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Early Action vs. Early Decision: Everything You Need to Know

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Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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They say that the early bird gets the worm. But, to quote Calvin and Hobbs, is a worm really a worthwhile incentive?

When it comes to college admissions, yes — the early bird really does get the worm. (With some caveats.) And, in college application land, the worm is pretty worthwhile. (Though again, there are some caveats.)

On the one hand, the “worm” for applying early is indeed rewarding because:

  • If you’re accepted, you can be done with the college application process early. Yes!
  • Applying early can give you a small or substantial leg up on other applicants.

On the other hand, the “worm” for applying early can have some creepy-crawly pitfalls, including:

  • Some early application programs can limit or severely limit your financial aid money. Yikes!
  • We often see applying early lull students into complacency, leading to a scramble if they get rejected or deferred and find themselves with little time to apply to other colleges.
  • Applying early means being prepared early (that’s hard!), and forfeiting the ability to show colleges a strong set of Senior year fall-term grades. 

So, if you want to rise and shine, you’ll need a guide for navigating these wormy waters. Good thing we’re admissions nerds, and can guide you through this!

We will cover:

Early action vs. early decision: A for “allowed” to change your mind & D for “done”;What’s in it for the colleges? (Yield.);Early action vs. early decision, the Ivy League, and Covid: some trends you should know;Early action vs. early decision and admissions rates: both are good, ED is great;EA applicants may not receive a boost, but applying EA is usually a good idea;What’s in it for ED applicants? (Admissions advantage.);The big problem with ED is financial aid ED programs can’t stop you from rescinding an offer with bad financial aid;Colleges are pushy about getting you to go ED. Avoid these 3 pitfalls.
Early action vs. early decision: A for “allowed” to change your mind & D for “done”;What’s in it for the colleges? (Yield.);Early action vs. early decision, the Ivy League, and Covid: some trends you should know;Early action vs. early decision and admissions rates: both are good, ED is great;EA applicants may not receive a boost, but applying EA is usually a good idea;What’s in it for ED applicants? (Admissions advantage.);The big problem with ED is financial aid ED programs can’t stop you from rescinding an offer with bad financial aid;Colleges are pushy about getting you to go ED. Avoid these 3 pitfalls.

    Early action vs. early decision: A for “allowed” to change your mind; D for “done” 

    About 450 colleges, both public and private, have some sort of early admission program. However, the details of those programs vary considerably.

    In a nutshell:

    • Early Action allows you to change your mind; you’re not committed.
    • Early Decision commits you; you're done with college applications.

    Here’s a quick and dirty view of the various early admission programs:

    early action vs. early decision vs. regular decision vs. restrictive early action
    Regular decision, early decision, early action and restrictive early action have significant differences.

    However, if you back out because the financial aid they offered was inadequate, you may (maybe) be on safer ground. Says the Mount Holyoke officer, "This is the thing that your decision hinges on. And it could also be the one reason that an institution might allow you to back out of the early decision process," though that can vary by college. 

    What’s in it for the colleges? (Yield.)

    How do colleges love early admission programs? Let us count the ways.

    • #1 reason - being top banana: They love that they get a pool of students to whom they are probably the top choice.
    • Filling out their class: They love that attracting students who want to attend makes it easier for them to fill out a good chunk of their freshman classes with a diverse mix of students. Of the US News top 62 colleges, 50 colleges had ED admits make up at least 33% of the enrolled class and 19 had ED admits make up at least 50%. 
    • Filling their coffers: Similarly, they love that this lets them shape a class with students who need less financial aid. Early applicants tend to be wealthier. For example, some schools may have a goal of filling 45% of an incoming class through early programs, but only spend 35% of the financial aid budget. 
    • Going up in the rankings: Colleges love that an early admission program will therefore increase the number of students they accept who come to their school (ie: their “yield”), an important US New and World Report factor. 

    ED schools tend to care about US News and World Reports. Important note here. Obviously, ED boosts yield (100% acceptance) more than EA does. For those schools, one ED admit effectively equals 3 or 4 RD admits, as it’s common for only 25-33% of RD students to accept admission. 

    Colleges offering ED or ED2 tend to really care about yield and its sidekick “demonstrated interest.” (You should read about the surprising things you should do to look good on that metric if you’re interested in an ED school.)

    Bottom line: ED programs exist to benefit colleges. (EA also benefits colleges but has less pitfalls for students.)

    Early action vs. early decision, the Ivy League, and Covid: some trends you should know

    COVID had a mixed effect on early applications. For the Ivy League, they went up, whereas nationally, early applications went down: by 4.6% for ED and 5.7% for EA. Interestingly, there was no change in the share of early applicants who are Black (7%) or Latinx (6%). The share of Black and Latinx applicants who apply early has historically been low. 

    At selective colleges, this has decreased the early admission rate, which has traditionally been double, even triple RD rates. At Yale, about one in 10 early applicants got in this year, compared with 14% last year. At Harvard, the early acceptance rate fell to 7.4% during COVID from 14% before. (Princeton appears to be the only selective school that actually suspended its early admission program in response to COVID; it has reinstated it for this year, though.)

    For less selective colleges, this decrease makes their yield even more difficult to predict. Colleges may react by increasing the benefits of their ED programs — for example, Northeastern has said it is now planning to enroll half its Fall 2021 class through ED (whereas it admitted only 32% of its Fall 2020 class ED; overall admit rate was 20%). 

    While the worst of COVID disruptions seem to be over, these trends likely have a lot to do with the number of colleges going test-optional, so be sure to read about how to navigate that difficult decision in our All about test optional post.

    Early action vs. early decision and admissions rates: both are good, early decision is great

    Applying early generally seems to help your admissions chances. Probably marginally for EA; definitely a lot for ED. Let’s explore each in turn. 

    Early action applicants may not receive a boost, but applying early action is usually a good idea

    Schools using EA programs often claim that your admission chances are the same EA or RD. Yet, as we said above, the early admissions numbers are generally much higher for early applicants than regular (up to 3x higher). Says Harvard, that’s just because of the “remarkable strength of [REA] pools.” 

    Well, maybe. 

    Selingo’s book mentions that EA applicants benefit from the simple fact that the office can spend more time per applicant earlier in the cycle. 

    In addition, applying early is hard to pull off — it requires you to be on top of the college process earlier than your peers, and to feel solid in your grades, test scores and the all-important “extras” of an application (essays, recs, and the like). These factors help explain why “better” students are ready early, but they also shed some light on why disadvantaged students tend to struggle to be ready so early. 

    Nevertheless, if you’re excited about an EA school, you should probably always go for it:

    • There’s no major downside.
    • The only potential negative is that you might need to provide your Fall grades to bolster your academic case — but often, if not admitted, you’ll be deferred to Regular Decision, in which case you can provide those grades. 

    So while it’s unclear if applying EA or REA confers an advantage, there’s little reason not to do it. 

    What’s in it for early decision applicants? (Admissions advantage.)

    Unlike for EA, there is a major, very real admissions advantage to applying ED. 

    A study analyzing admissions decisions for 14 of the top 20 US News colleges found applying early increased the chances of acceptance by 28%, essentially equivalent to scoring 100 more points on the SAT. 

    The ED advantage exists for all students. But, according to higher education expert Jeff Selingo, there are a few students for whom applying early (ED and to a lesser extent EA/REA) can provide an even greater leg up: 

    • Bubble applicants. Highly selective colleges may accept a student early when they believe they’re unlikely to have a stronger RD student accept admission. In Selingo’s book, admissions officers frequently say, “This applicant won’t make it in RD.” In ED, however, they get a serious look and can be admitted if their essays, activities lists and the like are strong
    • High tuition students. This one’s a little depressing: college admissions is often a financial balancing act. Students whose families can afford and are willing to pay more often fare better early.
    • Recruited athletes. Many recruited athletes, even Division III, are early admits.
    • Students from states with highly sought-after public schools. In states like California (Hello, UC system!) and North Carolina (Hiya, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill!) regular decision applicants often choose the state colleges over elite private schools, which serve as “safeties.” For this quirky reason, ED applicants from these states have an advantage. 

    The big problem with early decision is financial aid (excepting at “full need met” colleges)

    With ED, “you're committing to accepting a financial aid package before you see it," in the words of Mount Holyoke’s Dean of Admissions. 

    ED programs have little incentive to give you the money they should. Merit aid is also out.  

    The best way around these problems is to go into the process knowing what your likely financial offer should be. Start your research with the expected family contribution calculator. Note that this is a time-consuming process, as it requires entering numbers such as retirement assets and home value. 

    Another excellent resource are these comprehensive charts of ED and RD admission rates; need based and merit aid; and aid for international students — they cover over 450 colleges and universities. 

    Generally, it’s important to know if your chosen school is need-met or not. Schools that are not fully need-met are particularly problematic for students who’ll need financial aid. You’ll want to ask a lot of questions of your school counselor and their admission team if you’re in that category.

    A safer bet (though one still requiring much research and attention) are full need-met schools — many schools are fully need-met. With those schools, your financial aid package is more predictable, and you can feel better about boosting your chances by applying ED, particularly if your expected contribution is zero. 

    Early decision programs can’t stop you from rescinding an offer with bad financial aid

    You might be wondering, is ED really binding?

    Eh. Not legally, but colleges have their ways.

    The colleges commit you to ED by requiring you and your college counselor (very important) to sign an agreement. This means you really can’t apply to other schools; your counselor needs to send your recommendations and transcripts for that. 

    On the other hand, there’s a little more flexibility when it comes to rescinding an offer. 

    "In truth, we don't have a way to stop someone from breaking that binding agreement," according to the same Mount Holyoke officer. Still, colleges take the issue seriously. If too many students break their ED commitment to attend a college, that college may choose to stop accepting students from that high school. 

    Don’t play with fire: find out early WHEN you’ll receive your financial offer. The biggest risk is that you might get your financial offer after the regular decision deadlines at other schools. This could lead you to miss out on applying to other schools if your offer is insufficient. Forewarned is forearmed — don’t let this happen to you. 

    Note for athletes: the Justice Department recently sued the major college association on antitrust grounds, putting into place an agreement whereby schools may still recruit students even after they have committed to another school. 

    Colleges are pushy about getting you to go early decision. Avoid these 3 pitfalls.

    As we said above, Early Decision exists to benefit colleges. They want to get you to apply ED — and they often succeed, to the detriment of the applicant.

    Here’s how college pushiness around ED tends to create problems for students.

    First, many applicants choose their ED college within days of the deadline. That means they’re not selecting their best fit, but going for the sparkling allure of that admission chance boost. (A study found 1 in 3 students select the “pragmatic” option rather than their “ideal” college in early applications.)

    This is the equivalent to buying something on sale, “while supplies last!” because it seems like a great deal … without realizing you don’t actually want that thing. It’s a very human reaction, particularly when the stresses of the application process are playing on you. 

    The best way to resist this pitfall is to be serious about your research — including that financial component, as we’ve discussed — and only apply ED to a school that you’re really excited about, and that you know you’ll be able to afford. Better to skip ED altogether, focus on your grades, and put together a stellar application, than to rush into a bad ED decision.

    In the words of Pomona’s admissions dean: “Early Decision seems only right for a segment of the applicant pool [...] Given that 17-year-olds are evolving and growing rapidly during their senior year, ED is really only for those students who have spent a significant amount of time researching their options, visiting campuses, and talking over their decision with others, like their guidance counselor and parents” (emphasis added). 

    Second, many students end up pinched in the “Didn’t get in ED scramble to apply RD.” Yes, your chances of ED admission are higher than regular admission. No, that does not guarantee you’ll get in.

    If you don’t get in, you’ll find out around mid-December. That leaves you ~2 weeks to get your regular admission applications in for January 1. 

    That’s two weeks when your teachers (who you need for recommendations) and guidance counselor (who you need for … guidance and counsel, among much else) are likely on vacation. When your family is likely distracted by, I don’t know, bullying you into going to another Nutcracker performance, or whatever their holiday proclivities are. It can be a very, very hard time to get applications in (and applications are hard enough already). 

    The best way to resist this pitfall is to complete your regular applications before you hear back from the ED college. It’s a pain, but it’s the only way to have peace of mind in this process. 

    Third, many students feel pressured to switch from RD or EA to ED or ED2. Some colleges, like Tulane, send EA and RD applicants messages encouraging the students to switch to ED or ED2, insinuating the switch could help yield a positive admissions result (and it may). 

    For example, Tulane received 625 additional ED applications in the first year of their “switch to ED” program. Some students and counselors complained, but the nudge worked, which is the primary thing college leadership cares about.

    The best way to resist this pitfall is to make this decision only if it’s right for you. That is (1) the school should genuinely be a top choice of yours, and (2) you’ve done the research to know you can likely afford it. 


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