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Early Decision, Early Action and More: Pros and Cons of Application Deadlines

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

The application process seems to get more complicated with each passing semester, particularly in the realm of application deadlines. Schools may think adding more options make the application process more student-friendly, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the options, you’re not alone. Here you can learn about the different types of admission deadlines and the pros and cons of each.

Early Decision (Binding)

If you have your heart set on a first choice college, you have the option of showing your interested and commitment by applying early decision. Students must turn in their applications earlier than regular admission requires – usually by October or November of their senior year – but can expect to hear from schools they’ve applied to by December. Early decision is a binding action. If you’re accepted, you must attend the school and withdraw all other college applications. You can only apply early decision to one school, but you can apply to other schools as long as it’s as a regular admission. Some colleges also offer Early Decision II. If you didn’t get into your first choice college, you can apply to your second choice school as EDII and receive the same pros and cons as Early Decision I.

Pros

Early decision is best suited for students with a strong academic record, high test scores, and who meet or exceed the academic requirements for their first choice college. Getting accepted early relieves the pressure of waiting to hear on decisions, and allows students to avoid paying additional application fees. And if you aren’t accepted, you have more time than you would otherwise to reassess and apply elsewhere.

Cons

Early decision is binding. Only apply if you know 100% that you want to go to this college. It’s also not advised for students seeking financial aid to apply early decision, since you won’t be able to compare aid packages from other schools you may have been accepted into. Students who are accepted early decision might feel that they can coast through the rest of their senior year. Don’t fall pretty to “senioritis” – early decision schools can rescind your application if they see your grades slipping.

Early Action (Non-Binding)

If you have multiple colleges on your list that you think you’d fit in great at, early action is an option to get your application in sooner rather than later. Early action often shares a deadline with early decision, but unlike early decision it is non-binding – meaning that if you are accepted, you still get the chance to decide whether or not you’ll go. Students who apply early action typically hear back a little later than early decision, often in January or February.

Early Action vs Early Decision

How do early action and early decision stack up against each other? Both require you to finish your application earlier than regular admissions. Applying early can give you a slight advantage – some schools reward the commitment you show to them by upping your chances of getting in. And both give you the chance to finalize your college choice sooner in your senior year, which can be a huge weight off your shoulders.

As for differences, only early decision is binding. Early action allows you to go to any school that accepts you, while early decision limits you to just the school you decide to apply to. Early decision and early action also differ in deadlines to accept. Usually, if you’re accepted early decision, you have to commit then and there. But if you’re accepted early action, you can wait until May 1st – the regular college acceptance deadline – to accept. This gives you time to apply during regular admissions, even if you were accepted into a college during early action.

If you don’t have a first choice college that you’re dead-set on, and you could use the time before regular admissions are due to up your grades and improve your test scores, it might be best to forego both options and apply later.

Regular Admissions

Most students will apply to schools through regular admissions. You can apply to as many schools as you like, and with application deadlines set for later in the school year, you’ll have more time to work on applications, test scores and senior year grades. Schools typically deliver acceptances in the spring of your senior year, and you’ll have until May 1st to accept.

Pros

Regular admissions do not put a limit on how many schools you can apply to or hear back from. Students unsure of where they want to go can weigh all their options and make a well-rounded decision. Regular admissions are a great option for students deciding on colleges based on financial aid offers. You’ll be able to compare aid packages from all the schools you’re accepted into and make an informed decision.

Cons

You won’t hear back from schools until the spring. It can be hard to sit through, especially if your friends were accepted early, but the trade-off of higher financial aid and reduced student loans can be worth it.

Rolling Admissions

What if there was just one admissions period? Colleges that employ rolling admissions have a large window of time where students can send in applications. Send it in, and a few weeks later the school will let you know if you were accepted. Rolling admissions operate on a first come, first serve principle. The typical length of a rolling admissions period is six months, and you can submit it anytime during the window – so if you submit your application in August, you could hear back before even early decision!

Pros

The ability to apply any time and hear back quickly is a plus. For some students, a flexible deadline is easier to manage than one set in stone. And if you’re not accepted early on, you have plenty of time to meet other deadlines.

Cons

Because schools accept students as they apply, it could be that spaces fill up before your application gets a chance to be seen. Students who want to apply as soon as rolling admissions open will need to already have achieved their desired SAT or ACT scores and gathered their letters of recommendation. You’ll need to prepare these ahead of both early and regular admission periods or risk sending in your application too late.

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Last Reviewed: April 2020