For most, the senior year of high school means a countdown to college. Many seniors apply to college through the standard application and decision process, with applications typically submitted by the end of January, and with decisions required by May 1, also known as National College Decision Day.
However, some students may instead choose to apply through either the early action or early decision application processes. Both early action and early decision mechanisms are similar. However, students considering these options need to understand how they differ, how and if to choose each application path, and what to expect at application time.
What is Early Action?
The early action process allows students to apply to colleges or universities by early November of their senior year of high school. Students can apply to multiple colleges under an early action application plan. No early action rules or requirements state that students must attend the schools that accept them, and students do not need to notify the schools about their enrollment decision until May 1.
If a school does not accept a student's application during the early action process, the application moves into the college's regular decision pool for later consideration.
Students should note that some schools follow a restrictive early action plan. For restrictive early action schools, students must sign a statement that they agree to submit only one early application. This signals the student's interest in the school and can increase their chances of acceptance. Otherwise, the restrictive early action follows the same rules and timelines as early action applications.
What is Early Decision?
The early decision application process also follows an early November application deadline. However, early decision differs from early action in that these applications are binding. In other words, if the targeted college or university accepts the student for admission, the student, in turn, must attend that particular school. He or she cannot apply to other colleges or universities or entertain acceptance from them.
Additionally, under the early decision process, students may not apply to more than one school at a time. In fact, students must withdraw applications from other institutions while an early decision application is under consideration.
Finally, students applying through the early decision process are either accepted, rejected, or deferred. Those rejected cannot apply to the targeted college or university again until the following year. A deferred response means the school may reconsider the application during the regular application period.
Should I Choose Early Action or Early Decision?
Students often like the flexibility the early action application process offers, as it provides more time to read about schools and compare financial aid packages before deciding where to enroll. Also, learning about a deferred application during the early action process provides students with an opportunity to contact the school, update their application, and hopefully boost their odds of acceptance during the regular decision period.
However, the earlier application deadlines involved with both early action and early decision applications mean students with low test scores and GPAs do not have as much time to improve them before submitting their applications. Whereas students applying by the regular application deadline can use the fall semester of their senior year to improve their grades and scores, strengthening their applications.
Students also need to fully understand the binding nature of the early decision application before choosing to pursue that option. If the college accepts the application, that student must enroll in that school. Students with their hearts set on a specific college or university will not mind this. In fact, admission odds are better through the early decision process, as colleges push to maximize their acceptance rates earlier. However, students looking for more flexibility in the application process should opt for either the early action or regular application paths.
What to Know While Applying for Early Action and Early Decision
Much like the regular application process, early action and early decision application processes require SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and personal essays. However, both follow different timelines and deadlines that students need to keep in mind.
- College Admission Tests
- Students must have their SAT or ACT scores in hand by the fall of their senior year. To ensure scores arrive in time, early action and early decision students should take the tests during the spring of their sophomore year. This allows time for students to take the tests again in the fall and spring of their junior year if needed.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Early action and early decision applicants should collect all recommendation letters by October 1 of their senior year. Juniors may even want to ask their teachers for recommendations at the end of that year, which gives them the whole summer to work on the letters.
- Application Essays
- Students should spend the summer before their senior year working on these important application essays to ensure thoughtful, well-written pieces.
- Notice of Application Status
- Most students receive notice of their early action and early decision application status between December 15 and late January of their senior year.