The Rules of the Game: Early Action and Early Decision

What high school senior would not like to know where she is going to college well before her peers do?

Both Early Decision and Early Action--admissions policies that allow students to apply months before regular admissions deadlines--can be good options for well-prepared high school seniors who know what they want in a college. These early options offer students the opportunity to get a jump on the college admissions process.

Both offer obvious advantages to a promising student: the security of knowing where she is headed before most of her fellow students and friends have applied; the ability to plan for the future with some degree of certainty; and, most importantly, an admissions advantage at a school that may be a stretch since many colleges have higher admissions rates for early applicants.

There are some important differences between the two options:

Early Decision is a binding agreement. The student must attend the college if accepted and withdraw all other applications. The deadline is usually November 1 or 15 and students are notified that they have been accepted, rejected or deferred by mid-December. Click here for a list of colleges and universities with Early Decision plans.

Early Action is a non-binding agreement. The student may apply to several schools through this process and then choose among them. Deadlines and notifications are usually around the same time as Early Decision ones. Click here for a list of colleges and universities with Early Action plans.

For a student who has identified a strong first choice, Early Action is a welcome relief to have the decision made ahead of time, but it does not give an edge in admissions.

Early Decision at most colleges, in contrast, gives applicants an advantage. Many colleges admit half of their class through Early Decision. For a borderline applicant, this can be a great way to improve her odds for admission by showing her devotion to the particular college. In some cases admissions rates are two or three times higher for students who apply early.

There are other compelling reasons to seriously consider applying Early Decision.

Research by Professor Christopher Avery of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that an Early Decision application can make a big difference in the competitive application process--tantamount to scoring 100 extra points on the SAT.

A disadvantage of applying Early Decision is that since accepted students are committed to attending, they are less likely to receive merit aid and will not be able to compare financial aid packages.

Planning for college takes careful thought and organization, whether a student decides to go the Early Action or Early Decision or some other route. It is a decision that requires careful consideration by students with the support and assistance of their parents and others who can provide helpful information and advice along the way.

Understanding the process makes this often-stressful time go more smoothly and helps ensure a satisfying result.