Updated: May 29, 2021
Early Action vs. Early Decision vs. Regular Decision vs. Rolling Admission
Here, we're going to cover the 4 main types of application to a college or university and outline the pros and cons of each type along with some strategies a student can use to help maximize their odds of getting into the schools of their dreams.
Let's start with a clarification between these commonly mixed-up types, the Early Action and the Early Decision. The difference between opting for Early Action and Early Decision is subtle, but massive if one doesn't pay attention to it.
Early Action vs. Early Decision
Both Early Action and Early Decision are application choices students can make when applying to their top school in hopes of trying their hand at getting into that school first before applying to other places.
When a student applies Early Action or Early Decision, everything about the application stays the same, but the only things that change are the deadlines and notices for acceptances, deferrals, and rejections.
For example, the Early application / Early Decision deadline for most schools is Nov 1st and the regular decision deadline is Jan. 1st.
In every way as it relates to the application process, Early Action and Early Decision are identical.
The main difference, and critical difference, between Early Action and Early Decision is that an application made Early Decision for a school is binding.
When applying Early Decision, a student must sign a contract stating that if they get into that specific school, they forfeit their right to attend any other schools they may have applied to. What this means is that once a student decides to apply as an "Early Decision" applicant to a school they forfeit their right to attend any other school but the school they applied Early Decision to.
This is a very important distinction, and many parents and students sometimes confuse these two types of application decisions with dire consequences.
One story of a tragic instance of this was when a student applied Early Decision to a local school for their safety school so that they could get that out of the way before applying to more elite schools they really wanted to go to. They got into the local school in the fall without a problem then applied to Cornell later that winter.
The spring rolled around and they made it into Cornell as well, but the small problem was that they had applied "Early Decision" instead of "Early Action" so they had to go to the local school instead of Cornell because of that. Their future was changed dramatically because of a single word read incorrectly on their application page many years ago.
When applying Early Action or Early Decision, remember that Early Action gets the same benefits of an Early Decision application, but is non binding. We suggest that instead of applying Early Decision, students apply early action as it leaves the opportunity open for better choices down the road.
Applying for regular decision for a school has the exact same process as applying Early Action for a school except everything is simply moved back by about 2 months.
As with Early Action, the decisions are non binding and a student can choose the best schools for them once all the decisions for their respective schools come out, usually some time after the beginning of March to the middle of April.
Rolling Admission is different from either of these two models of acceptance as applicants are accepted, rejected, or deferred on a continuing basis before a specific deadline.
For example, let's say we had a University called Alpha-Centauri University which accepted students on a rolling decision basis. On top of that, the final date for a student to submit all their materials for admission was the 15th of February.
We have 3 students, Alice, Bob, and Angelina and the all apply to Alpha-Centauri University. Alice applies on September 13th and the day after she applies, she is notified of her decision "Accepted." Bob applies a couple days later and a couple days after he submitted his application he is notified of his decision as well "Deferred." Finally Angelina applies on Valentines day and a few days afterward, she is notified of her decision "Rejected."
The way it works for rolling admission is that as applications come it, the university accepts denies or rejects students and notifies them of this within a few days of the decision. There isn't any waiting around for a special day to announce all the decisions as there is with most colleges and universities. After applying, a student will know fairly quickly where they stand.
Which Is Best?
This question always gets asked around admission time as parents and students alike want to know if they can apply in a certain way that will help them get ahead. While there is no "best" way to apply to any given school, there are certain things each parent and student can do to help improve their chances of getting into the school they wish to get into. These are some common practices to help you do just that.
Apply To Your Dream Schools Early
Early Action confers a huge advantage to students who choose to apply early to the universities and colleges of their dreams. We've found that there is nearly a 2 to 4 times higher acceptance rate among some of the best schools in the country during the Early Action round as compared to the regular decision round.
Not many students apply Early Action; as a result, there is much less competition to get into an elite school. However, to counter this, the students who do tend to apply Early Action are very good students themselves so the competition gets stiffer in that regard. But overall, the competition is much less fierce for students who choose to apply the Early Action route as opposed to Regular Decision or Rolling Admission routes.
Do Not Apply Early Decision If You Have The Choice To
We are of the mindset that every person should maximize their room to maneuver and keep their options open when applying to college and universities. This way, if something better comes along in terms of Financial Aid, a better college experience, a more prestigious school, or containing a degree you really want to have, you have the opportunity to go to the school which would make you the happiest. Applying Early Decision to a school eliminates all of this. Unless you're certain that the school is the one for you, we recommend applying Early Action for it. If this isn't offered, we recommend shelving it then applying Regular Decision or Rolling action for it later. This will allow a student to do so much more in the long run than applying Early Decision for a school and locking themselves to it before they've explored all their options.
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