Sept. 29, 2020
Can you help me better understand the advantages and disadvantages of Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED)? And are these options to be viewed any differently this year due to COVID?
In "normal" times, the greatest advantage of applying Early Decision, which requires accepted candidates to enroll, is that it almost always improves admission chances because college officials want to lock in sure-thing students. ED also allows accepted applicants to escape the admissions maze in December and maybe even after filing just one application, not a dozen or more. Although the grapevine suggests that students who expect financial aid should not enter into an ED contract, that's actually bad advice. Families who qualify for significant need-based aid will often get it in during the ED round because college officials like to spend their financial aid dollars on truly besotted candidates — those who might end up wait-listed or denied in the Regular round. And if a student seeking aid is accepted via ED but not adequately funded, the ED agreement is no longer binding, and the student can bail out without penalty.
Conversely, however, families who are hoping for merit aid to make college affordable probably don't want to opt for ED. They're better off sitting tight until the spring when they can compare the merit money that's been offered by multiple institutions. (And the winners of the biggest merit grants are typically not named before March.) So if finances are not a drawback, and if a student hasn't had an atypically weak junior year, then ED can be a smart bet.
Early Action, on the other hand, does not offer the admissions-chances boost that ED provides. In fact, it can be a little harder to get in via EA than via Regular Decision because colleges don't want to save space for students who won't eventually enroll unless these students are at the top end of the applicant pool. Even so, an EA application is usually a good choice because it doesn't force a final college selection before a student is ready to make one; it does allow for the comparison of aid awards; and it also helps students see where they stand while there's still time to adjust college lists, if necessary. So "The Dean" usually recommends applying EA where it's offered unless junior-year grades were subpar. In that case, seniors should try to start off strong before submitting any applications rather than risking an EA denial and not just a deferral based on a so-so junior performance.
But you've also asked about how this might be different in the COVID era. "The Dean" is convinced that every COVID-related college-admissions question should be answered with a resounding "I don't know." So that's my initial reply to you! But my best guess is that, because of all of the many uncertainties that have been spawned by the pandemic, admission officials will be more eager than ever to lock in "sure-thing" applicants. This means that Early Decision acceptance rates — already better than the Regular ones — could climb higher still. Thus, applying ED may be a wiser plan than ever before. (And remember, for financial aid applicants, an ED acceptance is never truly "binding" if the aid award — which should arrive when the acceptance does — is insufficient. I do, however, urge prospective ED aspirants who need financial help to use Net Price Calculators before applying to get at least a ballpark sense of whether their financial aid package will be realistic.)
Early Action acceptance rates, on the other hand, may remain constant or even drop this year. Colleges are always wary of committing to candidates who will ultimately matriculate elsewhere, but — in the midst of a pandemic — enrollment managers may be even more reluctant than in the past to save spots for students who won't eventually choose to show up — or who want to show up but will have spiraling financial demands. In particular, colleges that aren't "need-blind" may have to look at an applicant's financial requirements in the early spring before saying yes. Similarly, a college that feels affordable to a family in October might not sound like such a hot idea by May. Likewise, if the virus escalates through the winter, students accepted at distant colleges via EA may choose to stick closer to home at deposit time.
Because we can't predict if there will be a second wave of the virus and, if so, what sort of havoc it will wreak, I suspect that EA acceptance odds will not rise like the ED odds could, although they might not fall either. I certainly see no downside to applying EA unless the student had a shaky junior year. And students who are deferred in the EA round should not be disheartened by the verdict but should, instead, put on a full-court press to demonstrate continued interest in any college that said, "Maybe." In fact, regardless of the decision plan that a student chooses, "Demonstrated Interest" might play a greater role in outcomes than ever before as the college folks grapple with so many other "I don't knows."
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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