Early Decision vs. Early Action

If you’re in the process of applying to college any time between September and November, you may have encountered the terms “Early Decision” and “Early Action.”

If you’ve done some reading on the subject, you may have also discovered that both are programs offered by colleges and universities that allow you to find out early—sometimes as early as the beginning of December—whether you got in your not.

Sounds like a sweet deal, right?

While all your friends are chewing their fingernails during the early part of the year waiting to find out if they got in to the college of their choice, you’ll just be able to kick back and relax knowing that you got in, even before Christmas break. But you also might be asking yourself why, if it’s so great, doesn’t everyone do it? There’s gotta be a catch, right?

Yup. Two big ones, though one is a lot bigger than the other. While the two programs might sound the same, the consequences of choosing one over the other can be pretty big. Here’s what they’re all about.

Early Decision has been around for a long time and was originally developed to attract students who 1) were absolutely, positively sure what college they wanted to go to; 2) were pretty confident that their test scores and GPA were good enough to get them in; and 3) were impatient go getters who just wanted to get the whole admissions process over with.

But (and this is a big “but”) they also required that you legally commit to going to the school that admitted you under their early decision program. If you got accepted by other colleges and even were offered a better financial aid deal, if you agreed to go through the early decision process and were admitted, you had to go. Oh…and you couldn’t apply for early decision anywhere else, either.

Obviously this made applying for early decision a pretty big deal. In exchange for the security of knowing you got in before most other people, you were basically throwing all your proverbial college eggs in one proverbial basket. Unless you were one of the few people in the world who’s decisive enough to always know what you wanted—and never knew the meaning of the word “regret”—it could actually be pretty nerve wracking to go early decision.

Because of the somewhat final nature of the early decision process, more recently schools have been offering what’s been called early action.

Early Action lets you apply early and get admitted early, but you don’t have to sign your life away committing to go to the school that decides to admit you early. If some other school comes through later on with a better deal (or you change your mind about where you want to go) you’re under no legal obligation to go to the school where you applied using the early action program.

So why doesn’t everyone use early action if possible? First, early action applicants don’t hear about admissions as early as early decision applicants. Usually they have to wait until January or February. And if you apply for early action you’re not allowed to apply for “early action” anywhere else. You may not be putting all your eggs in one basket, but you’re not exactly distributing them evenly among all the baskets you have left.

Is early decision or early action right for you? If you’ve got great grades, great test scores and are feeling really confident about your desire to attend a certain school, these programs might be a good fit. On the other hand, if you’re a little shaky on both the scores and the decisiveness side, you may want to consider going the traditional route. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide, but at least now you know what you’re getting in to!

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