early Decision is a contract between you and the college. You agree that if the college accepts you, you'll withdraw all other college applications and attend the early decision college. Because of this commitment, you can apply Early Decision to only one college.

The other restrictive option is Restrictive Early Action. This one means that you apply to your school of choice and get a decision early. Be aware, though, that some schools restrict applicants from applying to any other early plans at other schools. If you go this way, you’ll have until May 1 to confirm that you’ll be attending.

These early options can be confusing—some schools even have more than one of theses options—so talk to your guidance counselor if there's anything you don't understand. Check out this chart for an easy way to separate the differences among the three early options:

  • Early Action
  • Early Decision
  • Restrictive Early Action.

Colleges respond to early applications in one of three ways: acceptance, rejection or holding applications over to regular decision.

Are You Ready to Commit?
If several of your classmates are working on early decision applications, you may feel some pressure to do the same. But resist the temptation to apply early decision unless you truly are ready to commit to one college.

"The only good reason to apply Early Decision is if you're 100 percent sure you want to attend the college," says Paul Levitch, president of Levitch Associates, LLC, an independent counseling firm.

The only way you can be 100 percent sure is if you've done the work that leads to a good decision. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I thoroughly researched this college and other colleges that may interest me?
  • Have I visited this college while classes are in session and met with someone at the admission office?
  • Have I explored my academic, extracurricular and social options at this college?
  • Have I talked to a financial aid officer to get an estimate of college costs and to find out how Early Decision could affect my aid package?
  • Have I discussed this decision with my family and/or guidance counselor?
  • Is this a true first choice, or are there other colleges that still interest me?

If you're at all unsure about your first choice, applying Early Action (which does not require a commitment and allows you to apply to other schools) or regular decision is your best option. There is no need to limit your college choices this early, unless you truly want to.

Do Early Application Plans Affect Financial Aid?
If you need financial aid, you'll probably need to complete a CSS Profile or the college's institutional form at about the same time as the early decision application. The college financial aid office can then send you a tentative financial aid package (tentative until you can send the college your tax return and other supporting documentation). Each college does this a little differently, so check with the financial aid office or admission office of the college to be certain of their procedures.

What if your early decision college does not offer you enough financial aid?
"If the financial aid package is insufficient, we will release the early-decision-admitted student from the Early Decision obligation," says Richard C. Vos, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Claremont McKenna College (CA). "If the initial aid offer in mid-December is seen as inadequate, we encourage the family to have a conversation with our financial aid director. That process almost always resolves the problem."

However, Early Decision may not be the best choice if you want to compare financial aid packages between colleges.

"My advice to students is this: If you want the chance to compare aid packages, don't apply early decision," says Christopher Hooker-Haring, dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College (PA). "Go regular decision and then line your aid packages up in the spring and see what the results are."

Advantage to Applying Early?
Many students make an effort to apply through one of the early application programs because they hope to beat the competition of regular decision. Although most colleges have a smaller number of applications in their early programs, whether it's easier to get accepted early than later depends on each college's policies.

"To find out if early options would benefit you, ask the admission staff two important questions: first, what proportion of the class is admitted early; second, what percentage of the early applicants are admitted versus [the percentage of] regular applicants," says Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment and student life at Dickinson College (PA). "The higher the first numbers are versus the second, the better your chances are of being admitted if you apply early."

Another factor to consider is whether your academic record will be stronger later in your senior year. If you had stellar junior-year grades, this may not be a concern. But if you think that your application would be stronger with the addition of your grades for the fall of your senior year, waiting for regular decision may be the way to go.

A possible advantage to applying early, especially Early Action, is that you will receive admission decisions early. If you're accepted to one or several colleges, you may feel a bit less stress about the rest of the college admission process. (And if you're accepted Early Decision, your college search is over.) If your application is declined at one or more colleges, you have some time to re-assess your college choices, if necessary. Colleges can also neither accept nor reject, but rather hold over your application to regular decision. If this happens, make sure to send updated information in time for the regular decision deadline (such as senior-year grades and activities) to bolster your application.

In the end, the decision of whether or not to apply early decision or early action is yours alone. Do your research, think about your options, look at your fall schedule, talk to your guidance counselor and family. And then decide for yourself.

Written by Jennifer Gross. Updated by Nicole Verardi.

Published September/October 2002. Updated May 2006.