Thinking About Applying Early Decision, Early Action, and Restrictive Early Action? Here’s What You Need to Know

September 7, 2022
College Admissions
Ivy League

When it comes to college admissions, especially for the most selective schools, a well-thought-out application strategy is key. An important part of this strategy is timing. Applying early is the single best way students can formally demonstrate interest and increase their overall chances of gaining acceptance to a selective university. With the number of applicants in recent years trending upwards, demonstrated interest is an increasingly important factor in helping colleges decide which students are more likely to enroll, which, in turn, allows them to keep their yield rates high and admissions rates low. Colleges offer students different ways to apply early: Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED).

Weighing Your Options

In navigating the world of Early Decision and Early Action, students should assess early on both how highly a school ranks on their college list, as well as to what extent their background aligns with the average accepted applicant. For students planning to enroll in much more rigorous coursework senior year, an upward trending GPA that could benefit from an extra semester of strong grades or plans for achieving higher SAT or ACT scores, the best course of action is likely to wait and apply Regular Decision (RD). Students currently involved in a meaningful extracurricular activity or project that needs additional time to complete should also carefully consider whether applying ED or EA is truly the best option for them.

In the case of ED applications, deadlines for submission are most frequently November 1 or November 15 (with decision notifications arriving in mid to late December). This means that students must have their applications fully prepared well in advance of RD deadlines, which fall mainly in January. Additionally, ED offers of acceptance bring with them a binding agreement to attend a school, which means there is no opportunity to compare a corresponding financial aid offer with those from other schools. And because of both these early submission deadlines and the implications of such binding agreements, students must possess a strong conviction in attending a particular school to justify making such a firm and absolute commitment so early in the admissions process. As such, students and parents must remain mindful of the full spectrum of positives and negatives that come with any decision to apply Early Decision.

The Benefits of Applying Early

For those who weigh these factors and decide that they are well-positioned to apply early, there are two clear benefits of tremendous value. First, of course, is the overall higher acceptance rates for students applying early, which are far more pronounced for those applicants applying Early Decision. For most universities, there is a well-established understanding that ED acceptance rates are considerably higher than RD. The extent to which ED applications improve a student’s overall probability of gaining admissions can be seen in a comparison of the 2021 ED and RD acceptance rates of several prominent schools.

Dartmouth had an ED acceptance rate of 20.38% compared to an RD acceptance rate of only 4.7%. Johns Hopkins had an ED acceptance rate of 29%, while the RD acceptance rate was 5%. And Duke University’s ED acceptance rate in 2021 stood at 21%, while the acceptance rate of RD applicants was only 4.6%.

Early Action applicants, however, don’t receive the same level of increased acceptance rates. The tradeoff is that offers of admission are non-binding. Application deadlines for EA are most often the same as those for ED, either November 1 or 15, but decision notifications arrive a little later in January or February.

Some highly selective colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, offer the most limiting form of Restrictive Early Action (REA), often known as Single Choice Early Action (SCEA). While this admissions selection is non-binding, each of these colleges stipulates that students may choose only one private school to which to apply REA; students may not apply ED or EA to any other private school simultaneously. Students may, however, still apply EA to other state schools. As a point of reference, in 2021, Harvard’s REA acceptance rate stood at 7.9%, while the acceptance rate of those applying RD came in at 2.3%

Georgetown’s Restrictive Early Action (REA) is a bit less “restrictive” than Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford’s. While it forbids students from applying simultaneously to any binding ED schools, it allows students to apply to other EA institutions, whether public or private.

Students applying early, whether it be ED or EA, have the added advantage of knowing the status of their applications much earlier than those applying RD. This affords them not only the chance to chart their future course sooner and with more certainty but also more time to focus on the successful completion of their senior year coursework.

In Summary

If your college list is targeted and strategic from the start, you should know exactly to which schools you want to seriously consider applying early. When doing so, students and parents should be mindful and fully informed about the benefits and shortcomings that come with any decision. Each student brings with them a unique set of circumstances that should always remain the driving force behind when and which type of application is ultimately submitted. For students with strong grades, sustained enrollment in rigorous courses, active involvement in various extracurricular activities, and a well-defined interest in a specific school, applying early is an exceptional way to increase your probability of gaining admission to your top-choice college.