Should You Apply Early Decision? Early Decision Plans Explained

As you’re researching schools on your college list, you may come across unfamiliar terms, such as Early Decision, Early Action, and Single–Choice Early Action, among others. These are application options that differ based on the deadline, response date, and your commitment to attend the school, if accepted. Deciding which path to take involves research into school policies, not to mention preparation! Students who are considering applying early should understand the differences among plans, the potential outcomes, and the choices that students can make. You should only apply early if you’re ready. Being ready means you have visited and researched your school(s) extensively, your grades through junior year are indicative of who you are as a student, you have taken all necessary standardized tests (and do not plan to retake them), and you have completed all application components, including essays. We have compiled a quick list of the different application options; be sure to find out which ones your schools offer:

Regular Decision (RD): Regular Decision is one of the most common application options. Application deadlines vary from November 30 through March 15—however, most selective schools’ applications are due January 1, 15, or February 15. The college notifies all students of their admissions decisions at once, usually around April 1. If accepted, you must notify the school by May 1 of your intent to enroll or decline. Regular Decision acceptances are non–binding, which means you can choose to enroll in that school or another school that has accepted you.

The Good News: You can apply to as many schools as you want under Regular Decision. You have plenty of time to prepare your applications for Regular Decision deadlines. This option is great for students seeking financial aid as they can wait to receive aid offers from all of their schools and make a decision based on the best offers.

However: The pool of students is larger; therefore, acceptance rates can be lower.

Early Decision (ED): This application filing is for students who have identified a college as a definite first choice. We encourage students to apply early decision only if they are ready and if they will enroll if accepted. If a student is accepted under ED, he or she must withdraw all applications to other schools and he or she is committed to attending that school. You may only apply to one school ED. Dr. Kat says the student is “essentially telling the college that it is your first choice; and you may be rewarded by a higher admit rate during this period.”

The application and all supporting documents must be submitted early in November, usually between November 1 and 15 of your senior year. Applicants usually find out about ED decisions in December. If you are deferred, your application will be held and considered with the Regular Decision applicants. Because of the early application deadlines, this means junior year grades are extremely important for ED applicants. However, first semester senior grades are often submitted later on as well. Watch out; don’t start slacking off second semester senior year, as schools can rescind their offers!

Some universities provide two ED dates; the second date is for students who are sure about the school being their first choice, but aren’t ready to apply by the November deadline. This is often called ED 2 and these deadlines are usually closer to the RD deadline. Bowdoin College, Swarthmore College, Oberlin College, and Pomona College are some example of schools that offer the ED 2 option.

The Good News: ED applicants can increase their chances of admission by anywhere from 20–70%, depending on the school. For instance, students applying ED to Columbia in the 2008–2009 application season increased their chances of getting in by 20 percentage points over Regular Decision rates. Early Decision had a 37% admission rate, while Regular Decision applicants had a 17% admissions rate. But, much of that boost in admission rate has to do with more recruited athletes in the early pool, as they are encouraged to apply early. They are likely to be admitted. So, those inflated admissions rates may not apply in the same way to a regular applicant.

However: Applying Early Decision is very limiting. Because the decision is binding, students must know they definitely want to attend the school and will do so if admitted. ED applicants must be ready to apply early in November, if not the first of the month. If you are looking for the best financial aid offer, ED is not the plan for you. You do not have the flexibility to compare financial aid packages and must accept the financial aid offered by the ED school.

Early Action (EA): EA is similar to ED but you are not required to attend the school if accepted. This option is great for students who have decided their EA school is one of their top choice schools (if not their number one), and they are ready to apply, but do not want to be obligated to attend the school if accepted. EA applicants receive acceptance decisions in December, like ED applicants. You can apply to more than one EA school, even if you are also applying ED to another university. Some schools with EA plans include Cal Tech, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and MIT.

The Good News: Like ED, you should apply EA if you are scholastically ready and have all your materials in order. You should apply if you don’t want to be bound by ED decisions, but still want the benefits of a slightly higher admissions rate.

However: If you are not ready to apply early, don’t scramble to get everything prepared.

Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) or Restricted Early Action: SCEA is similar to EA in that you are not bound to attend if accepted. However, with the SCEA restriction, you cannot apply early to any other school, be it EA or ED, until you have heard back from your SCEA school. After you receive the school’s decision of acceptance, deferral, or denial, you may apply to other schools. This is a good option for a student who is ready to apply to a school they really like but don’t necessarily want to be bound by the decision of the school. However, be sure you do not want to apply early elsewhere, as you will not be able to do so. Be sure to check if your school is SCEA. Both Stanford and Yale have SCEA plans.

The Good News: Apply to this school if you know you want to attend the school and have all your documents ready. You have a slightly higher chance of admittance but are not bound to the admissions decision.

However: You cannot apply EA or ED to other schools on your list until you hear from the school. This means when you apply SCEA, you can simultaneously apply Regular Decision, and Rolling Admission (see below) to schools. Once you hear back from your SCEA school you can apply to an ED 2 school.

Rolling Admissions (RA): Once the RA school receives your completed file, they act on your application. The college generally notifies the applicant with an admissions decision within several weeks of receiving the application. Deadlines for RA schools are usually not until May 1. However, it is best to send in your application as early as possible — in September or October of senior year — as RA schools continue to accept students until they reach their enrollment capacity. Beloit College, The University of New Haven, and Michigan State University all use rolling admissions.

The Good News: You have a better chance of admission if you are on top of your application and submit it early in the school year.

However: If you are not ready to apply in September or October, your chances of getting in may lessen as time passes. Space in the incoming class is available on a first come, first served basis.

When applying early, it is crucial to have a plan. IvyWise counselors help students craft a strategy to determine which application options they will use for each of the schools on their list. You should prioritize completing your standardized tests and finishing your essays based on those deadlines. You can find out your schools’ deadlines by visiting the schools’ websites and going to the admissions page. For instance, in order to apply for admission at MIT, you should take the required tests on or before the November test date for Early Action and on or before the January test date for Regular Decision applicants. Applying early takes preparation and demands a lot of you, on top of your course work and extra–curricular activities. You should be sure you want to apply early and have a strategic action plan before sending in any applications!

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