When to Apply

Early Decision, Early Action and Regular Admissions

Many colleges, particularly private colleges, have more than one type of admissions that a student must consider before applying. Early decision, early action and regular admissions are the most common options. So what is each of these admission types and what is best for you? Let’s look at the options.

Early decision is an application that is submitted early, generally by November 1 or November 15 at most colleges. Under this type of application, a student signs a statement saying that if the college admits the student the student agrees that they will attend the college and withdraw any other applications. The colleges will normally notify early decision applications by December 15 whether they have been admitted.

There are several advantages to early decision applications. First, the admission rate at most colleges is higher for students applying early decision than for students applying under another type of application. This can be a major incentive particularly for students applying to highly selective colleges. Second, the student gets to find out early whether they have been accepted which takes off the pressure felt by many students who must wait until May of their senior year to learn where they might be attending college.

There are serious disadvantages to early decision applications, however. Foremost is the fact that a student is bound to attend any college that accepts him early decision. Many students will change their minds over the course of their senior year on what they want from a college experience. What looked like a great college Fall of senior year might not look as good in the Spring. But if accepted under early decision, the student must attend that college. Students might also regret not having the option in the Spring to choose from among several colleges. The binding nature of early decision admissions also means that a student is not able to compare financial aid awards among several colleges. Some colleges also calculate that since the student is bound to come if accepted, that their financial aid package need not be as strong for early decision admissions. A student can avoid the binding nature of early decision if they can show that the financial aid package is not sufficient to enable the student to attend but this can be an emotionally difficult argument for a student’s family to make. Some colleges, particularly those with strong endowments, have a policy in place that early decision admits will get the same financial aid package as those admitted later during regular decision. This takes some of the economic pressure off but it still does not allow a student to compare awards. Finally, if the student is not accepted at their early decision college the process of continuing other applications can be very difficult, particularly if the student has not worked on the other applications until the rejection occurs.

Our recommendation is generally that early decision is a good choice if the student begins their search for the right college early, has adequately investigated many different options and has no question that the college they wish to apply to early decision is their definite first choice. The student and their family should also be comfortable that they will be able to afford the college without any aid or, if financial aid will be necessary, that they have thoroughly investigated the financial aid policies of the college in question.

Early action works much the same way as early decision except that the admissions decision is NOT binding on the student and they are not required to make a decision on which college to attend until April of their senior year. For many colleges the early action acceptance rate is higher than the regular decision rate although the advantage is not as great as under early decision. For many students this is the best way to apply to college. Although the student needs to get their application in early, they also find out early whether they have been accepted, again taking some of the pressure off waiting for college decisions until April.

Colleges differ in how they handle financial aid awards for early action admitted students. Some colleges will ask for preliminary financial data on the FAFSA or PROFILE forms and provide an early estimate of the financial aid award, subject to revision when they receive the final FAFSA or PROFILE. Other colleges will make admissions decisions under early action but wait until later in the Spring to provide the financial aid award to the student.

A few colleges have a variation of early action known as restrictive early action. Under this plan of admission, the student may only apply early action to that one college and can not submit other applications until a decision has been made by the early action college. Yale and Stanford are two well known colleges that use a restrictive single choice early action.

Regular decision is the application process that is followed by all students not applying early. There are two basic forms of regular decision. Some colleges, primarily public colleges, use a process called rolling decisions. Under rolling decisions a student applies at any time in their senior year and the college makes admissions decision generally 6 to 8 weeks after receiving the application. Many colleges have priority deadlines which mean that all students that apply before the deadline will be treated the same in admissions but those students applying after the deadline will have to have a much stronger application to gain admission.

The other type of regular decision is practiced by colleges that have a set date by which all applications must be submitted. This is often in early to middle January of the senior year. These colleges will then make admissions decision by April 1 of the senior year and students will have until May 1 to make the decision on where to apply.