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Articles / Applying to College / Early Decision or Early Action?

Early Decision or Early Action?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Oct. 12, 2021

Does It Matter If I Apply Early Decision or Early Action?

Question: Why should I consider an Early Decision or Early Action college application? What's the difference?

Your level of desire to attend a certain college or university – coupled with that school's admission policies – can make a difference in your application strategy. Consider Early Decision. Normally Early Decision applications have to be submitted no later than the end of November. Notification of acceptance, rejection, or deferral (to the spring applicant pool) occurs by Christmas. Outright rejection rarely occurs at Early Decision. Deferral to the spring pool, however, generally lowers an applicant's odds of being accepted although some are admitted.

When you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have found your ideal college or university, the Early Decision option makes sense (if it is offered). The condition here is that you and your college counselor believe there is a strong fit between your academic and extracurricular profile and the admission profile of the chosen school. This desired school then becomes what is known as your first-choice school.

Colleges and universities that offer the Early Decision option do so because they are looking for quality applicants who have a special place in their hearts for that school. Applicants who are accepted from an Early Decision pool have signed an agreement in their applications promising to enroll at that school if accepted. Upon notification of acceptance, most Early Decision applicants are required to make an enrollment deposit in the range of $200 to $500 or more. They are also directed to make no other college applications. These agreements can be broken, but it is costly. Some students change their minds about enrolling at an Early Decision school where they've been accepted. They go ahead and pay the enrollment deposit to assure their place in the class, then go ahead and make regular spring-decision applications to other schools.

This practice is viewed to be unethical. It does happen, though. If the student is accepted at another college from the spring pool, the enrollment fee is sacrificed and the student enrolls at the other institution. This causes a number of problems for both schools and applicants, not to mention the parents who have wasted the enrollment fee. Don't apply Early Decision unless you intend to enroll if offered admission.

Early Action is similar to Early Decision (November application, end-of-year notification) except the offer of admission is not binding. You are still directed to not apply early to other schools, but you have until May 1 to enroll. You may apply to other schools through regular admission and accept an offer of admission from one of them. Early Action is offered by a small group of top schools. Some of them have just switched to Early Decision for the first time.

Think carefully about making the Early Decision decision. Make it work for you.

A previous version of this article originally appeared in 2002.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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