Early Action, Early Decision or Regular Decision – Which Is Right for Your Student?

In the next few weeks, students will decide whether to apply to colleges “early.” This can be a confusing decision, so to help cut through the chatter here are some basics that can help students and families clarify whether an early option is the right choice for them.

What does it mean to apply “early”?

Many colleges offer students the opportunity to submit their application in October or November, rather than wait until January, which is the application deadline for most colleges. When applying under an early option, students typically get an admissions decision by the end of the calendar year.

What types of “early” options are there?

Early decision (ED) is a binding application process. A student commits to enrolling in that college if admitted. Students can only apply ED to one college and, if admitted, must withdraw any other applications they have already submitted. Students and parents must sign an ED agreement on the Common App if choosing to apply to an ED college.

Early action (EA) is an application process to apply and receive a decision earlier than the regular decision notification date. Unlike early decision, however, EA is “non-binding,” and students have no obligation to enroll at that college.

Rolling admissions allows students to apply without a fixed deadline and colleges evaluate applications as they are received. Colleges evaluate applications until all the slots for their incoming class are filled.

While most colleges have either an ED or EA or rolling option, some colleges have a mixture of all three so students must check each college’s admissions page to familiarize themselves with that college’s admissions plans and deadlines.

When are early applications due?

Dates vary, from mid-October to December 1st, with the majority of ED and EA deadlines either November 1stor November 15th.

To make matters even more confusing many colleges also have an EDII admissions option (and a very small number EAII), and those deadlines are typically in early January.

Students must check each college’s admissions page to know that college’s dates and deadlines.

Why apply early?

Many colleges, especially those with ED, fill a substantial portion of their incoming class in the “early” round. For this reason, students and families often feel that admissions probabilities are better if a student applies ED to a college. But students and families need to understand that the statistics showing a higher admit rate for an early round versus the regular round can be misleading. Early round applicants include recruited athletes and often legacies, groups of applicants who are always admitted at a higher rate than other applicants.

Deciding whether to apply early to college makes sense for some students, but it deserves thoughtful consideration. ED is only appropriate for students who are confident in their top choice and for whom financial aid is not a consideration (although technically students can withdraw from an ED commitment for financial reasons, applying ED is not recommended for families who want to compare aid offers).

And any early round is only a good choice if the student’s application is “ready.” So, if a student needs more time to take standardized tests or hopes that their grades from the fall semester of their senior year will make them a stronger applicant, they should wait to submit their application at the regular decision deadline (typically between January 1st and 15th).