Early Action vs. Early Decision: What to Choose

Mar 23, 2021

Yes, I understand what you are thinking. The several approaches to get into college can be confusing. College admissions are a perplexing and demanding process, requiring hours of effort and preparation. 

Besides the regular admissions process, two much popular options to consider are early action and early decision.

Early action and early decision grant students to apply to their first-choice schools earlier than regular applicants and to receive admissions decisions before regularly admitted students. 

Early action and an early decision can be useful admissions strategies, but only if students know how to operate.

Let’s check out this guide to know the differences between early action and early decision so that you can easily select the option that best suits your needs.

What is Early Action?

As affirmed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, early action signifies that "students who apply early and receive a decision in advance of the college's regular response date."

In simple terms, Early action is a process that allows you to apply and possibly gain admission to one or more schools earlier than regular applicants. As an early action applicant, you generally have until November 1 or 15 to submit admissions documents. 

Early action schools announce decisions in January or February and allow potential students until May 1 (the national response date) to formally reply to their offers.

Non-binding early action renders the norm, enabling you to apply to many colleges and universities through this process. However, foremost institutions (including Ivy League schools like Harvard and MIT) increasingly operate restrictive/single-choice early action. Under this model, you may pursue early action with only one school but can seek regular admission at other universities.

What is Early Decision?

According to NACAC is a process in which "students commit to a first-choice college where, if admitted, they will surely enroll and withdraw all other applications."

In an early decision, the commitment part is critical.

In layman’s terms, Early decision plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an early decision applicant must attend the college. While early action plans are nonbinding — students get an early response to their application but do not have to bind to the college until the expected reply date of May 1.

One of the fundamental differences between early action and early decision is binding.

But the obligatory nature of early decision comes with one significant disadvantage for students: the students cannot compare financial aid awards that may come in from other colleges.

Many schools may not have financial aid awards ready when students are asked to decide, making the process cloudy.

Let’s say you apply to a school early decision and get selected, so you're committing to attending that college. This means you are committing to accepting a financial aid package before you see it.

Although early decision offers are binding, that isn't the case legally, as colleges are unlikely to go after students for lost tuition revenue.

If a student backs down because of insufficient financial aid, colleges are more understanding and might allow you to approve out of the early decision process. Also, the situation may vary according to the college. 

According to the College Board, around 450 colleges have one or both of these plans. Early action and early decision plans are more applicable at private colleges rather than public ones.

Benefits of Early Action and Early Decision

Colleges reported higher acceptance rates for early action and early decision applicants than those who took the regular decision path.

Academically sound students often apply early, which explains why the admit rates tend to be higher.

According to admissions officials, if a student gets in through early action or early decision, he or she can wrap up the college search.

Decisions through these early boulevards typically come in December or January. But applying early also means revving up the admissions process. Applicants usually need to submit admissions materials by November or December, though the deadline varies by college.

Important things Students should know before Applying Early Action or Early Decision

While deadlines come sooner for early action and early decision, the college application process does not differ from the traditional road.

Generally speaking, both of the plans in terms of the admission process are similar.

A College Board calendar helps students keep track of the milestones they need to beat in the early action or early decision process.

In early action or early decision, students get a jump-start. All the documents that you have to submit are similar. You’re just literally moving those deadlines earlier, some months in advance. This means talking to teachers and counselors early about letters of recommendation, perhaps midway through junior year of high school.

If applicants aren’t academically on track, they could benefit from another semester of high school work. Applying early may not be the right move.

Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision

  • Early action does not expect you to commit to a college. You may apply early or proceed for regular admissions with other schools.
  • Early decision binds you to one school but sends a definite message to the admission committee that the school is your top preference.
  • Early action enables you to compare financial aid packages among various colleges and universities before accepting or refusing the offer by May 1.
  • Early decision applicants get answers as early as December and must attend the school if accepted with enough financial support.
  • Most higher education universities offer either early action or early decision, effectively choosing accelerated admission for you.

How NACAC Rule Changes Have Affected Early Action and Early Decision

NACAC launched various changes to its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices in 2019, beginning from an antitrust investigation by the Department of Justice that claimed that some of the code's provisions inhibited students’ competition and amounted to a conspiracy by colleges to deny students of choices, which NACAC disputed.

The changes eliminated barriers that blocked member schools from offering exclusive incentives for students applying early action or early decision; allowing colleges to seek students already committed somewhere; opened the door to provide enrollment incentives for students already committed, and allowed colleges to request previously recruited students who enrolled at another institution.

As the changes have been executed, some colleges have offered incentives for students who apply early.

"Some have provided early access to registration, early access to academic advising," says Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at education strategy firm EAB. 

But such incentives are dubious about being offered at highly selective colleges with deep applicant pools. "Most elite schools would not do such things because they don’t need you," Rhyneer explains.

The NACAC rule changes mean on a large scale for early action and early decision, the answers are still unknown so far in the first admissions cycle since the code was revised.

If colleges add earlier prevented incentives to early action and the early decision, it will benefit financially advantaged students because they mostly apply via those routes.

The real problem is to the students who are already up against the most barriers in the process and who might decide that's not good for them because they don't understand. And no one around them knows better.

Conclusion: Should You Apply Early?

Early admission options, especially the restrictive early decision, work best for students who have reached ultimate conclusions about their top schools and know that they are competitive applicants.

To discover if you are a competitive applicant, check out the school website; most schools give you an idea of a competitive applicant profile. For example, suppose you have a low GPA, below-average test(SAT/ACT) scores, and no extracurriculars. In that case, it may not be sensible to apply for an early decision to a competitive school.

If you discover that you top the college's admission profile for GPA, class rank, and test achievement, then early admission is the right way forward.

Besides the school's academic offerings, campus culture, and location, you should consider a school's average financial aid package before applying. While early admission schools do their best to give a package of financial assistance best suited to your family's financial situation, some schools have more considerable benefits and can offer more competitive packages.

Early action and decision are usually not good options if you are a senior in high school who needs to grow his academic record. Once admitted under early decision, you may pull out for a good reason, like inadequate funding or a family emergency.

Remember, colleges share admission information, so students who do not take early action/decision can severely hurt their chances with many institutions.

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