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Early Decision vs. Early Action: Everything You Need to Know

Now that October is well underway, the most important thing for college applicants to consider is whether or not to submit an early application. And, equally important, whether to apply early decision or early action.

In this article, I will review both the early decision and early action application options, weighing the pros and cons to help you determine which is the best choice for you.


What is early decision?

Early decision allows candidates to apply to a college and be notified of their acceptance or rejection within about 6 weeks. The deadline is normally sometime in November (often the 1st of the month, but not always) and can be a great option if you already know you really want to go to a particular school. But there’s a catch: if you apply early decision to a school and are accepted, you are obligated to attend that school. You will have to withdraw your other applications, thereby essentially eliminating your choice to go somewhere else.

Early decision is therefore a great idea if you really love a particular school or are applying to your top college. It’s likely not a good idea, however, if you are on the fence about where you want to go most and want to decide once you know where you’ve been accepted.


What is early action?

Early action is similar to early decision in that you can apply early and receive an early decision from a school (also within about 6 weeks of applying), with one major exception: your commitment is not binding. If you apply early action to a school and are accepted, you are not obligated to attend – meaning that you can apply to other schools during the regular application cycle and make a decision about where to attend as usual.


Can an applicant apply both early decision and early action?

Maybe, but probably not. Colleges typically have one program or the other, but rarely do they offer applicants the opportunity to apply both early decision and early action.

However, I highly recommend that you carefully investigate the requirements of both systems if you plan to apply early. This is particularly true for early decision applications, because in some cases a school that has an early decision program will also allow applicants to apply to public (state) universities that have early action programs. Note that in these cases, the early decision application would still be binding if its accepted, requiring you to withdraw your application from everywhere else.


What are the pros and cons?

Both options have the obvious benefit of reducing the time it takes to hear about the status of your application. Arguably more important is that early applications almost always work to the advantage of the applicants. Applying early generally means there’s a smaller applicant pool to be considered against, compared to the regular decision cycle, so applicants have a better chance of getting in early than they do regularly for many (though not all) schools.

The biggest cons, in my opinion, are the early deadline and the potentially binding result of an early decision application. Some people in the field say that applying early may also increase the likelihood of rejection because you are considered against the strongest candidates and evaluated based on stronger selection criteria. But in my experience as a Dean of Admissions, I didn’t find this to be the case. If I encountered applications that were strong but not strong enough to be accepted in the early cycle, I would defer them to the regular cycle for consideration.


How should you make the choice?

When thinking about the schools on your college wish list, I strongly recommend that you seriously consider applying early to at least one institution. An early decision application is almost always the best option when you have a preferred school in mind, and there’s no real downside to early action applications if you can submit a quality application before the deadline. Plus, there’s a good chance that you’re increasing your likelihood of being accepted. You just need to think carefully about the decision to make sure you’re not limiting your choices before you’re ready to do so.

Fear of rejection in the early application cycle should not be a deterrent: if your application is not as strong as some of the others in the early application pool, a school can defer you to the regular application pool. Deferrals allow schools the chance to weigh your application against a wider selection of candidates, leaving you no better or worse off than you would have been had you applied regularly. And it’s worth the chance of knowing what the results of your applications are ahead of time, so that you can focus on enjoying the final semester of your senior year instead of worrying about where you’re going to college.

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