4 Things to Know About College Early Action Programs

US News & World Report
By Ilana Kowarski
October 5, 2018

Fall application deadlines are a key feature of many early action programs, experts say.

Many high school students rush to complete their college applications, hoping to get accepted to a prestigious university. These ambitious students often feel anxious about the admissions process, and they want to find out – as soon as possible – whether they are admitted to a top-tier school.

Though some students may have a dream college in mind, others may be unsure which college they would like to attend, and they want the opportunity to compare admissions offers from multiple schools. For the latter group of students, an early decision program, which requires applicants to promise to attend a college if it admits them, may not be ideal. In contrast, an early action program that does not obligate applicants to attend a college if they are selected might be a better fit.

“Early Action offers more flexibility to students who still wish to receive a decision early in the process but who are not yet comfortable committing to one institution,” Michael Trivette, co-founder of College Transitions, an Atlanta-based admissions consulting firm, said via email.

Undergraduate early action programs were common among colleges that participated in the U.S. News 2019 Best Colleges rankings. Early action programs exist at many National Universities – schools that offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs and emphasize academic research. These programs are also offered at numerous National Liberal Arts Colleges – schools that emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of all degrees in liberal arts fields of study. Ninety-eight ranked National Universities and 104 ranked National Liberal Arts Colleges offer an early action program.

Before signing up for one of these programs, here are four features of early action programs that college admissions experts urge students to consider.

Early action programs vary widely. Some early action programs restrict participants from simultaneously applying early to other schools, while other early action programs allow students to apply early to rival institutions they are interested in.

Early action programs at some of the highest-ranked National Universities, including the No. 1 institution, Princeton University, have complex rules. At Princeton, which has a single-choice early action program, participants are banned from applying to an early action or early decision program at another private school, the school’s website states. However, Princeton early action candidates do have the option of applying early to any public school or service academy and any international institution, so long as the admissions decision would be nonbinding. These applicants may also apply to any college or university’s rolling admissions program, so long as the program does not obligate them to attend the school if it chooses them.

In contrast, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a non-restrictive early action program which does not place any limits on where else candidates may apply early, according to its website.

Jeff Schiffman, the director of admission at Tulane University, says that his university previously offered a restrictive early action program, but now offers a non-restrictive early action option in order to give college applicants more freedom. “Tulane had single-choice early action for a couple of years, and we ended up getting rid of it, because we thought it was actually more, more restrictive in some ways than early decision,” he says.

Schiffman says that early decision programs generally allow students to apply early to other schools, so long as those programs are not binding, but that single-choice early action programs typically prevent students from participating in other early admissions programs. The policies governing some restrictive early action programs are so intricate that students may need to seek clarification of these policies either by consulting their high school guidance counselors or by contacting college admissions officers, he says.

Only stellar students should consider single-choice early action programs at top National Universities. Christine Chu, a college admissions counselor at the admissions consulting company IvyWise, says students should exercise caution before applying to a single-choice early action program at a top-ranked National University.

“I don’t normally advise students to apply to a Single-Choice or Restrictive Early Action program at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford because these are the most restrictive early programs… Because these four schools have the lowest acceptance rates and receive the most competitive applications from across the world, only students who are at the top of their class (really the number one or two students), who have the test scores at or above the 75th percentile mark of the admitted students profile, and who have extraordinary extracurricular profiles should seriously consider them,” Chu wrote via email.

Students can opt out of early decision if their financial circumstances make it impossible for them to attend, experts say.

At some schools, there is no competitive advantage to applying early action. “The biggest misconception about early action is that there is a benefit to it like there is to early decision… In my experience, early action has not necessarily been an advantage to a student,” says Karen Pellegrino, vice president for enrollment management at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Yet, there are certain schools where applying early action may confer an admissions advantage, Pellegrino says. However, she cautions applicants to keep in mind that even if a college does prefer early action applicants as opposed to regular decision applicants, the typical applicant in the early action applicant pool will generally have solid credentials. “They are students who feel good about their record from their first three years of high school, they feel confident in their testing, and they also are students who tend to be organized and proactive and who can get everything together by that Nov. 1 deadline,” she says.

If students are comparing a school’s early acceptance to its regular acceptance rate, they should account for the fact that recruited students tend to participate in early admissions programs, which can artificially inflate the early acceptance rate, experts say.

Though college early acceptance rates are typically higher than regular acceptance rates, “for the students that are not recruited athletes, these statistics may not give the student the boost that the student thinks since recruited athletes take up a good portion of early action and early decision pools,” Terry Mady-Grove, an independent admissions consultant with Charted University Consultants, LLC, wrote in an email. “Another factor to consider when applying early action as opposed to early decision is whether the college offers both, which some do. If the college offers both application plans, it stands to reason that the college will favor an early decision application.”

Early action application deadlines are typically set around Nov. 1. Anyone interested in an early action program should have their application materials ready by early fall, Chu says. “I have worked with many students over the years and that additional month to two months between early and regular deadlines is quite significant for students preparing their applications.”