Applying Early – What are the Options?
Today’s guest columnist is another good friend and colleague, Amy Sack, Ph.D., MBA, of Admissions Accomplished, LLC. Amy is an educational consultant who has worked with students worldwide on the college and graduate admissions process for over 22 years. You can reach her at email@example.com, 203-940-1744, or 904-907-1072.
We’ve all heard that the early bird gets the worm and this can be true in the college admission process, too. There are many ways you can apply to college early and the options and acronyms can be confusing and even daunting – ED1, ED2, EA, REA, SCEA and even Rolling Admission! Let’s explore the differences between these early admissions plans and the benefits of each so you can choose what’s right for you.
Early Decision (ED)
Once upon a time, there was one early admission plan and Early Decision was it. The unique feature of Early Decision is it’s a binding agreement. Applying under an ED plan commits you to attending the college if you’re accepted so you need to be sure that this is the place you want to spend the next four years. If you have submitted other applications, you must immediately withdraw them upon acceptance.
Early Decision 1 (ED1) vs. Early Decision (ED2)
While both are binding, the significant difference between ED1 and ED2 is the timing. ED1 applications are due earlier (October 15, November 1, or November 15) and you will receive a decision by mid-December. ED2 applications are typically due on 1/1 or 1/15 and you will receive a decision in mid-February.
You can only apply to one school under an early decision plan. Therefore, if you’ve applied ED1, you may only apply ED2 after you are deferred or denied from your ED1 school. You are then released from your ED agreement and are free to apply ED2 to another school.
You may also apply ED2 without applying ED1. This may be a great choice if you need more time to complete your application, you are not ready to commit to a school as early as October or November, and/or you would like the admissions committee to consider your first semester grades from senior year.
Advantages of Eary Decision:
There are two primary advantages to applying Early Decision. First and foremost, the acceptance rates of ED applicants are higher than for regular decisions- sometimes significantly higher! For instance, Duke University accepted 21.2% of the applicants who applied Early Decision for the Class of 2026 filling 50% of the seats in their incoming class, while the Regular Decision acceptance rate was a meager 5%.
Second, if you are accepted during ED1, you will be finished with the college admissions process and know where you’re attending college before the end of your first semester of senior year. Needless to say, this can relieve much stress and allow you to more fully enjoy the remainder of your senior year!
You may wonder whether the ED1 acceptance rate differs significantly from ED2 at schools that offer both. The answer is- as with many college-related questions- it’s complicated. Most colleges only provide their overall Early Decision acceptance rate without specifying the acceptance rates for each round of ED. Furthermore, even if the ED2 acceptance rate appears lower, it may be because the ED1 acceptance rate is artificially inflated by recruited athletes, who are often required to apply in the first round.
Early Action (EA)
The differentiating feature of Early Action (EA) is that, unlike early decision, it is not binding. If you are accepted to a school under an EA plan, you are not committed to attending. This is a great option if your application is ready to go, but you aren’t ready to commit to any one school. Furthermore, with a few exceptions (see below), you are free to apply EA to multiple schools simultaneously. EA deadlines can fall anywhere between October 15-December 15 and decisions are typically released between mid-December and mid-February.
While Early Action does not provide the same statistical bump in admissions rate, there is almost no downside. However, if your junior year grades don’t reflect your best work, you may want to wait for Regular Decision to submit your application so colleges will consider your first-semester senior year grades.
Restrictive Early Action (REA)/Single Choice Early Action (SCEA)
Just when you thought you had it all figured out, there comes another wrinkle. There are only a few schools that offer Restrictive Early Action (REA) and a similar program with a different name – Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), but they are among the most well-known and competitive. At the time of this writing, the following schools offer REA/SCEA plans: Cal Tech, Georgetown, Harvard, Notre Dame, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Just like general EA plans, Restrictive EA plans are never binding. If you are accepted after applying REA/SCEA to a college, you are not obligated to attend. What is “restricted” is if or how you can apply to another school early.
The REA policies are slightly different at each of the aforementioned schools. While none allow you to apply ED1 to another school, Georgetown and Notre Dame will allow you to apply to other schools Early Action. At the other schools, you can only apply to public universities and cannot apply anywhere else ED1 or Early Action.
While not an ‘early plan’ per se, colleges with rolling admissions will review your application as soon as your file is complete. A complete file includes your application, transcript (or in some cases self-reported grades), letters of recommendation (if required) and test scores (if you’re not applying test optional).
You can reap huge benefits by applying as early as possible to schools with rolling admission. As colleges fill the incoming class incrementally, your chance of acceptance is actually higher the earlier you apply. And with decisions rolling in as early as September, an acceptance may enable you to relax a bit as you await additional admissions decisions.
Don’t get caught up in the acronyms, just make sure you are aware of the options offered by each of the schools that are on your list. Hopefully, this has provided some clarity regarding early application options. Early admissions plans provide opportunities even if you aren’t quite sure which early plan is right for you.