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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 admissions applicants.

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 school.

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.)

Our Recommendations

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

AdmissionsConsultants was 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.

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