When I was completing my college applications in the year 1925 (JK, but the real date makes me feel old), I only ever considered applying as a Regular Decision applicant. If you’re not sure what that means, it means that I submitted my applications sometime in the late fall or early winter and heard back from schools in the spring, just like any regular ol’ student. You must know that throughout the process of taking the SAT, deciding on which colleges to apply to, and completing my applications, I had no help outside that of my family. This is not to minimize their guidance (thanks, Mom!), but looking back, I think I really could have benefited from some professional test prep or college counseling.
What happened is that I was rejected from my top choices - something you can imagine really bummed me out at the time. However, this story has a happy ending: I still attended a wonderful school that was a better fit for me than I had expected, and I ended up where I am now, doing what I had hoped to do since high school (well, one of the things I had hoped to do - becoming a primetime actress was a bit of a stretch anyway).
This is all to say that although things have worked out for me, looking back, having a little more knowledge about the way college admissions works could have made my whole process more painless, which brings us back to our main topic. If I had known more at the time, I probably would have considered applying to college either as Early Decision or Early Action. If you’re like I was in high school and don’t know what either of those are, this blog post is for you!
Similarities Between Early Decision and Early Action
These two ways of applying to college have a few notable similarities. First, both Early Decision and Early Action require a student to send in their completed applications - you guessed it - early. How early? Well, if the Regular Decision deadlines are around January 1st, Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are typically either November 1st or 15th, though they can even be as early as October 15th (looking at you, UNC Chapel Hill!).
At this point, you might be thinking, “Why would I ever choose to apply earlier? I’m stressed enough as it is!” As someone who would almost never voluntarily turn something in early, I empathize with you. However, applying early also comes with a huge benefit: hearing back from colleges early. Those who apply Early Decision may hear back as early as December, while Early Action applicants typically get their admissions decisions in January or February. I remember being unbelievably, intensely impatient during my own admission cycle and checking my mail and email incessantly for the results I craved. If you’re like I was, then getting the news earlier rather than later can be a game-changer.
Being an Early Decision or Early Action applicant can also benefit you in another way; submitting the applications you’ve been slaving over a couple of months before Regular Decision deadlines takes some weight off your shoulders. If you want the opportunity to kick back and enjoy the holidays or just savor your last year of high school a little bit more, this is definitely something to consider.
Higher Acceptance Rates
Early Decision and Early Action also have one more important perk that many are not aware of. It’s that, according to recent admissions statistics reported by Top Tier admissions, Ivy Leagues have acceptance rates that are between 3 and 4 times higher for Early Decision than for Regular Decision. Though Early Action acceptance rates aren’t quite as high as those of Early Decision, it still appears that Early Action applicants have an advantage over Regular applicants. This can be attributed to the fact that not only are there many fewer Early applicants than there are Regular (so the admissions committee can spend more time examining each app) but also because applying to a college specifically as Early Decision shows that you’re willing to commit to that school above any other. Actually, about that...
The Big Difference Between Early Decision and Early Action
For all their similarities, there is a very big difference between Early Decision and Early Action that you need to seriously consider: if an Early Decision applicant is accepted into the school they’ve applied to, they MUST commit to attend that school and withdraw applications to all others. This means that the benefit of hearing back from a school of your choice early also has what may be a big drawback; the Early Decision applicant doesn’t get the chance to consider any other offers before making the Big Choice.
After reading this, you might be picturing a particular school in your mind - your favorite! You may be thinking that the choice to be an Early Decision applicant is a no-brainer because no other school’s offer could even come close. It’s a done deal!
$$ Cash $$
Well, I hate to burst your bubble on this one, but you might not be considering one huge aspect of college choice: college cost. As tuition rates rise and incomes continue to stagnate, more and more incoming freshmen rely on generous financial aid packages to get them through their undergraduate years. The school of your dreams might have the best campus and the coolest programs, but the fact is that if cost is an issue for you (and if it is, you’re in the vast majority), taking that school’s offer right away without checking out what aid packages other schools might have for you is not advised. Though I could fill another blog post about the rising costs of higher education, for now, I’ll leave it at this: before making the call on Early Decision, sit down with your family and and talk numbers (the Net Price Calculator most schools feature on their websites is a great tool for this). It’ll save you trouble later on.
On the other hand, the decision situation with Early Action is that you still get to hear back early from the school(s) to which you’ve applied (though not quite as early as Early Decision), and you have until the national response date (usually May 1st, though that might change in the age of COVID) to notify them of what you’ve chosen.
Other Factors to Consider
As I explained earlier, financial considerations are huge when determining if Early Decision or Early Action is right for you. However, there are also a few other factors to consider. First, if you submit your application early (reminder: usually early November), your application’s transcripts will only show your grades up to the end of junior year. If you anticipate having awesome grades in challenging classes during your first semester of senior year that you want to show off (or if you’re relying on those grades to redeem not-as-awesome grades from previous years), you might want to choose Regular Decision so that they can be considered alongside your other application materials.
You may have also deduced that if you won’t be able to send updated transcripts, you also won’t be able to send updated SAT/ACT scores. The testing situation brought about by COVID-19 has complicated things, resulting in many universities opting for “test-blind” or “test-optional” policies, but if standardized test scores are still part of the application process for your top colleges, you should be aware that you won’t have much time to retake tests before the Early Decision and Early Action deadlines. If you aren’t happy with your test scores and can’t retest in time for an early deadline, choose Regular Decision instead.
Do Your Research!
The particulars will vary depending on the school. For example, a number of selective institutions only offer single-choice or restrictive Early Action. This means that a student receives the benefits of Early Action - including not having to commit right away - but can only apply as an Early Action applicant to one school. Some schools even offer two different types of Early Decision: ED I and ED II. The list goes on. Though I hope this post has given you a better understanding of the broad similarities of Early Decision and Early Action, it’s up to you to do your research and figure out exactly how your schools of choice handle each option.
Still feeling a little lost in the maze that is college apps? Check out ThinquePrep’s college counseling services. Our knowledgeable counselor-tutors are here to lead you through it.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
With offices located in beautiful Orange County, ThinquePrep specializes in the personalized mentorship of students and their families through the entire college preparation process and beyond. With many recent changes to college admissions - standardized tests, financial aid, varied admissions processes - the educational landscape has never been more competitive or confusing. We’re here from the first summer program to the last college acceptance letter. It’s never too early to start thinking about your student’s future, so schedule your complimentary consultation today!