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Ask the Experts: Early Decision and Early Application

By Peterson's Staff updated on Sunday, January 27, 2013

Question If I apply to a school Early Action, not Early Decision, this isn't binding, right? So, if this is true, why are the acceptance rates higher for EA? There's no higher probability that you will attend that school, so why would they be more likely to accept you? Also, would it look bad to apply to one school EA and another ED at the same time? That way you would have a higher chance of getting into your ED school and if you didn't, you would also have a higher chance of getting into you EA school. 

Also, how many schools can you apply to for EA? However many you want, or just a few schools?  Sorry about all the questions, but I was a bit confused about the matter, so if you could tell me anything that I should know about Early Action, I would really appreciate it. - Stephanie

AnswerYes, Early Action is non-binding, meaning that you can apply to other colleges even if you admitted EA. You can in most cases also apply to more than one EA college simultaneously. This is not true with "single-choice" or "restrictive" EA programs (see Harvard, Stanford, Yale) that prohibit you from applying to any EA or ED college if you apply EA to them.

Early Decision applications represent a binding commitment to one college. Most ED schools allow you to apply to EA schools. Most EA schools allow you to apply to an ED school simultaneously; some may not (see Georgetown). So, it is all terribly confusing, and, to make matters worse, things seem to change each year. Oh, and don't forget Rolling Admissions (non-binding, at most public universities).

Your question is a good one: why would EA schools give you any benefit? Well, first of all, while admission rates might be higher EA compared to regular, student statistics academically among admits EA are often higher, too. Plus, the EA pool is often filled with students who have a powerful hook (legacy, athletic recruiting in particular). So, these are students who are likelier to get in anyway. Colleges do find that EA admits are more serious about their school, and more likely to enroll if admitted EA. In other words, there is a higher yield for EA admits.

EA serves a college's interests by giving the institution an earlier sense of its applicant pool and allowing the college to admit and then actively recruit students it really wants to enroll. EA helps students by allowing you to get into a reach, target, or safety school earlier in the year. You can then either narrow your college list for regular decision if you get in; or, expand your list if you aren't getting into EA schools. Plus, you don't need to worry so much about EA applications since you're not making a commitment yet.

Key points: not every student is helped equally by EA/ED — sometimes it's better for you to wait and build up your profile academically and your applications stylistically before applying; not every college looks at EA/ED in the same way; don't apply ED unless you're sure about making a commitment; and make sure to read the fine print of every college you're applying to in order to see what they do and don't allow in their early policies.

 

Question Is there any benefit to early application for a first choice school besides demonstrating that it is your primary choice? Are there benefits for waiting? - Ellen

 

AnswerYes, and yes. Statistics show that applying early something, particularly Early Decision (ED), which is binding, can have a positive tipping effect on your chances for admission. The ED commitment tells a college that if you are admitted, you will attend, so it takes the guesswork out of their admission process. They look for students who are in their academic ballpark, and often who can offer something particular to fill a need at the college (legacies, athletic recruits, special interest recruits, and so on). Even Early Action (EA), which is non-binding, can show some early interest and preparation.

All that said, ED or EA is not for everyone. If you are not at least a solid candidate at the school you are applying to, you could be rejected outright. If you are a student who would benefit from showing a full fall semester of work, and taking standardized tests through December, then you might be better off delaying an early application. If you had an up and down high school career, or not a great junior year, then you should wait. If you don't have a strong application ready, don't apply early. And, don't apply early just to get it over with. Most likely, you won't get it over with, so you'll need to prepare your other applications anyway. And, if you do commit ED too early, then you could find yourself very unhappy with your choice in December, April, or September.

 

Question Is early decision 100% binding, and what if any, are ways to get out of this agreement? Are there legal ramifications in breaking this agreement? Thanks You. - leslie

 

AnswerGood question. The answer is no, the ED commitment is not, as we understand it, legally binding, at least in the sense that you will not be dragged in chains to the college, fined by it or the government, or sued for damages and tuition payments, if you decide not to go to the school that admitted you ED.

However, the ED commitment is binding in the college admissions process, and if you are found to have applied to other colleges after having been admitted ED someplace, or to have applied to more than one ED school, or to give up your ED choice for another college that has offered you admission, you will face the usual consequence of being blacklisted by the ED college. The school will try to contact your high school guidance office and other colleges that have admitted you to notify them of your breaking the agreement. These other colleges will most likely withdraw their admission offers, and you will be left with no choices for the fall. 

The best thing to do if you have been admitted ED and have decided you do not want to attend, is to write a letter or call to explain your reasons, and to plan to take a gap year between high school and college. You can then apply to other colleges for the following fall.

If a college has admitted you ED, and then you have been admitted elsewhere, you need to contact both schools to discuss whether they will release you from the ED commitment and allow you to attend the other school.  

Finally, insufficient financial aid is the only legitimate and explicitly approved reason to withdraw from the ED commitment. However, you should notify the ED college as soon as you receive the admission and financial aid offers from them (they are supposed to come at around the same time) and request to be released from the commitment, which they usually will do. Of course, then there may or may not be time to apply to other colleges by their deadlines, depending on when you applied ED, round one or two. And, you won't know if any other schools will eventually offer you better financial aid packages if they admit you.

For more on ED and EA policies, and other admission practices, see the National Association for College Admission Counseling Web site, www.nacacnet.org and their statement of principles of good practice.

 

Question You can early action to more than one school, right? And you can't early decision and also early action?  Just ED? - Please confirm. What are the rules regarding early admission? - Nilima

 

AnswerUnfortunately the area of admission plans has gotten more, not less complex. Fundamentally, the rules depend on which colleges you apply to. Some Early Decision colleges (offering the binding ED plan) do allow you to apply to other colleges Early Action (non-binding) while others don't. Some Early Action (EA) colleges allow students to apply to other EA schools, but others don't. Some allow EA, but not an ED. Applications to public universities under rolling admission plans (non-binding) are usually not prohibited. Make sure to check the fine print on the Web site and in the application materials for each college to which you are applying to see what is allowed or not. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (nacacnet.org) offers a summary of admission plans and guidelines on its Web site.

 

Question Can you shed some light on the help that early decision provides? Thank you! - Stephen

 

AnswerEarly Decision is a college application procedure through which you make a commitment to a college to attend that institution if you are admitted. You may apply to only one ED school at a time. ED might improve your chances at some colleges, since you are making a commitment whereby the college knows you will attend if admitted. Some statistics do show that applying ED can improve your odds, but usually this benefit is not as strong as is commonly perceived. Make sure you are very comfortable making an ED commitment prior to signing on the dotted line. Once you are admitted, you will have to withdraw other applications in process, or cease applying anywhere else.

 

Question Is it true that Early Decision means a commitment to attend and pay for college without knowing what kind of financial aid package you will receive. We have heard that colleges don't release package offers until late Spring but Early Decision means a commitment in the Fall. - Carrie

AnswerEarly Decision means a commitment to attend a college if you admitted, and to withdraw other applications in progress and not submit others in the future. However, colleges that offer ED acceptances are supposed to offer a financial aid package (if you applied for aid) at the same time as the admission offer. If the aid package is insufficient for you to afford the college, you may appeal your award to the financial aid office, which may work with you or may not. Lack of enough aid is the only really legitimate cause for withdrawing from the ED commitment. However, you will not know if the aid offer you had in hand was the strongest you were likely to receive in any event. We don't recommend that students who may need significant need-based financial aid apply ED, because of the lack of ability to compare multiple financial aid offers, which can sometimes differ substantially, especially once possible merit-based aid is factored in.

 

Question If a student goes the early action route is it usually binding? And if it is binding, what are the consequences if the student decides not to attend that school? - Lou

 

AnswerIf you are referring specifically to Early Action, this is not a binding commitment to enroll in the particular college that has accepted you. By contrast, Early Decision represents a commitment to enrolling, and you are expected to withdraw all other applications. There are serious consequences to reneging on the early decision commitment. Your high school is compromised since they supported this early decision commitment and could decide not to send further transcripts and recommendations to other colleges. Early Action allows an accepted candidate to complete applications to other colleges of interest.

 

Question There seems to be so much discussion about applying early to college today. I feel pressured to consider this option. Will I really miss out on acceptance to a college of my choosing if I just apply on the regular schedule?  - sol

 

AnswerYou are not alone in feeling pressure from everyone from the college representatives or your peers or parents or guidebooks to apply early to a college. It really is not critical in almost all cases to apply early just for strategic reasons. You should do so primarily if you have a strong first choice of college in mind and your academic profile matches with the college's usual standards for acceptance.

Here is the rule of thumb to follow: apply early only if you believe you are as ready to present your credentials to the college in November as you would be later in the school year. This can help you decide if you can improve your record and thus your choices, and thus whether you should wait.

 

Question Are there any specific situations where applying early decision is not binding? - Dana

 

AnswerNo. Early Decision is, by definition, binding, as opposed to Early Action, which is non-binding. You may pull out of the Early Decision commitment if your financial aid package is insufficient, and that is really the only legitimate reason for doing so. Now, the college that admits you ED won't drag you in chains to the campus in the fall, and there is no legal requirement that you pay the first year's tuition and attend the school. So, if you revisit the campus in April, having been admitted ED earlier in the year, and find that the college really isn't what you expected or wanted, you may withdraw your commitment, and the college will withdraw its admission offer, but you will be left with no other college choices. You might apply to one or more colleges late in the year, and may be able to open up a choice or two, or you might decide to take a year off before college and apply to a broader list of schools next time around.

 

Question Is early action / early decision a better choice if you think you are a "borderline" candidate? - John

 

AnswerUnfortunately, it depends. It depends on the college you are applying to, and how "borderline" you are. Some data show that applying early, especially by making a binding ED commitment, can increase your odds, the equivalent of adding a hundred points to your SAT score, for example, even at the most selective colleges. However, there is a lot at play here, and you must evaluate your personal circumstances.

Some colleges might lock you in as an ED candidate, pleased that, while you are borderline, you do fit their overall admission criteria and will be a certain attendee next fall. Others will not admit you, preferring to defer you to see if your grades or test scores improve during the year. You may be able to ask the admission office at a college you are interested in whether it makes sense for you to apply ED or EA, given your credentials. Sometimes they will give a very frank assessment and recommendation.

You should only, by the way, make the ED commitment if you are certain this is the college you want to attend. Don't apply ED just because you think it will improve your chances, or because you think you won't get in during regular admission.

 

Question Can you get rejected from early decision or do you automatically get placed into the regular decision pool? - Dana

 

AnswerYes, you can get rejected from Early Decision, and we find that more colleges offering ED are rejecting more applicants who stand no chance in the regular pool. That said, most students in ED are deferred rather than rejected at most colleges.

 

Question How do I know if the schools that I am interested in offer early action or early decision? - John

 

AnswerEach college explains its application procedures in its admission materials and on its Web site. We recommend going to the college Web site for the most up to date information. Follow the links to the admissions part of the site, and then look at "how to apply" or "admissions procedures" and information for prospective applicants. The colleges usually describe in detail their admissions policies, from regular admission to Early Decision, as well as dates and deadlines to be aware of. The Common Application (www.commonapp.org) is another good source of information about colleges that utilize the Common Application, and what their admission options are.

 

Question I would like to attend Vanderbilt for undergraduate school, but there is no way I can go without a scholarship. Should I apply early or at the regular time? - Tracy

 

AnswerVanderbilt is a wonderful university with very generous scholarship programs for students who demonstrate financial need. However, it is risky to apply Early Decision, since it is a binding commitment on your part if accepted, because there is no guarantee that you will receive the necessary amount of money to attend. It would be wiser to apply on the regular admission schedule together with a broad range of other colleges that interest you and see which of them offer you substantial scholarship assistance. You can write a letter to the Dean of Admissions at Vanderbilt stating that it is your first choice college and will enroll if you receive a scholarship that enables you to do so. You want to apply to a combination of private and public institutions to give yourself more choices in the spring.

 

Question I am applying to a college where the only ED date is Jan. 15. Regular decision applications are due Feb.15. It is my first choice college, so I want to apply ED so they know it is really where I want to go and I can increase my chances for acceptance. However, many of the other schools to which I would apply if I am not accepted there have regular application deadlines of Jan. 1 or 15. What can I do? - Joyce

AnswerYou must apply to your total balanced list of colleges by their regular deadlines, in addition to applying to your ED college if that is your first choice school. Then, if you are admitted by the ED school, you will need to write to the other colleges and ask them to withdraw your applications from consideration due to your ED acceptance elsewhere. If you are not admitted ED, you will have already completed the regular applications you need to. This is standard accepted practice in admissions.

 

Question Can you apply to more than one school on your list "early admission"? - sarah

 

AnswerYes and no, but first a clarification. Early Admission really refers to entering a college early, not after you have graduated your senior year of high school. An early application strategy offers you several major options: Regular Admission (with deadlines typically in January and no limit on applications); Early Decision (which is binding — if admitted, you must attend and must withdraw any other applications in progress and not submit any more); Early Action (which is non-binding, and allows you to delay your final decision until May 1); and Rolling Admission (which is non-binding, and allows you to learn of admissions decisions during the fall, winter, and spring, but without making a commitment).

You cannot apply to more than one Early Decision (ED) school at a time. However, if you are rejected or deferred from ED in December, after a November deadline application, you may apply to another college ED II, with a deadline typically in January, the same as regular admission.

You may apply Early Action (EA) to more than one college, except in the case of colleges that offer "Single-Choice Early Action." Other colleges may add this single-choice restriction, now that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has decided to explicitly allow schools to do so.

There is no limit on the number of rolling admission applications you can file.

You must check each college's ED or EA policy (in their application materials and on their admissions Web site) to find out if they set limits. Some ED schools might say you cannot apply elsewhere EA, but most don't. You should never be limited in applying to a rolling school while doing ED or EA (single-choice or otherwise) because that would negatively impact your regular admission odds at a state school (public university) that uses only non-binding rolling admission and fills slots as the year progresses.

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