Early Action | Early Decision

What does it mean to apply to college early?

Early Action | Early Decision

Early Action | Early Decision

It’s the fall of your senior year. You can’t believe you’re almost done with high school. You’re excited, you’re nervous and you’re college bound and ready to apply.

You want to get your college applications in before everyone else, to show schools how much you want to go there (and maybe even boost your chances of getting in). You can, through early action and early decision.


What are early action and early decision?


Early action (EA) and early decision (ED) are programs many colleges have in place that let you submit your college applications early (usually in November) and get an admissions decision early (usually by January). If you have done your research and know there are schools you would attend above all others, then EA and ED could be great options for you. Be careful, though—although they sound similar, each program has different rules.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

With ED, students apply to their first-choice school early and promise to attend if accepted.

ED programs are:

1. Exclusive. You can only apply to one college via ED. You can still apply to other schools, but they all have to be via regular decision.

2. Binding. If you apply to a college via ED and you get in, you have to go. You will also have to withdraw all other applications to all other schools. Like ED, EA has earlier deadlines than regular decision programs. Also like ED, with EA, you will get an admission decision much earlier than if you apply via regular decision. That’s where the similarities stop.

EA programs are:

1. Non-exclusive. With a few notable exceptions, you can apply to as many schools via EA as you want.

2. Non-binding. If you get accepted via EA, you don’t have to attend that school. You also don’t have to withdraw all other college applications. ED programs are great for students who are college bound and have a very clear first-choice school which they would attend above all others. EA programs are a good fit for students who have a few schools they would love to attend, but don’t have a clear front-runner.

Some schools don’t have a traditional early program. Yale University, for example, has a “Single Choice” Early Action program. Through this program, a student can apply to Yale via non-binding early action, but has to sign a statement saying they will not apply to any other schools via any early programs, either EA or ED. Similarly, Stanford, Georgetown and Boston College have “restrictive” EA programs where you can choose to apply via non-binding EA, but cannot apply to other schools via binding ED. Other schools, like Emory, Vanderbilt, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts and Brandeis, have two ED deadlines (named ED1 and ED2), offering students who are college bound a little more flexibility.

Who offers Early Action  and Early Decision? In addition to the schools listed above, there are many, many others that offer EA and ED programs. The College Board counts more than 400. For example, Cal Tech, MIT, University of Chicago, Notre Dame and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor all offer EA programs. Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Wake Forest and NYU all offer ED programs.

What should I do to have the best chance of getting in early? 

Early applicants have a higher percentage of admission than regular applicants, mostly because early applicants are sending a very clear message to the admissions office. They are saying, “Your school is my first choice!” Admissions officers want enthusiastic students, and early applicants are just that. 

What else can you do?

Make a calendar of important dates and deadlines. Tell your parents and your school counselor about the dates, too, and ask them to help you keep them. 

Take your standardized tests early. Don’t leave the ACT or SAT to the last minute. If you can’t get your scores to schools in time, your application will not be complete, and may not be considered. 

Ask for your teacher recommendations as soon as you get back to school. Teachers are busy and will need time to complete this important part of your application. Don’t leave it to the last minute. The last thing you want in your application is a hastily written recommendation—or worse, no recommendation at all. 

Start working on your application essays as soon as the applications become available (usually early September). You need to brainstorm, draft, and edit these essays carefully in order to present the best, most polished version of them possible. Don’t let a shadow be cast on your EA or ED application because of grammar or spelling mistakes! Take the time to carefully write and proof your essays, and they will only add value to your early application. Ask questions! Don’t let your fear of asking a question lead you to make wrong assumptions about your application. Once you’ve submitted your applications, sit back and try to relax. 

One great aspect of the early application programs is that you will get a decision by January at the latest. Focus on enjoying your last year of high school—you’ll be in college before you know it! 

Anne Chaconas is the director of admissions counseling for PowerScore Test Preparation (powerscore.com). Every year, sheanswers countless questions about college admissions and helps many studentsget into their top choice schools.


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