Everything you and your child need to know to make the right choice
Part 1: Introduction
The start of college application season brings with it a lot of stress and tons of major questions, including:
How many reach, target, and safety schools should your child include on their college list?
How many schools should your child apply to in total?
And so on.
Another one of these massively important questions—and associated decisions—is whether your child should apply to college through early action and early decision programs.
Before we discuss how your child approach this decision, let’s put early action and early decision head to head across four categories:
Deadlines and decision dates
Obligation to attend
Part 2: Deadlines and Decision Dates
Early action programs allow your child to apply to colleges by an early deadline—most commonly November 1 or November 15—and receive admissions decisions sometime in December or January, way before regular decision applicants.
Similarly, early decision programs allow your child to apply to college early—also usually in November—and receive an admission decision before regular decision applicants.
Both early action and early decision offer the potential for your child to complete their college application process ahead of time—even before the holidays (!)—and put an end to the associated stress.
However, if your child’s ACT/SAT score or GPA do not meet or exceed the admissions profile for colleges on their early action and early decision list, it would make sense for them to hold off on applying early. Instead, they should devote more attention to improving their test scores and grades. That way, your child can apply via regular decision with their best foot forward.
Part 3: Obligation to Attend
Early action decisions are nonbinding, meaning your child will not be obligated to enroll in the school(s) they’re accepted to. Therefore, your child can apply to as many schools early action as they would like.
On the other hand, early decision programs are binding, meaning your child will be obligated to attend the school they’re accepted to as long as the financial aid package is considered adequate by your family (more on this in the “Financial aid” section below). Because of early decision’s binding nature, students are allowed to only apply to one school early decision.
Your child may simultaneously apply to early decision and early action programs. However, if they get into the early decision program, they’ll have to withdraw all other applications.
(Note: A few colleges offer single-choice early action programs, which operate the same way as early action programs but do not allow your child to apply anywhere else via early action or early decision.)
Part 4: Admission Odds
Early action programs do not increase your child’s odds of getting into colleges. They simply allow your child to find out sooner whether or not they’ve gotten in. Moreover, if your child is not accepted early action, their application will likely get deferred to the regular decision pool and get evaluated once more. The third possible outcome is that your child’s application will be rejected outright.
Admission rates for early decision programs are somewhat higher than early action and regular decision programs. By applying early decision, your child will be demonstrating much-appreciated serious interest to their top-choice college. And because the decision is binding, the school will be protecting their yield rate (i.e., the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll there), which factors into college rankings.
(Note: Another possible reason for higher early decision admission rates is that early decision applicants may, on average, have stronger grades, standardized test scores, and overall applications relative to the regular decision pool.)
Part 5: Financial Aid
If your child is accepted to multiple schools via early action, your family will have the opportunity to compare financial aid packages and make the decision that fits your budget and goals.
Conversely, because early decision programs are binding, your child will not be able to choose among other schools that may have offered more financial aid and, consequently, a lower net cost.
Nevertheless, there is one well-known way to get released from the early decision bind. Specifically, if the net cost of the college is completely unaffordable for your family, you can ask the admissions committee to release your child from the obligation to attend there. Colleges are typically gracious about this.
However, financial aid should be considered when developing your child’s college list, not just after they’ve been admitted. To get an estimate of how much it will cost your family for your child to attend a particular college, your family should calculate Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and use Net Price Calculators (NPC).
Part 6: Pros and Cons
To summarize early action and early decision in a different way, I’ve created a list of pros and cons:
Nonbinding (i.e., not obligated to enroll)
Your child can receive admission decisions often by the end of December. Therefore, they may not have to complete additional applications with January deadlines and end the college application process early.
Pushes your child to frontload some of their work so they're not completely swamped later, including over the holidays.
Your child can apply to multiple colleges and make a decision on where to attend later.
Your child can compare and negotiate financial aid packages more flexibly.
Your child’s application can be deferred to the regular decision cycle if not accepted early.
Does not offer the same increased admission odds as early decision.
Does not allow your child the opportunity to raise their ACT/SAT scores and GPA during the Fall semester of their senior year.
Your child may benefit from increased admission odds due to colleges’ push to maximize their yield rates—the percentage of admitted students who then choose to attend their school—because it increases their rankings.
If accepted, your child will know early where they'll be attending.
Pushes your child to begin working on their college applications earlier because they'll have to put in their best effort to get into their top-choice school.
Your child’s application can be deferred to the regular decision pool if not accepted early.
Binding (i.e., obligated to enroll)
Does not allow your child to choose among other schools that may have offered more financial aid and, therefore, a lower net cost.
Your child will have to apply with the ACT/SAT scores and GPA they have achieved up to that point.
Part 7: What Your Child Should Do
Your child should apply early action (EA) and/or early decision (ED) if they have:
Thoroughly researched colleges—academically, socially, geographically, and financially. [EA/ED]
Confidently identified a top-choice college that will meet their educational and experiential goals. [ED]
Achieved the requisite grades and ACT/SAT scores for the schools on their list. [EA/ED]
On the other hand, your child should not apply early action (EA) and/or early decision (ED) if they:
Are unsure whether the colleges on their list are a strong match—academically, socially, geographically, and financially. [EA/ED]
Have not confidently identified their first-choice school. [ED]
Do not yet have the requisite grades and test scores for the schools on their list. [EA/ED]
Are applying early just to get the process over with or because their friends are doing it. [EA/ED]
Applying early action and early decision offers your child several potential advantages vs. applying exclusively through regular decision, such as reduced stress and time spent working on college applications, knowing where they’ll be attending ahead of time, and preparing for college (e.g., finding housing).
On the other hand, applying early has some potential disadvantages, including reduced financial aid opportunities, pressure to decide where to attend, and creating a time crunch with regular decision applications, which are typically due shortly after early admission decisions are released.
As with every other aspect of the college admissions process, the decision of whether or not to apply early depends on your child’s specific background and goals, as well as what their schools of interest offer. Therefore, I encourage your family to thoroughly research every school on your child’s college list before applying to avoid regrets later.