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Early Action and Early Decision: What You Need To Know

Many colleges and universities offer early admission programs such as Early Action and Early Decision.  It’s not unusual for competitive schools to admit a large percentage of the class through these programs.  Within the Ivy League, early applicants comprise 18% to 41% of students at Brown, Penn, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth.   Acceptance rates for early programs are typically significantly higher than for regular admission.  In addition to improving your chances for acceptance, being admitted early (usually in December) can reduce senior year stress.  But there can be downside as well, especially for those concerned about financial aid.   If you are considering applying early, here’s what you need to know:

Admission Statistics Don’t Tell the Full Story

  • At the University of Pennsylvania, Early Decision applicants comprise more than 45% of recent classes.  Penn’s acceptance rate for Early Decision is in the neighborhood of 30% compared to 14%-17% for regular admission.  These admission statistics convey only part of the story.   At Penn, legacies (children of Penn alumni) comprise about 15% of Early Decision candidates and nearly half of those are typically admitted.  When assessing the likelihood of your admission, don’t rely on admission percentages alone.  It’s important to consider factors such as legacy applicants and recruited athletes, because the admissions rate for everyone else can be considerably lower.

Early Admission Programs Are Not All the Same

  • The two most common types of Early Admission programs are Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED).   Some Early Action programs are non-restrictive.  That’s not the case for Early Decision and Single-Choice Early Action.  You’ll find nuances and different rules for different schools. Make sure you understand the policies and obligations.

Early Decision

  • Early Decision plans are almost always single choice (i.e. you agree not to apply ED to any other schools) and binding (i.e. you agree to attend the college if you are accepted ED).   Generally, if you’re accepted Early Decision, you are required to withdraw all other applications.  A major drawback to being admitted ED is limited leverage when negotiating your financial aid package.  From a statistical perspective, applicants with similar credentials are almost always more likely to be admitted when they apply ED.

Early Action

  • Early Action generally means you can apply to as many schools as you like; and if you are accepted (EA), there is no obligation to attend.  You typically have until May 1 to respond with your decision.  This gives you time to compare financial aid offers and evaluate your options.  MIT, University of Chicago and many other schools have unrestricted Early Action programs.  If your application and credentials are ready by the deadline, there is generally no downside when applying unrestricted EA.

Single Choice Early Action

  • Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) programs are another matter.   Like unrestricted Early Action, SCEA applicants receive early notification (or deferral) without a binding obligation.  Generally students are free to apply (regular action) to other schools and to compare financial aid offers.   However, SCEA programs usually require students not to apply ED or EA to any other schools.

When In Doubt, Don’t

  • Experts recommend that you apply Early Decision ONLY if you are positive you want to attend and have your credentials (e.g. application, recommendations, grades, entrance exam scores, extra-curriculars) in order.   Many students decide to forgo early application plans to give themselves additional time to improve their grades, activities or entrance exam scores.

Financial Aid

  • If financial aid is an issue, and you wish to compare financial aid packages before deciding on a college, then Early Decision is probably not a good option for you.  Some colleges, including Harvard, have discontinued their early application programs due to concern that these plans disadvantage students who rely on financial aid.

Yield Considerations

  • College admissions officers focus on yield (percentage of students who accept their offer of admission) and generally prefer a well-qualified applicant who they consider likely to attend over an exceptionally qualified candidate who they believe would probably choose not to enroll.   Binding ED programs directly impact yield as admitted students are required to enroll.  Early Action programs, while not binding, also enhance yield.  Many EA schools devote significant resources to courting admitted students, many of whom might otherwise enroll elsewhere.

Written by: Lynn Radlauer Lubell, Publisher of and Founder of Admission By Design (, an Educational Consultancy based in Boca Raton, Florida.

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