Early Action or Early Decision? What You Need to Know

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Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) applications are increasingly popular options for students applying to U.S. colleges and universities. Is either one right for you? Here’s what you need to know before you apply:


What Is It?
Early Decision is an application opportunity offered by many of the nation’s selective institutions that provides the promise of early feedback (an admission decision) in exchange for the student’s commitment to enroll if accepted. A student may only be active as an ED candidate at one college. If admitted ED, a student is expected to withdraw all other Regular Decision applications that might have been submitted and enroll at the ED school.

ED: Inside the Numbers
Think selectivity. Think rankings. “Admitting one to enroll one,” allows a college to use ED to leverage as many high-yield students (accepted students who enroll) into its entering classes as possible. By contrast, many schools must admit three to five students in Regular Decision to enroll one. What you are looking at, then, is fundamental enrollment management. For every ED student it enrolls, a college can reduce its number of Regular Decision offers by as many as five-fold. This increases the college’s yield, improves selectivity and makes it more attractive in the college ranking process.

Possible ED Outcomes
Colleges will consider one of three outcomes when students apply ED: acceptance, deferral and denial. If accepted, the student is expected to enroll. When deferred or denied, however, the student is released from that commitment and effectively becomes a “free agent” who can pursue other options — including ED at another school. Deferred candidates will be considered again during the Regular Decision review process.

Who Benefits?
Whereas it has been a long-held notion that ED was reserved for only the very best candidates, it is now the case that “reasonably competitive” candidates can also benefit from the ED option as colleges seek to build their enrollments with “high yielding” students. In addition, ED will be an attractive option at many schools for the following:

  • Students who do not require financial assistance
  • Athletic recruits
  • Legacy candidates (students with a close relative — usually a parent, grandparent or sibling — who attended the college to which they are applying)


What Is It?
Early Action also affords students the opportunity to apply early to some highly selective colleges in return for notification ahead of the Regular Decision process. The big difference: Students who choose this option are not presumed to be declaring a first-choice interest in the colleges to which they apply EA. As a result, they are not committed to enroll if admitted and may, in many cases, apply EA to multiple schools. That said, a handful of institutions offer EA as a restrictive, “single choice” option which prohibits students from applying EA to any other school. Be sure to read the fine print regarding each institution’s EA program.

EA Inside the Numbers
If you are still thinking selectivity and rankings, you are right on the mark! While EA candidates do not enroll at the same rate as admitted ED candidates (presumably 100 percent), they are still likely to enroll at a much higher rate than students who apply Regular Decision. Colleges know this because they track their yields on EA offers from year to year.

Possible EA Outcomes
Much like the case with ED, EA outcomes include acceptance, deferral and denial. The only difference is that acceptance does not involve a commitment to enroll. In addition, deferred candidates generally find themselves on equal footing with other Regular Decision candidates.

Who Benefits?
Unlike ED, EA really doesn’t improve one’s chances of admission. Why? Institutions are reluctant to commit places in the class to strong but not superior students without first being able to compare them with the larger pool of candidates. EA does, however, provide peace of mind for those who use it early in the process.


  • Read the fine print for each school’s offering and understand your commitments before initiating an early application of any sort.
  • Rather than looking for an “ED school,” focus on finding colleges that fit you well as you arrive at your short list of schools. If one of them becomes your absolute first choice, then ED should be considered.
  • Do not apply ED unless you are dead certainof your commitment to enroll if accepted.
  • Do not apply ED if you have not visited the campus first! Ideally, your visit will have included an overnight stay that enabled you to also attend classes and experience the campus culture.
  • Resist the temptation to act on impulse. The feelings you have for a college now might change greatly over time, leaving you committed to a place that is no longer where you want to be. Give yourself at least a month to reflect on your intended application before applying ED.
  • Resolve allquestions and concerns about cost and affordability before applying ED. Once you are admitted, there can be no contingencies.
  • Sprint to the finish!Even though you might hold an EA or ED acceptance letter, it is likely to be conditional on your completion of the senior of high school at the same level of achievement that earned you the offer of admission. More than a few colleges have been known to rescind offers of admission when final transcripts show performances that drop measurably after offers of admission are secured.




(Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College, is author of Winning the College Admission Game. For more tips on the admission process, visit his website: www.bestcollegefit.com.)