Applying Early? Know What You’re Getting Into!

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: August 15, 2011

While applying Early Action or Early Decision may increase your chances for a positive admissions decision, there are definitely strings attached.

Here are the five broad areas under which most all college applications fall:

  • Rolling Admissions
  • Early Decision
  • Early Action
  • Single-Choice Early Action (or Restricted Early Action
  • Regular Decision

No doubt you’ve heard about them. Are you clear about the differences between them? Here’s a review.

Rolling Admissions means that colleges made decisions soon after your application is complete – typically within just a few weeks. Your chances for admission are greater the earlier you apply – even if you’re planning to take the SAT or ACT again to increase your score.

Early Decision (ED) means if you get accepted you MUST commit. The decision is “binding.” If you are accepted by your ED college, you must withdraw all your other applications. There are some definite advantages of applying ED to your top-choice colleges – as long as you’re positive that this is the best college for you. However, if you were to back out of your commitment to an ED college that accepted you in favor of another institution, you may end up high and dry—with admission to the other college rescinded! Colleges do communicate with one another.

Early Action (EA) means that students who get accepted do not have to commit. You’re not bound as with ED. The decision is “non-binding.” Unless the college has some restrictions attached to its EA plan, it’s almost always to your advantage to apply EA when that option is available.

A growing number of schools offer “Single-Choice Early Action” or “Restricted Early Action,” whereby you would violate the application rules if you were to apply Early Action to one college at the same time that you apply Early Decision or Early Action to another.

The original intention of the Early Action plan was to enable students to apply to multiple colleges under an Early Action plan, and even apply to another college under an Early Decision plan. In most cases, that is still true. However, there are some colleges that have “Restrictive” early plans which eliminate your ability to apply to other colleges either EA or ED. So always consult the school admissions website—or call admissions—to get the latest rules. Don’t stop inquiring until you are absolutely clear about a school’s policies. The rules have often become a moving target in an environment where institutions are vying for the best, brightest students possible.

Here are a few examples of colleges’ restrictive Early Action plans:

University Restrictive EA Plan Comments
Boston College Can apply to other colleges EA, but cannot apply to other colleges ED Competitive candidates who are not admitted will be reconsidered for Regular Decision; 20% of those candidates will then be admitted.
Georgetown Can apply to other colleges EA, but cannot apply to other colleges ED Admit or defer (no deny); 10-15% of those deferred will eventually be admitted

EA acceptance rate is very similar to regular-decision acceptance rate
Harvard Cannot apply early elsewhere in the fall under Single Choice Early Action or Early Decision programs

Exception: can apply to public institutions under rolling or other non-binding programs
This policy has been reinstated for students applying for admission for fall 2012
Princeton You may not apply to an early program at any other institution This policy has been reinstated for students applying for admission for fall 2012
Stanford Cannot apply EA or ED anywhere, except if it is a requirement for a special program or scholarship. Students may apply EA to a state university  
Yale Cannot apply EA or ED anywhere, except if it is a requirement for a special program or scholarship and the notification for that program or scholarship occurs after Jan 1  

Here are some typical application deadlines that may guide your work over the next few months – but remember to check each college’s actual deadlines:

Type of Application Typical Deadline Commitment
Rolling Apply as early as possible, beginning in August Non-binding
Early Action November 1 Non-binding
Restrictive Early Action November 1 Non-binding
Single-Choice Early Action November 1 Non-binding
Early Decision November 1 Binding
Early Decision II January 15 Binding
Regular Decision January 1 Non-binding

Two notable exceptions to the above:

Florida State University First Deadline: Oct 17
University of Florida Regular Decision Deadline: Nov 1

The Early Notification/Early Evaluation option at a limited number of selective institutions gives students an idea of their chances for admission. It is neither an admission plan nor an offer of admission.

Topics: College Admission Tutoring Educational Consulting


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