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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

Early Action vs. Early Decision

Which one should you use to get the best results?

People ask me all the time if they should apply Early Action and Early Decision. It’s not surprising that so many people know about these options, but what is surprising is that so few people truly understand what each one is – and how to use each one to their advantage. This article will help explain the key attributes of both and help you make a more informed decision when it comes to choosing the best route for your kids’ college applications.

Early Action If you’re applying Early Action it means you are submitting your application for admission in the first rounds of the college’s admission application season. That season can begin as early as July 1st of your student’s senior year of high school. Some colleges will launch their applications in August and others go live in September, but regardless of the start date for the application, applying Early Action means you will be one of the first in line when the colleges are ready accept new students.

Early Action is usually advisable for everybody because the colleges have their entire freshman class wide open at that point. The college admission counselors are fresh off of their summer breaks and happy to be college admission counselors again. There are no deadlines to worry about and nobody behind the scenes at the college is burned out after reading 3,000 versions of the same essay answering the same old boring essay prompt (like they will be later for sure!).

Applying early shows the school you’re organized and ready to go, and it usually gives you an advantage with your planning because early applicants usually hear back on their admission decisions before everyone else. By applying early you’ll likely know if you’re in or not between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That could take a lot of the pressure off and put you in a good spot for scholarships and for financial aid too.

Speaking of scholarships… many of the scholarship deadlines are earlier than regular admission dates, so you will need to apply early to qualify for them. Honors College application deadlines are often before regular admission due dates too. If you’re interested in joining that part of the college’s community, being early will help you increase your chances of success there too.

The final benefit of applying early is the relief you get from submitting your final admission application in early fall vs. right before a deadline later in the year. There’s just something wonderful about being finished with this huge part of the process so soon. After all, if you’re going to have to do everything eventually, you might as well do it early so you can get it out of the way. The senior year won’t get any easier, so it pays to be organized and diligent with your college plans. Submit your applications early wherever you can and take advantage of everything you can to improve your results.

Early Decision Early Decision is almost exactly like Early Action but with one important exception. If you submit your application and elect to categorize it as “Early Decision,” the college knows you’re serious. So serious, in fact, that if they decide to accept you, you’ve basically committed yourself to attending that school. Early Decision applications are binding arrangements between you and that one particular college. If they accept you, you have to withdraw your applications from the other colleges where you applied and accept their offer of admission only.

That can be a little intimidating, but if you’ve done your homework and found that you can afford the cost associated with that school, net of any scholarships and financial aid awards you could receive, you may increase your chances of admission success by choosing Early Decision.

Some of the more elite colleges that only accept a very small percentage of applicants each year accept a multiple of Early Decision applicants. So, for instance, let’s say the college of your dreams only accepts 12% of applicants on average each year, but you find that they accept 35% of Early Decision applications on average each year. Statistically speaking, if you apply Early Decision, your chances of being accepted increase by almost 300%! Does it guarantee that you’ll get in by applying Early Decision? Of course not. But, if you didn’t get in by applying Early Decision, you wouldn’t have gotten in anyway.

Early Decision can give you advantages like nothing else in the application process can, but you have to also be careful. There are some restrictions associated with Early Decision that could create more of burden then benefit for you too.

One of those restrictions is actually called a restriction. You’ll often see it listed as “Restrictive Early Decision.” Colleges that use a restrictive early decision policy not only don’t allow you to apply Early Decision to any other colleges, they may also prevent you from applying early to any other college that is similar to them. For example, a private university may say that if you’re applying to them Early Decision, you can’t apply to any other private universities until they decide what they want to do with your application. That could leave you waiting until anywhere from December to March to find out if you’ve been accepted. And if you don’t make it in, you’re then left at a huge disadvantage to apply to any other similar universities. They will be past their early rounds at that point, and it’s likely that as much as 80% of their seats will be filled by then.

Most colleges that use Early Action and Early Decision book between 45% - 60% of their slots during these early rounds. And, by the time they get that far along in their application season, they have a pretty good idea of how competitive that year’s crop will be. If you applied Early Action back in August or September, and then someone with more skills and qualifications came along in November or December, do you think they will bump you off the list and replace you with the other person? No. They don’t. They’re simply looking to see how much space they have left when that second person’s application is received and trying to fill the remaining seats with the most qualified people possible. That’s another reason you want to apply early. It’s like booking a hotel or a flight early. Once you’re on board, you’re on – and they aren’t going to replace you with a higher paying customer later.

Another not so favorable feature of Early Decision is the lack of leverage you may have with financial aid. Since Early Decision offers are binding, you have to know that you’re going to be able to pay for college ahead of time. Research their financial aid policies and see what scholarships may be available BEFORE you apply Early Decision. If you see that you ultimately won’t be able to afford attending that school, they can let you out of the binding arrangement – but they certainly don’t have to! And even if they do, you’re still at a disadvantage from a timing standpoint because now it’s late in the season and the other colleges you were considering have already accepted the bulk of their students for next year. You’re coming in at the last minute and you’re probably a little (or a lot) disappointed to be there because things fell through with your dream school. That is not a recipe for success, so plan wisely and get help from a College Planning Specialist as you need it. This is something that’s too important to mess up!

Decisions, decisions Applying Early Action can give you a distinct advantage in the college application process. And Early Decision, if you’ve prepare for it properly, could be the difference in getting in and missing the boat with the #1 college on your list. Now you know about both, so use both as effective tools in your college planning tool box. They’ll help you get what you’re looking for faster and with better results. And who doesn’t want that, right?



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