Early action (EA) and early decision (ED) plans can benefit students.

However, only to those students who have considered their college options carefully and have a clear preference in mind.

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What are the pros and cons of applying early?

Parents, teachers, and students should use this information to ensure they know all the required steps for applying early.

Early decision vs. early action

There are differences between early action and early decision, and counselors must ensure that their students understand the fundamental differences.

  • Nonbinding early action plans: students will receive an early response to their application but will not need to commit to the college until the general reply date of May 1st.
  • Binding early decision plans: if the student is accepted as an ED applicant, they must attend that college and no other.

More than 400 colleges have early action or early decision plans; in some cases, they have both. A non-binding option known as single=choice early action is available in some colleges. In this case, applicants may not apply for EA or ED at any other college.

On many occasions, the ED plan has come under fire as unfair to students from families with low incomes. This is because they don’t have the chance to compare financial aid offers. This, in turn, could give an unfair advantage to those applications from families with more financial resources at their aid.

Let’s consider the process and fundamentals of each program:

ED applicants

  • You apply early (typically in November) to the first-choice college.
  • By December, an admission decision from the college will be received. This is ahead of the usual notification date.
  • Agree to attend the college if accepted, and an adequate financial aid package has been offered to the family.
  • This only applies to one college’s early decision.
  • You can continue to apply to other colleges via regular admission plans.
  • If accepted by ED, then all other applications will be withdrawn.
  • A non-refundable deposit will be sent well in advance of May 1.

EA applicants

  • Make sure to apply early.
  • An admission decision is usually received in the admission cycle (typically around January or February).
  • Time is available to consider the acceptance offer; there is no obligation to commit immediately.
  • Application for other colleges can still be made under the regular admission plans
  • A decision on whether attendance is accepted will need to be given to the college no later than May 1st.

Who should apply early?

EA or ED plans are best for a student who:

  • Is 100% sure that the chosen college is their first choice?
  • Has researched colleges extensively.
  • Has found a college that is a strong match socially, academically, and geographically.
  • Exceeds or meets the admission profile for the college for GPA, SAT® scores, and class rank.
  • A consistently solid academic record over time.

EA or ED plan is not appropriate for students who:

  • It is applying early in a bid to avoid paperwork or stress.
  • Has not thoroughly researched colleges.
  • He isn’t committed fully to attending college.
  • Only applying early because friends are.
  • It is dependent on a strong senior fall semester to bring grades up.

If you have students interested in applying early, encourage them to fill out the Early Decision Self-Evaluation Questionnaire by NACAC, which is in the Decisions About Early Action and Early Decision handout. It may be a useful idea to share this information with parents too.

The pros and benefits of applying early

Apply early has many benefits for a student with a definite first-choice college. Not only does it increase the chance of getting in, but it also includes the following:

  • Reduces stress by reducing the waiting time for a decision.
  • Save the expense and time of submitting various applications.
  • Once accepted, gain more time to prepare for college and consider housing.
  • If not accepted, then time is available to reconsider options and apply to other colleges.

The cons and disadvantages of applying early

There are some drawbacks to applying early that should be considered when making a decision.

Timing for other applications

Most colleges don’t notify EA and ED applicants of admission until December 15. Due to the typical deadlines given for applications, this will result in a situation where if a student doesn’t gain a place with the ED college, they will only have two weeks to send in other applications. This may be rushed. You should, therefore, encourage those students who are applying early to prepare other applications as a backup while waiting to receive an admission decision from their first-choice college.

Pressure to choose

The decision to commit to just one college places a lot of pressure on students to decide before they may have explored all their options.

Financial aid reduced opportunities

Those who apply under ED plans will receive offers of financial aid and admission simultaneously. This means they cannot compare financial offers from any other colleges. For those students who are dependent on financial aid, then the decision to apply early may be a risky one.


Some students who find out they have been accepted early may suddenly find they have no reason to “work hard” for the rest of the year as they’ve already achieved their goal. Therefore students who apply early should beware that the college has the power and right to withdraw an offer of admission if second-year grades drop.

If you apply early, is it more likely to be accepted?

Many students feel that applying early means they are competing with fewer students, so their chances of acceptance will increase. However, this isn’t always the case. Colleges will vary in the number of early applicants they admit and in the proportion of the class admitted early.

There may be a higher correlation between stronger profiles among candidates’ options for ED and high admission rates for applicants of ED. To assess whether applying early is the right decision, students should speak with the college-specific admission office about whether the college in question’s admission standards differs between regular and ED applicants.

What are the ethics of applying early decisions?

Some college applications and the Common Application forms need the student who is applying for early decision, as well as the counselor and parent, to sign an ED agreement form that lays out the conditions of the play.

It would be best if you clarified at college planning events and in your school handbook that your policy for early-decision applications is to send the student’s final transcript to one college only. Anything other than this would be considered unethical. Take note:

  • EA and ED program specifics will vary, so students must gather relevant information as soon as possible directly from the admission staff at the college they have put as their first choice.
  • EA and ED applicants must take the October SAT subject tests or SAT for these scores to make it to college.