Difference between Early Action and Early Decision

Written by Overseas Education Consultant and Study Abroad Career Counsellor in Mumbai, Karan Gupta

Chandani Shah, an undergraduate student, had average SAT scores and grades and was extremely keen on getting into Columbia University - an Ivy League university. Ordinarily Chandani’s chances of getting into Columbia would be 14% but because she applied for early decision her chances of getting admission were close to 40% and she was offered admission to one of the most coveted universities in the United States. 

Very few universities will actually claim that a student has better chances of getting admission if they apply through the Early Decision program. Infact, Harvard University states, “There is no incentive whatsoever for Early Action colleges to admit weaker candidates early and then have to reject stronger Regular Action candidates. Diminishing the quality of the student body would be antithetical to the goals of any institution.” However, statistics speak for themselves: For the class of 2004, Yale University admitted fewer than 16% of applicants who applied for regular admission as compared to 37% of the students who applied for early decision. Similarly Amherst College accepted 35% of ED candidates as compared to 19% of regular candidates. Again, at the University of Pennsylvania the numbers were 26% and 47% for regular vs. early decision applicants. (Statistics obtained from The Atlantic.)

What’s in it for the colleges?

There are obvious reasons why colleges prefer to admit students under the Early Decision program. The more students a university admits under the ED program, the fewer acceptances the university needs from the regular admission pool to fill its class— which would make the university look better statistically. For example, consider a college who needs 1000 students to fill its freshman class. Suppose the college receives 10000 applications per year and has an average enrollment rate of 50% (for every 100 students accepted 50 attend the college), the college would have to issue 2000 acceptance letters in order to meet their need for 1000 students. This college’s selective percentage would be 20%.
Now if this college introduces an Early Decision program, and admits 250 students, then the college needs only 750 more students to fill its freshman class. But suddenly the college’s statistics improve. The college is likely to receive the same number of applicants – say 2000 through the ED program and 8000 under the regular admission program. But now the college has to admit only 750 students from the regular admission program and hence the college’s selectivity percentage is now 9.4% and the college is likely to shoot up in rankings.

Early Decision has ramifications on the SAT scores as well. Research by Christopher Avery, of 
Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and others showed that applicants with a combined SAT score of 1400 to 1490 who applied for early decision were as likely to be accepted as regular- admission candidates whose scores range from 1500 to 1600. Similarly an early decision candidate with scores ranging from 1200 to 1290 had a greater chance of being accepted than a regular admission candidate with scores ranging from 1300 to 1390. 

Applicants who are admitted under the Early Decision program cannot initiate new applications and must withdraw their applications from all pending universities. Also, keep in mind that you are not allowed to apply to two universities for Early Decision. Most schools have a deadline of November 1 st for early decision applicants.

Even though the Early Decision program works best for the rich kids who don’t require any financial assistance, many schools like Dartmouth College will match the financial need of students if admitted under the ED program. Other schools let you off the hook if their financial aid offer does not match the financial need you demonstrated.

Difference between Early Action and Early Decision

Early Decision is the early admission program offered where you must commit in advance to attend the university if admitted under the ED program. Harvard and some other institutions offer the Early Action program. Early Action is non-binding and if you are admitted under the EA program you are not obligated to enroll at the university. However, you cannot apply for Early Action or Early Decision to more than one university. You can still apply to as many colleges as you like for regular admission if you apply to one college under the Early Action program.

James Fallows of The Atlantic has a contradictory view of the entire Early Decision program. 
“Today's high school students and their parents have no choice but to adapt their applications strategies to the way early decision has changed the nature of college admissions. Tomorrow's students should hope that the increasingly obvious drawbacks of the system will lead to its elimination.”

Fallows claims that universities like the University of Pennsylvania have increased their number of students through the Early Decision program. “When U.S. News published its first list of best colleges, in 1983, Penn was not even ranked among national universities. Last year it was tied with Stanford for No. 6—ahead of Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown in the Ivy League, and of Duke and the University of Chicago. It also made unusually effective use of the most controversial tactic in today's elite-college admissions business: the "early decision" program. Early decision has helped not only Penn. It holds so many advantages for so many colleges that its use has grown steadily over the past decade and mushroomed in the past five years. Early decision, or ED, is an arranged marriage: both parties gain security at the expense of freedom. But the loss is asymmetrical, constraining the student much more than the institution.”

Despite Fallows’ views, Early Decision and Early Action program have their advantages. If you decide to apply to any school for ED or EA, please make an educated choice. If you are admitted to the college under the Early Decision program, you will have to attend the college, so be sure that this college is your first choice.

Karan Gupta is the leading international education and career consultant in Mumbai, India. Since 1999, he has given career counselling and has helped thousands of students with study abroad and get admission and visas to universities and colleges in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore and EU and also helps them get scholarships, loans and financial aid. In addition to aptitude tests and career counselling, his firm also provides training and coaching for the GMAT, GRE, SAT, ACT, TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE exams. Karan Gupta is the best study abroad career counsellor, consultant and career guidance expert in Mumbai. 

chat close Book an Appointment