Here’s a clear and concise explanation of the pros and cons of the three different ways to apply to college.
by Martha Green Quirk, M.A.
Would you like to receive your college acceptance in the fall of your senior year?
That sounds pretty tempting, doesn’t it? There’s a couple of ways that can happen, but getting a decision that early does not always assure getting the decision that you want.
There are three primary ways to apply to college as a first-time freshman: Regular Decision, Early Action, and Early Decision. All three have specific deadline dates. All three have specific requirements, and all three are options at many colleges.
Let’s look at each one.
Regular Decision is the choice most college students use when applying to college. Deadlines are anywhere from early December into the spring, and even sometimes into the summer, depending on the availability of space at the college.
Some colleges respond immediately to you after your application is complete (all credentials have been received). Or, you may get a decision within a month or so. Most likely, you will have to wait until all the college decisions have been mailed to their applicants on or about April 1. Then you have until May 1 to make your final decision.
Early Action allows students to apply early with no restrictions. However, the application deadlines are in November-January, and you have to know which schools have which deadlines so that you can meet those requirements. Do your research carefully, as there are a number of colleges that do not even offer the Early Action option.
Early Action is considered to be a non-binding decision. This allows you to take into consideration all the colleges that have admitted you.
For many colleges, you may apply to more than one Early Action school, and you may apply con concurrently as well to other colleges via Regular Decision. If you are admitted, you have (at most colleges) until May 1 to make your final decision.
Advantages of Early Action
If you are a strong student, you may want to consider applying Early Action to one or more colleges.
1. Higher admit rates. The admit rates at many colleges for students applying Early Action are higher than for Regular Decision.
2. No binding obligation. Since Early Action means a non-binding decision, students may consider and apply to other colleges with no penalty.
3. Still a chance to be accepted via Regular Decision. Unlike most Early Decision college decisions, students who are not offered an Early Action acceptance may still be considered for admission later in the year with the applicants in the regular admission pool. This will also give students time to explore other college options.
4. May wait until May 1 to choose college. Even though students who applied Early Action may receive an acceptance letter of admission in the fall, they still have until May 1 to make the final decision.
5. Time to consider all financial aid offers. Because students have until May 1 to inform the college of their decision, the student and family then have time to consider the financial aid component and whether or not the aid offer meets the family’s financial need, and to compare financial offers from each of the colleges. This cannot be done with an Early Decision acceptance.
Early Action, obviously, has more benefits for the students than it does for the colleges. However, be sure to read the colleges’ guidelines to make sure you are complying with their expectations and requirements. Check with the admissions offices of your list of colleges, as there are many colleges that allow students to apply to more than one Early Action college. Be careful, though, as some colleges—Georgetown, for example—are known as Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action colleges, meaning you may choose only one college as your Early Action college option.
Early Decision (ED) is the category that seems to confuse students the most. Only some colleges offer the Early Decision option, and the deadline dates for each school vary widely from November 1 to dates in December or January.
There are at least three catches to this application status.
Catch #1. If you apply Early Decision and are admitted to the college, you are required to attend that college. In other words, Early Decision is a binding decision. You, your parents, and your guidance counselor all sign a contract that commits you to attend that college if you are admitted. So if you are going to submit an ED application—and you can apply to only one Early Decision college, you better be sure that if you are admitted, you will be excited to attend!
Catch #2. Once you are admitted Early Decision, you must immediately retract all other applications to any other colleges. While you may apply to only one Early Decision college, you may concurrently submit applications to other colleges for both Early Action and Regular Decision. (Be sure to check each college’s procedures on this matter.) But once you have been admitted to the college to which you applied Early Decision, your application days are over—and so is the decision as to where you will attend college! The Early Decision college won!
Catch #3. If you are not admitted Early Decision, most likely you will not be reconsidered in the Regular Decision pool of candidates. You get one shot. If you don’t get in ED, your application activity to that college is over. Of course, every college handles this situation differently, so be sure to check with your ED choice to see what the restrictions may be.
One big advantage of Early Decision: great chance of admission
Despite the regulations imposed by the Early Decision mandates, there are some great benefits to making this decision. Very often the percentage acceptance rate for ED candidates is higher than the Regular Decision percentage. If the acceptance rate for the Regular Decision at, for example, Williams College (a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts) is 20 percent, the Early Decision acceptance rate may be closer to 36 percent.
Why is that? There are two reasons. First, a college is able to admit the strongest students from its application pool. Second, because a college knows that an ED acceptance is a binding decision, the college’s “yield rate” increases. For example, since Williams College can be sure as early as December 15, the date on which ED acceptance notifications are mailed, that the 36 percent of the students admitted Early Decision will be enrolling in Williams in the fall. Now Williams only has to fill the rest of the class with 64 percent of the candidates remaining in the Regular Decision pool.
This greater chance for acceptance gives students a bit of a percentage bump. If the student equals or surpasses the academic requirements as seen in test scores, GPA, and quality and rigor of courses taken in high school for that ED college, chances are that admission could be possible.
An important factor to keep in mind is financial aid. Prior to the submission of financial aid applications after January 1, you and your family may not know what kind of financial aid that ED school will be offering you. So be careful not to say “yes” to a college if financial aid is a deal-breaker and you don’t yet know what aid you will receive. In that case, ED may not be the route to take.
There are no guarantees in college admissions decisions. But if you are a very strong student and have the kind of academic profile that the college is looking for, if financial aid is not a deal-breaking factor, and if you want more than anything to attend that one particular college, Early Decision may be the way to go.
Martha Green Quirk, M.A., has been active in the college admissions field for over 30 years. In 2008 she founded her own independent educational consulting company, College Admissions Consulting (CAC), in St. Louis, Missouri. She is an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC).