So, you are applying to college and decide to create a calendar for application deadlines. In your exploration of college websites, you come across terms like early decision (ED), early action (EA), and restrictive or single-choice early action (REA or SCEA). Do all these admissions decision plans confuse you? Are you asking yourself why there is not just one standard deadline to apply to college? Early application plans like ED, EA, and REA/SCEA provide both applicants and institutions with advantages in the college admissions process. Let’s explore.
Defining Early Application Plans
Early application plans allow you to apply and receive an admissions decision early. That is where the similarities end. To best understand the benefits of applying early to college, you first need to know the difference between the various decision plans.
Early Decision (ED): The key distinction of an ED plan is that it is binding. This means if you apply ED and are admitted, you agree to attend the college and withdraw all other applications. You can apply ED to only one college. ED deadlines are typically November 1 or 15, and decisions are usually released on or around December 15. When applying, if you select ED, you, a parent/guardian, and your school counselor must sign an agreement that you understand and will abide by the binding policy. The binding agreement can only be broken if an adequate financial aid package is not awarded. Some schools offer a second round of ED, known as Early Decision 2 (ED2). The binding policy is the same, the timeline is just different. Deadlines are typically January 1, and decisions usually release in mid-February.
Early Action (EA): EA plans are nonbinding. If admitted EA, you are not bound to enroll at that college but can wait until May 1 to respond to the admissions offer. This allows you to compare all your college offers before deciding. You may apply to multiple colleges through EA plans. EA deadlines are typically in November, with decisions released between the middle of December and the middle of February.
Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA): Things become a bit complicated here. Certain schools (Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, Caltech, and Notre Dame) offer a variation on ED/EA. These plans work similarly to the nonbinding EA plans, except that candidates are restricted from applying early (EA or ED) to any other school. So, if admitted to a school under REA/SCEA, a student still has until May 1 to decide on whether they want to enroll at that school, but they are limited to only applying Regular Decision to all other colleges.
The Advantages of Applying Early
Now that you understand the difference between the various plans, the question remains as to why these early plans exist. For the institutions, the timing of early applications helps admissions offices spread the work of sorting through applications over a more extended period. Binding early programs also substantially help a college predict its yield and keep its acceptance rates low (key factors used in college rankings). But the real benefits of applying early exist for the applicants.
The obvious advantage is that students learn of their college admissions decisions earlier than the traditional decision release in March of their senior year. This can reduce stress by cutting the time spent waiting for a decision. Also, if you gain admission early, you have more time to prepare for college as well as enjoy the remainder of your senior year.
The more significant advantage is that statistically, students have a better chance of being admitted when applying, especially when applying Early Decision. Sometimes a student’s chances are doubled or tripled when applying ED versus Regular Decision. Wikipedia’s Early Decision entry provides detailed statistical charts showing the difference in admit rates for several top universities.
The Disadvantages of Applying Early
On the flip side, there can be disadvantages to applying early for students. While for EA, there are no significant disadvantages other than the earlier timeline for students to complete their applications, for REA/SCEA, the chief disadvantage is not being able to apply elsewhere during an early application program.
For ED, an initial drawback is the pressure to decide. It can be stressful to commit to one college before exploring all the options. More significantly, the real negative side of applying ED relates specifically to financial aid. If a student is admitted ED, they do not have the opportunity to compare financial aid offers from any other university. Therefore, students should not commit to a binding ED plan if they think they will be better off weighing financial aid packages from multiple colleges in the spring.
To ED or Not to ED, That is the Question
Ultimately, once you understand the various early application plans, you will probably ask whether you should commit to applying early. Nonbinding Early Action plans make a lot of sense. As far as binding Early Decision plans are concerned, while the statistical advantage of applying early can be quite appealing, it is important that students carefully consider all their options before committing. When a clear preference for one institution exists, then ED makes sense. But students need to know they may be limiting their options.
The best advice is not to feel pressure to apply early. Weigh the pros and cons of your individual circumstances and make sure you understand all the related policies. You can find additional information about applying early, as well as answers to many common questions, on Solomon Admissions Consulting’s College Admissions FAQ page. And feel free to Contact Us at any time.