Early Decision, Early Action, and Single-Choice Early Action: What’s the Deal?

Even the smartest college-bound students may fail to understand the crucial distinctions between binding Early Decision programs (ED), Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA), and garden variety Early Action (EA) plans. Here’s the deal:

Early Decision is “binding.” You apply early and if you get in, you have to go. Colleges like ED because every student admitted under this program is a closed sale, or as they say in admissions lingo, a guaranteed “yield.” (Yield is a metric factored into college rankings, and it means the number of accepted students who agree to come.)

ED also helps schools plan better for their Regular Decision round. Once they have several hundred lock-ins, they can see who else they need to “round out” their class – physics geniuses, pole-vaulters, tuba players, third basemen, under-represented minorities, kids from North Dakota – and admit accordingly. They can also evaluate how much financial aid they have left to offer.

For students, there are also benefits to ED. At many schools, a much higher percentage of applicants is chosen from the ED pool than from the regular admissions pool. Another obvious advantage is peace of mind. How nice to know by December 15th (the customary ED reply date) that admissions limbo is over in time for the holidays!

Early Action (EA) is “non-binding.” Students who apply to a school by a certain date are promised an early reply, but they are not obligated to attend and needn’t give the school their answer until May. But because schools who offer EA don’t stand to gain the concrete “closed sale” that ED schools do, they tend to offer slots only to outstanding candidates or solid students who also bring a unique talent or diverse aspect to the applicant pool.

This brings us to Single-Choice Early Action (used by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, among others). As with garden variety EA, SCEA is non-binding: accepted students are not obligated to make their choice until May. But while garden variety EA applicants can apply early to several schools, students who use SCEA can apply early to one school only.

SCEA applicants lose the advantage of ED applicants in that they are not able to offer a school a “closed sale.” Colleges, who stand to gain less, are therefore extremely picky about who they admit under this plan. They are likely to “defer” most students to the regular application round.

What’s so bad about being deferred by your “one and only” dream school – other than losing your one shot at pre-Christmas peace of mind? Imagine you got down on bended knee and asked the love of your life to marry you. They didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no. They said, “Give me another four and a half months to see if someone better comes along.” That’s the emotional impact of SCEA deferrals.

Why do colleges use a deferral system at all? Can’t they just make up their minds? Well, sure. If a student truly is unsuited to a school, the school will probably say no right off the bat (e.g. Harvard is more likely to deny than to defer a “C” student who is clearly over-reaching). But, in many cases schools want to keep their options open.

So. What should you do?

• Early decision is a good strategy if you have a strong school preference and don’t need to compare financial aid offers.
• Early action is a good strategy if you believe you are in the top 25% of a school’s applicant pool.
• Single-choice early action is rarely a good strategy UNLESS you are a recruited athlete, an exceptionally stellar student with achievements at the state or national level, or a legacy or under-represented minority with academic chops.

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