Early Decision, Early Action and… everything in between

Colleges and universities offer different types of ways to apply that are more… or less… stringent. Each policy has advantages and disadvantages both for students and for the institution itself. Hopefully, we can lift some of the mystery that typically lingers around this time of the year, when students and their parents wonder about what the best application strategy is.

Because we tend to understand things better with visual representations, let’s start with an illustration of the different types of application policies arranged on a continuum.

At the top of the axis there is Rolling Admission, which is the most flexible of all types of policies. Rolling Admission gives students the freedom to submit their applications anytime until either a given (usually late) deadline date or until there are no more spots available. The benefits for students are evident: the biggest one being that they can take all the time they need to craft their applications, and can also wait until they’ve heard from other top choice schools first, before making the decision to apply. From the university’s perspective, this method is also very advantageous. Applications flow in through a longer time span, sparing the admissions committees from being inundated with applications all at once. Warning, however: Flexible application policies do not automatically equate to less demanding evaluative criteria! Quite the opposite! If anything, admission officers assume you’ve had more time with your application, and also have more time to devote to it — and, as a consequence, the bar might be set higher. Not only that, but the later you apply in a rolling process, the fewer spots are left for which you will have to compete. It goes without saying that not all — or even many — schools offer Rolling Admission.

Now, let’s jump to the complete opposite end of the spectrum (i.e. at the bottom of the vertical axis above), where we find the strictest and most limiting of all application methods: Early Decision. There is an unspoken message you are sending to the school when you apply ED. You are telling them that their specific institution is at the very top of your list. In addition to that, Early Decision means less competition (since most students have either not made up their mind on their top school by that time or alternatively, have chosen to give their ED “engagement ring” to a different school) and getting a result sooner rather than later (usually in about 6 weeks from the time you apply). Last but not least, there is a tacit tendency to evaluate Early Decision candidates more favorably, although schools will never openly admit that. But guess what, who doesn’t like to be flattered by a commitment that says “YOU ARE THE ONE FOR ME!”? But don’t commit lightly, because if you are accepted Early Decision, you have to withdraw or withhold all other applications. Because Early Decision is binding. You are bound to go to that school IF you are accepted. A drawback: you won’t be able to assess other financial aid packages. For the school itself, it is advantageous to pick a healthy pool of applicants from the ED pool because those are students they can’t count on as enrollees. And the more enrollees they see, the higher their “yield rate” (the percentage of students who enroll after being accepted).

Let’s now consider the other types of policies on the spectrum. Regular Admission is basically identical to Rolling Admission minus the flexible deadline. Through Regular Admission, the college sets an application deadline, usually in January, and students are notified around May.

It’s in the central part of the spectrum that things start getting a little more complicated, namely with Early Action, and Restrictive or Single Choice Early action.

Unlike Early Decision, Early Action is non-binding. With Early Action, you have the enormous advantage of applying early and knowing the outcome relatively earlier, but you are not obliged to go to that specific school if you were to be accepted. In most cases, you have until May 1st to confirm the enrollment and to look around for other options.

The Single Choice Early Action, also known as Restrictive Early Action is, in probably the one that generates the most confusion in our experience. Let’s start by saying that it concerns the smallest pool of schools, namely Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Mit. With this policy, you can apply ONLY to an early action institution and you cannot apply anywhere else with Early Decision. You are not bound though, unlike with Early Decision and that is why Single Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action is still less stringent than Early Decision proper.

To conclude, we hope that this post has dissipated a bit of confusion and anxiety that comes with so many school policies. We hope to have equipped you with the basic knowledge necessary to decide the best course of action. This blog entry is not meant to be exhaustive and include all the possible advantages and disadvantages of each policy. We still encourage you carefully check the official webpage of each college you are contemplating and read their admission guidelines carefully.