The Guide to Applying Early Action and Early Decision

Thinking about applying early to college via an Early Action or Early Decision program? Here’s what to consider when you’re finding the college application deadline that best fits you.



If you’re currently a high school senior applying to college, you probably have noticed that many schools offer you two options to apply: 1) Regular Decision, in which applications are often due in late December or early January with decisions releasing in February or March, or 2) an Early Action or Early Decision program, which usually allows students to hear back as early as December if they submit to schools by November.


As with many factors in the college admissions process, deciding when to apply is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. There are many reasons that certain students may want to apply early to a certain school, and it is also true that Early Action is not a good fit for other students.


Let’s break down the two major early application programs and the variations that some schools offer, as well as the outcomes and pros and cons of each.


Early Action


Early Action programs allow students to apply to a certain school, usually in November, without committing to attending the school if they are accepted. Sometimes these early deadlines allow students to be considered for merit scholarships, like at Emory University or Boston College. This may also be known as a “priority deadline.” Some schools also have programs, such as BS/MD programs, that require these early applications, whereas the general college does not.


At schools like Princeton, Georgetown, and Yale, there is something called restrictive or single-choice Early Action (aka SCEA). This means that the schools limit you to only applying to their school’s Early Action program. This usually means they’re looking for candidates who have a strong interest in the school and are very likely to matriculate if accepted. It is not a good idea to go against this policy and apply to other schools, regardless of the restrictions of a school’s EA policy — if a school finds out you’ve done this, your application could be withdrawn from all schools involved.


Applying Early Action is usually a good idea for students who have a strong interest in a competitive school but still want to consider many options once all of their decisions are out. There is strong evidence to suggest that students who apply early to Ivy League schools and other schools with low acceptance rates will fare better if they apply early. For instance, for Vanderbilt University’s class of 2023, the acceptance rate was 19% in the Early Action round and just 7.7% in the Regular Decision cycle — and there are many more examples like this out there.


However, this is likely also due to the fact that athletes, who are concurrently going through the recruitment process, and the strongest, stand out applicants with nationally recognized talents tend to apply earlier. This naturally lends itself to a higher acceptance rate in the Early Action round and means that a student's chances of acceptance are not necessarily increased just because they’re applying early.


Early Decision


Early Decision programs are for students who have decided that if they are accepted to their top school they will undoubtedly go. Students applying to an Early Decision program will sign a binding contract that requires them to accept the school's offer in the event that they are accepted. The only instance in which this contract is voided is if the student is deferred to the Regular Decision round and later accepted (more on deferral later).


Since these decisions are binding, this shows a strong interest in the school and will likely play in students' favor. However, again, this is not a guarantee that the acceptance rate will be higher for Early Decision applicants as opposed to regular applicants. Take, for instance, MIT’s class of 2025 — the Early Action acceptance rate was 4.8% whereas the Regular Decision acceptance rate was 7.4%.


At some schools, you will also see Early Decision I and Early Decision II. Often, the only difference between these two is the timeline – Early Decision I applicants apply earlier and know sooner, etc.


For students who apply early, whether it is Early Action or Early Decision, there are three outcomes: accepted, denied, or deferred. The first two are self-explanatory, whereas deferral is a bit trickier.


Deferral


Deferral occurs when a decision is not reached on a student's application and may require further deliberation in the regular admissions round. Oftentimes, this happens for highly qualified students who were accomplished but may not have had any distinguishing factors that made them an obvious choice for admission. A former admissions officer at Harvard stated that a deferral indicates a willingness of the admissions officers to closely reexamine a student’s application amidst the larger applicant pool come spring. Still, it’s difficult for students to accurately interpret what a deferral “means.”


After a student is deferred, which they’ll know usually by mid-December or before the end of the year, they will still be considered in the Regular Decision round and receive a final decision along with all other applicants to the school. This waiting period can be used efficiently to increase a student's chances of admission, but it is a delicate process. Students can write what is called a “letter of continued interest” to their regional admissions officer containing any updates or simply reiterating their commitment to attending the school if accepted. It is important that new information is added in these letters — for more information, see our post about how to write a letter of continued interest.


A possible benefit of deferral (or hindrance) is the fact that deferred students submit their first-semester senior year grades, just like Regular Decision students. This is a great opportunity to show academic improvement, so don’t assume that if you are applying early, you don’t need to put time and effort into your classes anymore. If you excel in subjects in which you may have previously struggled, this improvement very well may be noticed by your admissions officer, which you can point out in a letter of continued interest.


At top schools, it is somewhat rare that students will be accepted after having been deferred, especially at schools that receive upwards of 25,000 applications a year. However, it is not impossible, and there aren’t many statistics available to confirm or deny this. By remaining dedicated and acting strategically, a student's deferral strategy can make all the difference in their ultimate decision.


Because of the possibility of being deferred in most early admissions processes, students should still be on track to apply to a handful of reach, target, and likely schools in the Regular Decision cycle — and not wait until December to start those applications.


Applying Early: Pros and Cons


Still unsure if applying early is a good fit for you? Here are some pros and cons of applying early to the top schools on your list.


Pros


Applying early shows a school that you are very interested in their school, especially if you’re applying Early Decision, and can contribute positively to your application. More and more, schools are looking to fill up a large portion of their class in the early round in the hopes that they will improve their enrollment rates every year, which have been on a steady decline everywhere.


Potentially your most stressful application will be out of the way come November 1 or 15th — and you’ll have an outcome usually before the end of the year. In the same vein, if you finish your main personal statement and/or Common App essay by this early deadline, that will give you more time to complete supplements for other schools in the Regular Decision round.

You could possibly end up winning a scholarship that you would not have otherwise been considered for in the Regular Decision round. The scholarships will be advertised on the admissions website, so make sure to check out what each of your schools has to offer.


Cons


You will not get to submit your first-semester senior year grades, which makes this a less desirable option for students who may have come out of junior year with a lower GPA than they would like. Those first-semester senior year grades can actually make a difference, so especially if you are applying to a competitive school you may want to reconsider putting in an early application that doesn’t reflect your academic strengths. You also have less time to retake any standardized tests if necessary.


If you feel pressured to submit your application early, you may end up with a rushed and unfinished application that is not as polished as it could be. You always want to give yourself enough time to properly review your essays, potentially get some feedback from others, make sure your recommenders have enough time to complete your letter of recommendation, and include any significant extracurricular updates that happened since the start of senior year. Don’t submit early just because you feel like you have to — it is more important that you feel satisfied that your application is the best it could possibly be.


You may apply early to a school and end up being accepted, only to realize that you wish you had considered other options. This is why the Early Decision application should be seriously considered since that application could change the trajectory of the next four years of your life. Make sure you have thoroughly researched and considered what being accepted to the school may actually look like.


Once again, applying early is not a decision that suits every applicant, but for some, it can make all the difference in the college admissions process. Thoroughly consider your options, the logistics of your desired school's early admissions program, and what you’re hoping to get out of the college admissions process before you make your decision about when to apply.


Looking for help on your application? Set up a free consultation with one of our college admissions consultants.