5 Things To Know About Applying Early Decision/Action

College admissions can be a confusing and demanding process, requiring hours of work and preparation. The various avenues to get into college can also be perplexing. Beyond the regular admissions process, two increasingly popular options to consider are early action and early decision. In this post, Namita Mehta (President, The Red Pen) and Ramya Modukuri (College & Career Advisor, Manthan International School) write about the top 5 things to know about applying Early Decision (ED) / Early Action (EA).

Early Decision Advantages
Source: Duke Chronicle

5 Things to Know About Applying Early Decision

By Namita Mehta and Ramya Modukuri

When applying to undergraduate programs in the US, you need to be aware of the multiple timelines. In this article, we detail one particular timeline, Early Decision (ED). Through ED, you can apply and be accepted early, but you are obligated to attend if accepted. This is a powerful tool in any US applicant’s arsenal for various reasons, but great care must be taken when deciding IF and WHERE to apply ED.

What are the different timelines for US undergraduate applications?

  1. Regular Decision (RD) – This is the most common, with the deadline typically occurring in early January of grade 12. You will receive your offer decision by the end of March and have until May 1 to accept/decline your offer.
  2. Early Deadlines – These typically occur in early November of grade 12. There are four  types:  
    • Early Decision (ED or ED I): The most important aspect of ED is that the decision is BINDING and therefore you can only apply to one university. Admissions notifications arrive by mid-December and you have until mid-January to accept your offer and enrol.We will be focusing mostly on ED in this article, so more about this later.
    • Early Action (EA): Just like ED, EA allows you to receive admissions notifications early (between mid-December and early February, depending on the university). Unlike ED, however, you can apply to as many universities as you like as EA is non-binding. You have until May 1 to compare your options and accept/decline your offer. EA is mainly offered by public universities.
    • Restrictive Early Action (REA): Think of REA as something between ED and EA. Like ED, you can apply to only one university REA but like EA it is non-binding and you have until May 1 to compare all your options and accept/decline the offer. Only a handful of very selective universities offer REA. 
    • Early Decision II (ED II – very regal!): ED II is exactly like ED, except that the deadline occurs in early to mid-January and it is offered by very few universities. You are informed of the admission decision usually by mid-February.
  3. Rolling Admissions – Applications are accepted anytime after August 1 until spots are filled, with decisions being given a few weeks after application.

early decision (ED) vs early action (EA)
Source: College Raptor

Common App

The Common App, a consolidated application platform used by 900 universities, publishes this list which shows which deadlines are offered by which universities.

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In general, applying EA, RD or Rolling is fairly straightforward, since these are non-binding and are essentially a great way to distribute your workload, receive your offers early, and have some peace of mind prior to your final exams. Deciding whether and where to apply ED requires careful consideration. The rest of this article will focus on these considerations.

What is unique about Early Decision (ED)?

As discussed earlier, with ED, you apply in early November and receive your decision by mid-December. ED is BINDING–if you apply to a university ED and you receive an offer, you are obligated to accept that offer AND withdraw from ALL your other applications. In fact, at the time of application, you, your parents, and your school counsellor sign an agreement to this effect.

Dishonoring this commitment can have negative implications for your high school and so unless the reason is financial (for example, if you did not receive enough financial aid), you must enroll at your ED university if admitted. 

Some of the Ivy League colleges that offer ED are Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College. While the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University only offer REA.

Five questions to ask yourself when deciding to apply Early Decision (ED):

1. How much do I really want to attend this university?  

As ED is binding, you need to be 100% sure that you will be happy attending this university.

ADVICE: Be sure to research thoroughly. Do not just go by rank tables and submit an ED application if you haven’t done thorough research on what the university has to offer. Also, you need to research other universities too. Only apply if you are sure that the university is your top choice. 

2. Do I need financial aid? And if so, how much?

There are two significant issues with applying ED if you need financial aid:

  • While universities allow you to decline an ED offer if the aid offered is not satisfactory, the process is not easy and your school will suffer negative consequences if you back out of your ED commitment.
  • You lose the ability to compare various financial aid packages because you most likely wouldn’t have received all your offers (even the EA ones) by your ED acceptance deadline.

ADVICE: If you need financial aid, look for universities that have a generous financial aid policy– those that meet 100% demonstrated need for your category, domestic or international–and apply ED to one of those. Financial aid policies for universities are listed on their website. You can also use this resource to check out historic data on financial aid.

3. Am I applying to other regions?

If you are admitted ED, you must attend that institution. This means that you must withdraw your applications from ALL the universities that you have applied to globally; not just the other ones in the US. For example, if you apply ED to Brown University and are admitted, then even if you receive a conditional offer from the University of Oxford in the UK, you must decline that.

If you are unsuccessful in the ED round and your application is deferred to the regular round, you are no longer “bound” to attend that institution. For example, If you apply ED to Brown University and are deferred and then admitted RD and during that time you get an offer from the University of Oxford, you have the choice to attend Brown University or University Oxford.

ADVICE: If you are not sure you want to go to college in the US and you are looking at other destinations too, DO NOT apply ED. ED is globally binding.

4. Do universities offer an Early Decision (ED) advantage?

The admission rate for ED applicants is higher for most universities as compared to RD. For example, the University of Pennsylvania’s ED acceptance rate in 2021 was 19.5% while its RD acceptance rate was 7.1%. Additionally, ~54% of seats get filled in the ED round. 

Does this mean it’s easier to get in ED?

Not entirely. There are a few reasons for the ED acceptance being higher:

  • Students who apply ED are already well prepared with their entire application and have clearly done their research on the university. This is already a more attractive pool of candidates compared to those applying RD.
  • Students with a special edge (such as children of alumni or donors) will typically apply early as it will be much harder to convince the admissions committee that they want to attend that institution, if they apply RD. 
  • Those who don’t need financial aid will often apply early. For a university, no matter how generous the financial aid policy, a paying student is always better than a student with need. 
  • Lastly–and this is perhaps the one thing that will work to your advantage–universities like students who commit to enrol. This allows them to manage a metric called “yield”–the percentage of students who will enrol from among those who are given offers–which affects their rankings.

Here is a breakdown of ED and RD acceptance rates for different colleges. Keep in mind that just because ED admit rates are higher, it does not mean universities will accept students who are well below their normal GPA and test score ranges.

ADVICE: Apply ED only if you are a competitive applicant. 

5. Am I ready with my strongest application?

  • Perhaps you decided very late to apply to the US and are not ready with all your research and essays.
  • Or perhaps your first SAT/ACT attempt wasn’t satisfactory and you are only retaking the test in December of grade 12.
  • Maybe you are expecting a significant improvement in grades in the upcoming exams which will be after ED deadlines.
  • Or you are an A-Level student who did badly in AS Level exams in grade 11 and are retaking some of the exams in October.

These are some situations in which you may not be ready to apply ED even if the four questions above have led you to conclude that ED would work for you. 

ADVICE: In such cases, do not apply ED no matter how much you like the university, especially if the university is a selective one. It is better to wait until you have your strongest application and apply RD.

About Namita Mehta:

Namita Mehta - College Admissions Counsellor

Namita established and led the University Guidance Counseling Department at B.D. Somani International School, Mumbai. At The Red Pen, Namita assists students in planning their educational journey, while also building a talented team and evaluating quality partners to expand our reach for students. She also specializes in training applicants for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge interview process. Namita
currently resides in Mumbai and has lived in Hong Kong, the UK, and Germany.

Namita believes education creates impactful change and global citizens who appreciate different cultures. While she works with plenty of Ivy League and Oxbridge admits, her goal is to guide students to find their best-fit institution so that they are happy, thrive, and achieve their long-term goals.

As a thought leader, Namita has spoken on several panels, including those organized by HSBC, Ashoka University, O.P. Jindal Global University, International Career & College Counselling (IC3) Network, and more. She shares her expertise through a column in the Mid-Day and has been a featured writer for ET Panache, Hindustan Times, The Mint, Mumbai Mirror, HT, Brunch, Indian Express, The Tribune, Businessworld, and others.

About Ramya Modukuri:

Ramya Modukori - Career  Adviser& College Admissions Counsellor

As the Career & College Counselor at Manthan International School, Hyderabad, Ramya has successfully guided students in obtaining offers from top universities across the world like UChicago, NYU, CMU, USC, UCs (Berkeley, LA, SD, Davis), Rice, LSE, UCL, UToronto, McGill, NUS, HKU, Sydney, UNSW and many more.

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    Ramya holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, a B.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering from NIT Trichy, and has 13 years of experience, prior to counseling, in the corporate world across the Tech and Finance industries.

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    The Red Pen
    The Red Pen is an independent education consulting company, advising applicants who seek to study abroad at all levels of education. Our consultants partner with applicants in developing an admissions strategy, preparation of application components, and navigating the complex admissions process to institutions worldwide. We also assist high schools in developing student-focused, scalable university counselling infrastructure that addresses the unique needs of their academic community.
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