College Admissions

Early Decision & Early Action Update

Early Decision and Early Action are more popular than ever, with several highly selective universities, including Princeton, Harvard and University of Virginia, bringing back early application programs this year. It is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of these programs.

Early Decision serves many colleges well. Students applying Early Decision agree to attend if they are accepted, which enables admissions officers to lock in a percentage of their freshman class. They get to spread out their workload so they aren’t quite as overwhelmed with applications in January.

Students can also benefit from Early Decision. They get a decision in December, which can make for a more enjoyable winter break, and they may have a better chance of being admitted as applying Early Decision is the ultimate in demonstrated interest.  However, this admission edge will only help students who are already strong candidates. If your junior year grades or SAT/ACT scores are not as high as they could be, you may be better off improving your grades and test scores this semester and applying through the Regular Decision process. You want to submit your strongest application. If you are denied admission through an Early Decision or Early Action program, you cannot apply to that college again through Regular Decision.

Too many students apply Early Decision because they don’t want to miss out on the potential edge in admission. This is a big decision about where you will spend the next four years of your life, and you want to make it in a thoughtful way. Acting out of fear doesn’t usually lead to the best decisions. Students who are not really enthusiastic about a college but are applying Early Decision just because they don’t want to lose the opportunity for an edge in admission may put together rushed essays that don’t enhance their application.

If you are applying Early Decision, you need to be absolutely sure that you want to attend this college. Many students find that their first choice is very different in the spring. The students who are happy with their Early Decision acceptance have thoroughly researched the college. One of my students recently spent two days at the school he was considering. He sat in on three classes during his visit, ate several meals in the dining hall, spent time with a friend who is a student at the school, and attended a party in the residence hall. He came away with a very clear picture of life at this college and is ready to make the binding commitment. Because he spent so much time on campus, this student is able to prepare a thoughtful application that, combined with his strong academic record, will give him the best prospects for admission.

But even for a student who has identified his first choice college and has excellent grades and test scores, Early Decision may not be the best choice. If the family wants to compare financial aid packages, applying Early Decision is not an option.

Schools with Early Decision or Early Action programs can admit, deny or defer students. If you are deferred, your application will be considered again in the Regular Decision process.

Early Action does not typically offer as much of an admission advantage, but is still helpful at some schools. An admissions officer at one university told me several years ago that if a student didn’t apply early action, she wondered if the student was seriously interested in the school.

Some colleges, like Georgetown University, will defer all or most early applicants. But others, including Stanford, will make final decisions on the majority of early applications. It may be painful to get a rejection in December, but it also enables students to move on and invest emotionally in more accessible schools.

Students need to make sure that they understand the rules for Early Decision and Early Action at any colleges they are considering. Those rules have changed at some schools this year.

If you apply to college through a binding Early Decision program, you can’t apply Early Decision to another college at the same time. You can’t apply Restricted Early Action to another college. You must withdraw all other applications once you have been admitted to your early decision school.

Early Action applications are not binding, and you have until May 1 to consider other offers, but some Early Action schools do place restrictions on when you can submit other early applications. Boston College, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale all have Restricted Early Action programs. There are some variations in their plans, but all allow you to apply early to any public institution in your own state as well as to any college’s non-binding rolling admissions process.

Boston College also allows students who apply Restricted Early Action to also apply Early Action to other schools, but not to use Restricted Early Action at other colleges. That means a student could submit a Restricted Early Action to Boston College and an Early Action application to University of Chicago.

Most colleges do not place restrictions on students applying Early Action. This means you can apply Early Action to University of Virginia and Early Action to Case Western Reserve University.

If you find the rules confusing, you’re not alone. The Common Application has published a chart with 2011-2012 early action/early decision plan rules: Look for an update when the Common Application opens for the 2012-2013 application cycle on August 1.