By this time each fall, the typical college-bound senior is weighing the various application alternatives popularly served up on college admissions menus. Basically, there are three choices: Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision (RD).
Under the terms of most binding Early Decision programs, applicants relinquish all rights to consider offers from other colleges in exchange for the possible privilege of being admitted early—typically before the first of the year. Once the ED contract is signed, you’re committed.
Although a few “boutique” ED options, cleverly labeled “non-binding” ED*, have appeared at a couple of schools (check out Furman University and the Stevens Institute of Technology), Early Decision is the least flexible of the three application alternatives because it locks you in and provides no opportunity to compare financial aid packages.
You may also run into colleges experimenting with ways to make the “binding” part of the decision more palatable by offering multiple ED dates. Regardless of the timing, this is not a road to travel unless you’re awfully sure of yourself and your financial situation.
Unlike Early Decision, both Early Action and Regular Decision are non-binding processes, which allow applicants to choose from among all colleges to which they are admitted. With acceptance letter in hand, you are free to compare financial aid packages—even negotiate a little. And as an added bonus, you can wait all the way until May 1st to decide.
Because EA decisions are generally rendered some time before winter break and high school students are notoriously enthusiastic about celebrating the holidays, most applicants find the EA option very attractive.
But EA isn’t the best strategy for all students. Generally, you should consider an early application if you are comfortable with the grades you have earned so far in high school and if you have already taken the ACT or the SAT and don’t plan to retake either test any later than October. You also need to be organized enough to get the paperwork completed and arrange for recommendations early in the school year.
Note that a few colleges like Georgetown, Stanford and Yale have set up “single choice” or “restrictive” EA options. This generally means that if you elect to apply early at these schools, you may not apply ED or EA to other colleges—but there are exceptions. In these situations, it’s wise to check the fine print before proceeding.
For some students, Regular Decision may be a better alternative. These would include those who are on the academic upswing a little later in their high school career and are waiting for seventh semester grades to be recorded or those who plan to take the SAT or ACT in November—either for the first time or for the opportunity to improve scores.
Most schools will concede that the early pool of candidates is generally “more competitive.” This is because these students largely got academics together early and could organize quickly. It doesn’t usually mean that the standard of admission is necessarily different from that used for RD candidates, although schools do tend to take a higher percent of the candidates from among the “earlies.”
According to the College Board, more than 400 schools offer at least one early application option. About 10 percent of these offer both EA and ED.
Local colleges offer a mixed bag of alternatives. American University, Johns Hopkins, William & Mary, and Virginia Tech fall into the binding Early Decision category. The University of Maryland, George Mason, UMW, JMU, Catholic, UMBC, and Loyola of Maryland are non-binding Early Action schools. George Washington, the University of Richmond, and Washington & Lee have ED I & II, while Hood and Howard offer both ED and EA. Georgetown is EA, with some restrictions, and the University of Virginia offers no early application programs—for this year at least.
*Binding only at the time of deposit.