Applying to college is a long process that involves so many elements. Are you taking the right courses? Are you involved in enough extracurricular activities? How can you get the best recommendation letter? How do you craft an essay that lets colleges know who you are and what you care about? With so many things going on at once, it’s hard to believe that you would want to speed up the process to get everything done months ahead of time. However, a growing trend among students is applying to colleges under an early admission plan. Even with so many students choosing to do this, it is important to understand the different early admission plans and whether or not any of them are the right option for you.
What is Early Admission?
More and more early admission plans have been popping up, but there are three options that are the most common; Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA) and Restrictive Early Action (REA). All three plans typically have application deadlines in early November, and acceptance decisions reach students sometime in December. However, there are important differences between them as well.
ED is binding, meaning if you apply to a school ED, you agree to attend that school and withdraw all other applications if accepted. EA is similar, except it is not binding. If you are accepted to a school, you can choose to commit immediately or wait until the spring to make a decision at the Regular Admission decision deadline. Unlike ED, you can apply EA to more than one school. REA is the same as EA except you may be restricted from applying ED, EA or REA to other institutions. College Board’s College Search is a great resource for finding out which schools offer which early admission options.
Download NACAC's poster describing the definitions of admission options in higher education.
The Effect of the Early Admission Trend
While it is still not the dominant admission trend, colleges and universities are seeing a definite growth in the number of early admission applications they are receiving. Why are so many more students choosing to do this?
It could be that they are feeling the pressure to apply early, thinking that it will better their chances of getting accepted, but it is important to recognize the level of “competition” during the early pool. Students see higher early acceptance rates as compared to the school’s regular acceptance rates and think that it makes sense to apply early. The reality, though, is that often the students who are in the early pool are extremely talented—one of the reasons that colleges want to snap them up. Students are up against some of the best and brightest in the early pool. And even if data tends to show colleges will accept a higher percentage of applicants applying under an early admission plan than during regular admission, this should not be the reason to choose to apply early. In her blog post about ED, Janet Rosier, an independent college admission consultant, says “I don’t think that Early Decision is a bad policy and for some students it is a great choice. But clearly, it is not right for everyone and the new figures are going to make a lot of students feel pressured to use as Early Decision card. Somewhere. Anywhere.”
Though tempting, students should not apply ED or under any other early admission plan just because they are convinced they’ll have a better shot at being accepted. “I just don’t buy the idea that applying under an early plan is mandatory for every single senior,” says Sue Biemeret, postsecondary counselor at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in another early admission blog post. “Applying Early Decision isn’t a trump card that the strategic senior plays in order to win the hand.”
Is Early Admission the Right Choice for You?
ED is the right decision only if you are applying to the college that is right for you, the one that you would choose to attend no matter what. And even if you are applying ED, be sure to keep up with your Regular Admission applications as a backup, so you won’t risk becoming overwhelmed right before those deadlines.
For students seeking financial aid, applying ED is not a good idea because this would eliminate your chances to compare financial aid packages and opportunities of different schools. If weighing offers is what you are really planning to do, then don’t risk being bound to a school with ED.
Applying EA is a great way to get applications turned in early, and still keep your options open in the spring. Another benefit of EA is that by receiving acceptance decisions from schools, you can get a good idea of where you stand in terms of acceptance into similar schools, which can help as you apply Regular Admission. However, you shouldn’t apply early at all if you need to show more of your senior year work to colleges to help your chances.
The college application process comes with enough pressure as it is. Completing college applications requires a large amount of work, so be aware that between the research, writing and follow up, applying to college can be the equivalent to taking an additional course. Doing it early means more work in a shorter period of time, which can impact course work and other activities. While applying early can be beneficial, it should not be a reason to rush into a decision. Talk to your parents and counselor, research colleges and their application options and choose the admission plan that is the best fit for you.