EARLY ACTION VS. EARLY DECISION
WHAT IS EARLY ACTION
Early action is a non-binding process that allows you to apply, and potentially gain admission, to one or more schools earlier than regular applicants. As an early action applicant, you usually have until November 1 or 15 to submit admissions materials. Early action schools send out decisions in January or February and allow prospective students until May 1 (the national response date) to formally reply to their offers. Non-binding early action represents the norm, enabling you to apply to multiple colleges and universities through this process. However, competitive higher education institutions (including Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton) increasingly operate restrictive/single-choice early action. Under this model, you may pursue early action with only one school, but can seek regular admission at other universities.
WHAT IS EARLY DECISION
Unlike early action, early decision is a binding agreement, and you can apply to only one school using this process. Early decision normally benefits top-performing students who know their first-choice college, and since it's a binding agreement, the institution requires signatures from you, your family, and a school counselor. Through this accelerated admissions process, you receive notice in December and must enroll if you get accepted. Once accepted, the school offers a financial aid package tailored to your family's financial situation. Admitted students send in a nonrefundable deposit well before May 1. The early decision process may also result in denial, which usually means that students do not qualify for regular admission at the school. However, you may receive a deferment notice, allowing you to pursue regular admission with that school.
SHOULD YOU APLY EARLY
Early admission processes, particularly the restrictive early decision, work best for students who have reached definitive conclusions about their top school(s) and who feel they are competitive applicants. To determine if you are a competitive applicant, check the school website; most schools give you an idea of what a competitive applicant profile is. For example, if you have a low GPA, average test scores, and no extracurriculars, it may not be wise to apply for early decision to a competitive school. However, if you discover that you exceed the college's admission profile for GPA, class rank, and standardized test performance, then early admission is a good way forward. Early action and decision are generally not good options if you are a senior in high school who needs to strengthen your academic record. Once accepted under early decision, you may back out for a good reason, like inadequate funding or a family emergency. However, colleges do share admission information with one another, so students who do not take early action/decision seriously can hurt their chances with multiple institutions.
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However, the disadvantage is that Early Decision is binding. That is, if you are accepted to early decision, you have to rescind your applications to other schools and go to your early decision college.
This is not to be confused with Early Application, which is very similar except a non-binding method of applying.