In the endlessly complicated alphabet soup that is American university admissions, there are three acronyms that every prospective applicant needs to be familiar with as they lay out their application strategy: ED (Early Decision), EA (Early Action), and RD (Regular Decision). What do each of these phrases mean, what are their ramifications for applicants to US universities, and what are the benefits of a student applying early to a university?
Of these three admission processes, Early Decision is perhaps the most notorious. When a student opts to apply Early Decision to a university, they are indicating to the school that it is their absolute top choice. If the student is eventually accepted, then they are contractually obligated to withdraw all of their other applications and attend that university. For this reason, a student is allowed to apply Early Decision to one university only.
Why would a student want to apply Early Decision to a university and willingly restrict their options? For starters, because of the level of commitment that the Early Decision admissions process requires, acceptance rates for Early Decision applicants are nearly always higher than acceptance rates for Early Action or Regular Decision candidates. In some cases, the discrepancy between the acceptance rate for an Early Decision applicant versus a Regular Decision can be dramatic: Amherst College, consistently regarded to be among the best liberal arts colleges in the country, saw its Regular Decision acceptance rate of 12% increase to 40% for Early Decision applicants in the 2016-2017 application cycle. The acceptance rate gap at American University in Washington, D.C., was even more extreme, rising from 23% in Regular Decision to a staggering 85% in Early Decision.
This is at least partially explained by the fact that many universities are choosing to fill larger percentages of their incoming classes with Early Decision applicants. Claremont McKenna College in California, notably a member of the Claremont Colleges Consortium, filled 68% of its incoming class with Early Decision applicants in 2017, while Early Decision applicants also made up 54% of the University of Pennsylvania’s class. As universities continue to give higher preference to Early Decision applicants, it will only become more difficult for students to be accepted from the more sizeable Regular Decision applicant pools.
Another compelling feature of applying Early Decision is that ED applicants receive their results in mid-December, and are thus spared the months-long wait that Regular Decision applicants have to endure until their results are released in March and April. Keep in mind that not all universities will offer the Early Decision option to prospective students; some will have only Early Action and Regular Decision options.
It should also be noted that an increasing number of universities, including such top schools as New York University, Tufts University, and Wellesley College, are offering an option known as Early Decision 2 (ED2). For students who have been rejected from their first Early Decision choice, Early Decision 2 offers them the opportunity to apply to another university Early Decision. While the normal Early Decision application deadline is typically November 1 (with some exceptions), the typical Early Decision 2 application deadline falls around January 1 (much like Regular Decision deadlines), and students will hear back from their Early Decision 2 universities in mid-February.
With these and many other factors in mind, whether or not to apply Early Decision (and then, furthermore, where to apply Early Decision) is one of the weightiest choices that a student has to make during the application process. For students who have a dream university that they would not turn down for any other institution, Early Decision is a fantastic option that allows them to bolster their chances at a school that may lie just beyond their academic reach.
As its name suggests, the Early Action application process holds much in common with the Early Decision process. Like Early Decision, nearly all Early Action applications are due by November 1. Early Action results are also released in mid-December, and not all universities offer Early Action. However, Early Action stands apart from Early Decision in one significant regard: while Early Decision is a binding agreement between a student and a university, Early Action is not. A student who is accepted to a university Early Action is not obligated to attend, and thus can theoretically apply Early Action to as many schools as she pleases. There are some notable exceptions to this; a handful of universities, including Stanford, Yale, and others, have implemented a plan known as Restrictive Early Action (REA), which prohibits students from applying Early Action and/or Early Decision to any other universities.
For students who do not feel comfortable fully committing themselves to one university, Early Action is a prime opportunity to get a headstart in the application process and, in the event of an acceptance or acceptances, enjoy peace of mind for a greater part of the school year. While the admissions statistics for Early Action applicants versus Regular Decision applicants are not tracked as closely as Early Decision, it is still undeniable that applying Early Action can only positively impact a student’s chance of acceptance, particularly if they are not waiting on a late standardized test score or Grade 12/Year 13 report card to buoy their academic profile. The Early Action applicant pool will almost certainly be smaller than the Regular Decision applicant pool, and that will benefit these standout students.
Regular Decision is the application plan through which most applications are submitted. While there can be some fairly dramatic fluctuations among different universities’ Regular Decision deadlines, most fall on or around January 1, with the results generally being released in March or early April.
Naturally, Regular Decision is the largest and most competitive applicant pool, and it offers none of the perks of Early Action or Early Decision beyond affording a later application deadline. Thus, prospective applicants should look to take advantage of these early application processes as much as possible in order to maximize their rewards. Even a small amount of preparation and forethought can go a long way toward making the college application journey less stressful and more successful.
Paul Stock is an educational consultant and a graduate of Tufts University