It’s that time of the year. The air is crisp, the leaves are beginning to turn and high school students across the country are completing the FAFSA, filling out the common app, writing college essays, asking for recommendation letters and clicking “send” on college applications. Phew! And that’s just the beginning of the college selection process.
If you feel your heart racing, I encourage you to take a deep breath and head over to our College Planning Hub. There, we have free resources for college-aged students and their families — it’s where you’ll find answers to commonly asked questions (and concerns!).
While there’s many components of the college admission process, understanding deadlines is at the forefront. By now, you know that the FAFSA opens October 1st and you’re likely aware that May 1st is National College Decision Day. But what happens in between those key dates? It all depends on the application deadline option that a prospective student selects.
Here are the differences between Early Decision, Early Action and Regular Decision.
Applying to College Early Decision (ED)
Early Decision is a binding agreement, a commitment. If a student is accepted to a college on an early decision application, they are expected to withdraw all other applications and attend the institution — no questions asked. Therefore, this is an option for students who know, without a doubt, that they want to attend a given college or university. This is also an option for students who do not need to factor the amount of financial aid received into their ultimate college choice.
Early decision deadlines are often November 1st or November 15th, much earlier than the typical deadline. Applying Early Decision can modestly boost your chances of acceptance, since the school knows without a doubt that you want to attend and, if selected, you will enroll. This speaks volumes about your dedication and honor to that institution.
Here’s an example of how Early Decision can benefit a applicat’s chances at acceptance from Duke University.
Duke University’s Early Decision acceptance rate for the Class of 2019 was 26%. In contrast, the university’s overall acceptance rate for all applications received by the school for that class was 11%. Because the 11% includes both ED and Regular Decision, the percentage of students accepted in the Regular Decision round must be significantly less than the 11% overall rate.
For the class of 2020, Early Decision acceptances dropped to 23.5% and the number of ED acceptances made up 48% of Duke’s incoming class. That means that nearly one half of the class was selected, in a binding agreement, before the Regular Decision deadline arrived.
However, note that applying Early Decision will not drastically change a student’s odds of admission if they do not fit the school’s criteria for acceptance. If chances were slim to begin with, don’t get your hopes up.
- Applying Early Decision may moderately boost a student’s chances of acceptance, but it will not drastically change them.
- Applying Early Decision allows for a decision to be reached much earlier than Early Action and Regular Decision, which can eliminate the stress of the college admissions process.
- If the amount of financial aid you receive will be a decision-making factor, Early Decision is a potentially precarious option.
Author’s Note: I applied to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) using an early decision application when I was a senior in high school (graduated 2015). I received my acceptance letter on Thanksgiving day, only a few months into my senior year, and was the first in my class to make a college decision. For me, it was a decision that I was confident in and it lessened the stress that many of my peers experienced for months to come.
Applying to College Early Action (EA)
Early Action is an early application option that is not binding and doesn’t require withdrawing other applications if accepted.
If a student is applying Early Action, the deadline is likely sometime in November and they will receive a decision sometime in December. However, students have until the May 1st reply date to make a decision on the institution they will attend.
Not surprisingly, students often do benefit from getting their application in early. Generally speaking, it’s likely easier to make an impression on an admissions office when the applicant pool is smaller, and before that office is inundated with Regular Decision applications. But, unlike Early Decision, there is no statistically significant proof of this.
More often than not, colleges and universities prepare Early Action financial aid packages along with aid packages with the Regular Decision pool, so students who apply Early Action may not know how much a school costs until March or perhaps April. However, students can use an institution’s Net Price Calculator to get a good estimate of how much financial aid they will receive, and therefore how much they will be expected to pay to attend the school.
- Applying Early Action poses no obligation to enroll.
- Applying Early Action provides the benefit of learning early what the admissions decision from a college is.
- Students can still wait for other college acceptances and weigh their various options.
- Early Action applications are sent to college admissions offices while the applicant pool is still small.
- Students find out about financial aid when regular decision students do, so if the amount of financial aid you receive will be a decision-making factor, Early Action acceptances may not result in an early decision on the student’s end.
Applying to College Regular Decision
There’s nothing wrong with submitting a Regular Decision application. In fact, this is the route that 99% of applicants take. It’s simple: Get your application in by the regular application deadline, and it will be considered by the college or university.
Deadlines for applications vary from institution to institution, but can fall anywhere between November through March, with the majority of them in January and February.
Regular Decision is best suited for applicants who are interested in a number of schools and aren’t certain which they want to attend.
- Applying Regular Decision poses no obligation to enroll.
- Regular Decision applicants have a few extra months to work on their application, write and revise their college essay and gather recommendation letters.
- Regular Decision applicants are applying in the largest pool, so the competition for the remaining spaces at the college or university is tougher.