You’ve nearly done it: your Common App dashboard is teeming with choices. Your list of schools is balancing out, and you’re ready to begin those school-specific supplements. But where to apply early? And why? And how? And when?!
Here, it’s a must to understand the difference between Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision (RD). Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer: each school has different rules, restrictions, and terms and conditions. Oy Vey!
When applying ED, you are entering into a binding contract: if accepted, you will enroll at that school (and withdraw any open applications at other schools). If you apply ED to a school and are deferred, then you’re put back into the pool of applicants applying “Regular Decision” (normal deadline is usually January 1st), and the admission decision is no longer binding. You are only allowed to apply to one school ED, but you can apply to other schools Early Action, as long as you’re not violating the Early Action terms of that particular school (i.e. Georgetown does not allow students who are applying in their Early Action round to concurrently apply ED to another school.)
Rick Clark, the director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech, explains that Early acceptance “allows admission readers to dig into a student’s background and opportunities; it appreciates nuance, perseverance, and individuality.”1 Essentially, it enables admissions officers to delve more deeply into each student’s essays because fewer students tend to apply early, thus giving admissions officers more time per application; on the flip side, around the regular admission deadline, colleges are inundated with thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands!) of applications. Harvard University, for example, announced that it admitted 935 students under its nonbinding EA restrictive program for the Class of 2023. This is a 13.4% admit rate. For the Class of 2022, 1,653 were accepted with an overall acceptance of 4.7%. This shows us that a large portion of the class has already been admitted by the time the Regular Decision round comes-the Admit rate drops drastically when including the Regular Decision candidates.2 ED could be the extra push that some students need to demonstrate their interest and help them get into their top choice. However, it’s important to be thoughtful about where and why to apply ED. Since students “know that many colleges’ early acceptance rates are double those of regular admission applicants, students often focus on the strategy of where they will apply early, rather than which schools are the best match.”1 The goal is to be admitted to your best fit school, and your ED decision should reflect that fit 100%!
Joey, who attended a private high school in Los Angeles, had a passion for film production from the day he started making home movies with his parent’s iPhone. So, when it came down to considering potential majors, he had a clear direction. After multiple campus tours, extensive research into majors and programs, and talking to alumni, Joey knew he wanted to attend the Dodge Film School at Chapman University. He applied ED and was accepted, escaping the hassle of writing more applications during his Senior Fall. And it certainly was a good thing, as Chapman received a record number of applicants for Fall of 2018: their numbers increased by 8%: approximately 14,000 students applied, with only an estimated 1,600 enrollments expected.3
ED is binding, for all intents and purposes. However, there are times when a student can break an ED contract: most often due to financial reasons or familial and personal issues. There are also a handful of schools that offer ED 2, which is essentially a “take-two” of Early Decision. ED 2 is usually used for students who were rejected or deferred by their first ED choice. As their ED contracts are now void, they are eligible to apply ED to a second-choice school. The same rules apply; the only difference is the application date and deadline.
Notably, not every college offers an early plan. According to The College Board, around 450 colleges and universities have some type of early acceptance in place, while others use just one deadline. Over the next few years, more schools are expected to add early admissions options.
Early Action (EA) is another early option available that demonstrates a genuine interest in a school. However, it’s a non-binding agreement. Most of the time, students can apply EA to multiple schools (in addition to ED, if they wish). However, there are exceptions. Some schools, for example, offer a “Restricted Early Action”: though still non-binding if admitted, the student is prohibited from applying to private schools in the early round.
Julia, who attended a private high school in Sacramento, spread herself thin throughout her four years as she was involved in everything from sports to theatre to leadership. Although it kept her busy, as she weighed the pros and cons of the many colleges that had caught her eye, she did not feel as though she had a clear, #1 choice. Instead of picking an Early Decision school to better her chances, she made the decision to apply EA to multiple schools. This strategy allowed her more time to revisit the schools to which she applied and gave her a variety of choices that applying ED wouldn’t have afforded her. She applied EA to Southern Methodist University along with four other schools that she was able to revisit to really get a sense of the schools’ cultures. Ultimately she made the decision to attend SMU in the Fall. Early Action gave Julia the opportunity to show her commitment while simultaneously offering her the additional time she needed to explore, reflect, and make a discerning choice (all without a binding contract).
Early Decision, although confusing, can often be a beneficial route for students who know what they want. Due to the early deadline, however, ED is not necessarily the best choice for students looking to their Senior Fall classes to boost their GPA. ED also comes under scrutiny as unfair to students looking for financial aid because they are unable to compare their offers from a wide range of schools.
When it’s the right choice, however, ED can offer some competitive advantages. Not only does it show your dedication to a school, but Early Decision can mean fewer applications and less time spent waiting. Often times, ED acceptance rates are higher. For the class of 2023, for example, the University of Pennsylvania’s ED acceptance rate was triple that of their Regular acceptance (18% early admittance rate vs. regular at 6%); Middlebury’s fell drastically from 45% in ED down to 12%; Vanderbilt from 20% to 6%; and Brown from 19% to 5%. This is because most colleges view ED through a numbered lense: schools want certainty, and what better than a binding agreement to achieve this? By filling up a large percentage of their classes in the ED round, colleges are able to better understand the makeup of that year’s class and send out Regular Decisions accordingly. Northwestern filled up 53% of their class with ED, Penn filled up 53%, and Duke 51%.
How can you use the numbers in your favor? Some students who have a clear top choice are able to capitalize on this strategy. However, if the student has not done extensive research on a school, has not visited or fallen in love with a program or curriculum, then ED is not the choice.
Everyone has a unique path for their college journey and applying Early Decision is simply one of the options that you should take into account when tackling your admissions strategy.