Early decision and early action plans allow a student to apply to a school early (usually by November) and receive an admission decision well before the spring notification date. Depending on the plan, the student knows as early as December whether they have been accepted at their first-choice college.
Sometimes students who apply under these plans have a better chance of acceptance than they would through the regular admission process. These plans are also beneficial for colleges because they know these applicants sincerely want to attend the college and likely commit early in the process. The rules for these plans vary somewhat by college and students should check to understand their rights and obligations.
Early decision plans are binding, which means that the student agrees to attend the college if accepted—provided that the college offers an adequate financial aid package. Although the student can apply to only one college ED, they may simultaneously apply to other colleges through the regular decision process. If the student signs an agreement to attend the early-decision college and accept its aid package, all other applications must be withdrawn. Hence, the opportunity to compare the aid packages from other colleges is foregone.
Many colleges offer two rounds of ED. Typically, applications for the first round are due in November (with decisions sent out in December) and applications for the second round are due in January (with decisions sent out in February). The general rules outlined above for ED applications apply to each of these rounds.
Early action plans are similar to early decision plans, but are oftentimes non-binding. If accepted, the student can choose to commit to the college immediately, or wait until the national May 1st deadline to inform the college if they will be attending.
Some colleges have open and non-binding EA plans that allow students to apply early to other colleges and to wait until spring to reply. The following are some of the colleges that offer such plans: Cal Tech, Clark, Harvard, MIT, Tulane, University of Chicago, University of North Carolina, University of New Hampshire, University of Vermont, University of Virginia, and Wheaton (which also has early decision).
Some schools, like Boston College, have non-binding EA and allow students to apply EA to other colleges but not ED.
Other colleges (such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale) have single-choice EA plans that allow students to apply EA to just that school, but candidates may not apply early (either EA or ED) to any other college. The student can still apply to other colleges under regular decision plans and is not required to give a final answer to the early-application college until the regular decision deadline.
Clearly, it can be confusing to navigate the intricacies of each school’s early application policy, so be sure to read websites and application materials closely in order to determine the exact allowances and obligations of whatever school you’re considering applying to early!
Why (and Why Not) to Apply Early
Although there are many upsides to applying to a school early through early decision or early action, students should bear in mind that the only good reason to apply early is because you have extensively researched (and visited, if possible) the college and are certain that it’s a school you would be very proud and happy to attend.
You should not apply early because (a) the school is simply “good enough,” (b) you want to get the process over with, or (c) you’re worried about your ability to sustain your grades over the course of your senior year. While some of these rationales are understandable, if you apply early to a school you’re not very enthusiastic about, you risk missing out on acceptances from schools that may be better fits and/or may offer you substantially more financial aid or scholarships. Although the regular decision process can feel long and arduous at times, it can be worth it to find the school that you feel is the right fit—and that feels you are the right fit for them!