Early Decision & Early Action: Why Early College Applications Aren’t Always a Good Idea

Many students apply to US universities through Early Decision & Early Action. We explore what it means for your students and explain why it's not always the right move.

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When it comes to getting important or pressing tasks done, earlier is always better, right? After all, most of us love that satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve tackled a to-do list ahead of schedule, or cleared your email inbox first thing in the morning.

It’s the same with students and schoolwork. Most parents and teachers will encourage their children/ students to get tasks like homework or revision done sooner rather than later.

But when it comes to university application, it’s not always that cut and dry. Especially when applying to study in the United States.

Every year, universities (or colleges) in the US set early application deadlines, with candidates submitting their applications to certain institutions by November of an academic year. There are two types of early application deadline in the college admissions process: Early Decision and Early Action.

Applying through Early Decision and Early Action deadlines has its advantages. Your students can get a better overview of their higher education options much earlier in the process. The restrictions and fixed deadlines can also better focus your student’s applications, as they will have to give more careful consideration to their best-fit colleges.

But it’s not always the right choice. As we’ll discuss, sometimes an early college application deadline can really limit a student’s options, or result in them putting all their eggs in one (very high risk) basket.

Before we dive deeper into the pros and cons, let’s discuss how Early Decision and Early Action work in the US application cycle.

Early Decision vs Early Action: what’s the difference?

Early Decision and Early Action may sound similar, but they mean very different things for students applying to study in the US.

Early Decision

An Early Decision application to college constitutes a binding decision to enroll at a specific university.

We can’t stress this enough.

If a student submits a college application through Early Decision and they are accepted, they have to enroll at that institution and withdraw any applications they may be making to other colleges. This means that, if one of your students is thinking about applying to a certain college through Early Decision they need to be sure that it’s the right place for them.

In addition, Early Decision deadlines are significantly earlier in an application year than their Regular Decision counterparts, with most applications for ED due on November 1st or November 15th of the academic year, as opposed to the standard January deadlines.  So if you’re reading this, and you are working with students applying to the US, any Early Decision applications already need to be well under way!

Early Decision also means that an applicant must accept any offer of financial aid made by the university, even if it’s not what they were hoping for. As you can probably guess, this will limit the financial aid or scholarship options of your students who decide to apply through Early Decision.

Some colleges accept applications through a second Early Decision (often referred to as Early Decision 2) which pushes a student’s deadline back to January (often January 1) The same rules apply for this second deadline though – the application is still binding. ED2 applicants can expect to receive a response by February.

Early Action

Early Action is slightly less restrictive than Early Decision. Early Action presents students with similar deadlines to ED, with students required to submit their applications by November 1st and November 15th.

However where Early Action differs is that a student does not have to commit to a particular institution if they receive an offer. Early Action frees students up to submit additional college applications during the Regular Decision application cycle, as they are under no obligation to reply to Early Action offers until the following May.

Note: There are a few exceptions. Some colleges will ask students to apply under what is known as Restrictive Early Action (this is also known as Single Choice Early Action). This means that students can only apply to that one institution via Early Action, and cannot submit applications elsewhere.

Some of the notable colleges in the US that have Restrictive Early Action include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Notre Dame.

However, Restrictive Early Action is still non-binding, meaning that the student is under no obligation to take up their place if they receive an offer.

What are the benefits of applying through Early Decision/Early Action?

For students who have thoroughly researched and/or settled on their first choice university, there are some obvious benefits to applying early. They include:

A simplified application process

Students applying early will, by definition, be applying to fewer colleges (especially if it’s through Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action). Fewer applications means less admin for your students (and their teachers and counselors too!).  

A faster response time

For students who have their heart set on one college, early deadlines might make more sense if they want a swift response from their preferred institution. Early Decision and Early Action applications are normally fast tracked, meaning that students face less of an agonising wait for a decision.

More time to prepare for enrolment

Because most Early Decision/Early Action applications will receive a response by February of an academic year at the latest, this gives successful students more time to prepare for life at college the following September (e.g. sorting out accommodation).

So when should students apply through Early Decision or Early Action?

The answer is simple. If they are adequately prepared.

If a student comes to you and says they want to apply to a college through Early Decision or Early Action, then ask yourself the following questions.

  • Have they adequately researched their US university options?
  • Are they absolutely certain that this college is their first choice (especially if applying through Early Decision)?
  • Do they have the necessary academic record/ GPA and SAT scores to stand a good chance of getting accepted?
  • Is their chosen university a good match, academically, personally and even geographically?

Some students (and possibly their parents) may believe that applying to college early will increase their chances of getting in. This is sometimes the case, but not always. Universities in the US vary when it comes to the proportion of early applicants they admit.

And don’t forget – a college may have a higher acceptance rate for its early application candidates precisely because those students that did apply early had the conviction, organisation and good grades to merit their admission. 

So when weighing up their early application options, you shouldn’t trust anecdotal information – it’s important to focus on the academic needs of each individual student.

Why applying through Early Decision or Early Action isn’t always the best option

Put simply, Early Decision and Early Action deadlines put a lot of pressure on students to choose a particular college and a particular pathway earlier than some of their peers. As we’ve already discussed, if a student has already done his/her homework in preparation for an early application, then it’s probably worthwhile.

But if there’s even an inch of doubt, or if a student is taking this course because of parental or peer pressure, then early application probably isn’t the right way to go.

Remember those questions from the previous section?

If a student hasn’t thoroughly researched colleges, isn’t certain they really want to study at their ED/EA choice, or doesn’t have the grades that will ensure their admission, then early application could be a mistake.

In addition, Early Decision and Early Action come with other drawbacks.

Potential time constraints

Some students may be tempted to put all their eggs in one basket, and apply for just one university (especially with Early Decision, where an acceptance is binding). But if a student were unsuccessful, then they are left with very little time to submit other applications through Regular Decision.

Why?

Because most early applications will receive a response by December, and the Regular Decision deadline for many colleges is January. Hypothetically, if a student submitted an Early Decision application and he/she was rejected, that doesn’t leave them with a lot of time to explore backup options.

This is why students shouldn’t concentrate all their efforts on one early application, even if they think their chance of acceptance is very good.

Limited financial aid options

If students are thinking of applying for financial aid from their Early Decision/Early Action college, then an acceptance from that college will limit their financial aid options. If students accept a binding offer from a college, they also have to accept whatever financial aid is being offered.

So if tuition costs are a factor for your students (and they nearly always are) then they also need to be sure that applying early makes sense financially. They won’t be able to shop around for a better scholarship offer!

Pressure to make a decision

This may seem like an obvious point, but any undue pressure to apply early can place extra stresses and anxieties on a student. This will especially be the case if a student isn’t certain that they’re applying to their best fit university. This is fundamentally their decision, and they need to make sure it’s the right one.

Note: some US universities, as well as the Common App, ask students, parents and counselors to sign an Early Decision agreement that spells out the conditions of applying through ED. This means that an Early Decision application will need the consent of all parties involved in the application process.

Early Decision & Early Action: a quick round up 

If you hadn’t already guessed, there is a lot to think about when it comes to early applications in the US. There are a lot of competing deadlines, rules and regulations to be aware of. To help cut through of the complexity, here are 5 key takeaways about early application that you and your students need to know. 

1. Early Decision is binding, Early Action is not

This will affect which early application path a student takes, and will also have a knock on effect on any other college applications students might be considering. An Early Decision application is a binding commitment, whilst an Early Action application leaves a student’s options open.

2. Colleges have different types of Early Action

Remember our old friend Restrictive Early Action? For some universities in the US, students are only allowed to apply to that one specific institution through Restrictive Early Action. But don’t worry, an application made through REA isn’t binding (are you still with us?)

3. Colleges like students to apply early, but it doesn’t increase chance of acceptance

For universities in the US, having two application deadlines can help with recruitment – it gives them a better overview of what kind of student candidates are out there and helps universities to tailor their classes and courses to the needs of different student cohorts.

So an early college application will be welcome, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. As we’ve covered in this article, an early application must ultimately be guided by a student’s grades as well as their own academic and personal preferences. These are ultimately the factors that govern whether a college application is successful or not.

4. One Early Decision offer means one financial aid offer

When you think about it, Early Decision isn’t just an academic early decision – it’s a financial one too. If ED students are offered a scholarship or some kind of financial aid, then this is the only financial aid package on the table.

This is why students need to thoroughly research financial aid options for their chosen Early Decision college. If you are working with students who are applying through Early Decision, they need to be in contact with the financial aid office at their preferred institution in their junior year (Year 12/lower sixth).

5. Research is vital

It’s been the vital theme running through this article. A strong Early Decision/Early Action application is only possible if a student has thoroughly researched their chosen college. Why are they a good fit? Why does it have to be this university and why now?

So there you have it.

Getting college application out of the way early doesn’t always guarantee peace of mind. Perhaps more than any other component of the university guidance process, an Early Decision/Early Action application will add more complexity, and require a long-term, strategic approach.

As you work with your students on their US applications, it’s important to impress on them that earlier isn’t always better. 

If you’d like to know more about how to help your students with their university research, including useful questions they should ask themselves as they research a potential Early Decision/Early Action university, download your free copy of our latest New Counselor’s Survival Guide. 

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