Early Action and Early Decision Admissions
By AdmissionsConsultants Inc.
It's hard to think of any aspect of college admissions that is more confusing than
that of early admissions policies. Although early admissions programs are prevalent
(approximately two out of three of the country's top universities and colleges offer
some kind of early admissions program), the benefits and obligations involved vary from
one school to another. Adding to the confusion is the fact that different schools use
similar language to mean completely different things. Consequently, it is more important
than ever for college applicants to make sure that they understand early admissions and
early decisions options, in order to make informed decisions about whether or not it is
in their interest to use them.
Early Decision vs. Early Action
Early admissions programs can be divided into two categories: early decision and early action.
Both programs involve an earlier application deadline than the normal admissions process does,
and (as their names imply) earlier notification of admissions decisions. A high school student
who already knows that she has been accepted to her top choice college can take chances she
might not otherwise—for example, she might take a challenging college-level course that she
would pass on if she were worried that her spring grades might affect her college applications.
Another advantage, of course, is that she and her family have more time to plan for her move
to college, and to arrange financial aid and housing.
However, the most attractive aspect of early admissions programs is that colleges and universities
tend to admit a significantly higher percentage of the early applicant pool than they do of the
normal applicant pool—in other words, there is the possibility that your chances of being
accepted as an early admissions candidate are better than they would be as a regular applicant.
The most selective colleges currently admit 25% to 50% of their total students from the early
admissions pool. In recent years, as many as 40% of freshmen at Ivy League schools have been early
There is, of course, a catch to all this: the issue of binding decisions. Programs that involve
binding decisions are generally known as early decision programs. Programs that do not involve
binding decisions are generally known as early action programs.
Early Decision (Binding)
'Binding' means that the applicant promises from the start that they will attend the school
if their application is accepted. It is not an obligation to be taken lightly. Schools honor
one another's binding decisions. If you renege on an early decision obligation to one school,
it is unlikely that another competitive school will accept you. Students can seek release
from an early decision obligation on the grounds of financial hardship, if the financial aid
package they are offered is genuinely inadequate; however, the burden of proof in these cases
is on the student. (By the way, another drawback to early decision admissions is that they
leave applicants with no leverage to negotiate a better financial aid package—the school
knows you can't go anywhere else.)
Early decision applicants are expected to submit only one early decision application to one
school. They can submit applications to other schools under normal application procedures, but
agree that they will withdraw all those applications if they are accepted to the early decision
Early Action (Non Binding)
Early admissions programs which do not ask applicants to commit to attending if they are accepted
are generally known as early action programs. In our view, these are a better deal for most
applicants. They give students the benefits of early notification without the obligations of
early decision. Even if accepted, students are free to apply to other schools, and to compare
financial aid offers. In recent years, more and more of the country's most competitive universities
(including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford) have adopted non-binding early admissions programs.
(The University of North Carolina, dropped its early admissions program altogether in 2002, on the
grounds that the program gave an unfair advantage to a particular type of student without
contributing to the diversity that UNC seeks in its student body.)
Early admissions programs can be very advantageous to college applicants, depending on their profile
and situation. A high school student who is sure of what school they want to go to, and whose junior
year grades, extracurricular activities, etc., are strong enough to secure admission, can benefit
from early admissions. However, we do not encourage students with any questions at all about their
college preferences to seek a binding early decision from any school, regardless of how much better
the statistical chances of acceptance may be under an early decision program. Keep in mind that
you're not just being asked to indicate a school preference; you're being asked to forego all other
options and to commit yourself to spending four years (and tens of thousands of dollars) at a
particular institution. That's a big decision for anyone to make. It should only be undertaken with
the best possible information and advice, and without undue deadline pressure.
About the Author
established in 1996 to provide the best admissions counseling possible to aspiring college and
graduate students. It brings together admissions consultants from across the U.S., each one of
whom has first-hand admissions committee experience at top schools and a thorough understanding
of admissions dynamics and decisions. Their goal is to help their clients make informed decisions
about college and program selection and to prepare effective application packages.