Many students want to know if early action is a good college application strategy. But before we even get to that—what is early action, anyway?
Often confused with early decision, early action is a different process with its own rules, advantages, and disadvantages. Though as both of their names imply, they each involve applying to colleges prior to their regular application deadlines.
The primary difference between early action and early decision is that early action does not obligate you to attend a college that admits you, while the early decision does. So, if your favorite university admits you early decision, you must attend; whereas if you are admitted early action somewhere, you retain the freedom to decide between multiple schools.
The early action deadlines at most colleges are in early or mid-November, though some are a bit later, in December. Make sure to check the deadlines at each school on your application list to make sure you do not miss any.
If financial aid is a factor in your college planning, early action can offer a significant advantage over early decision. The freedom of choice offered by early action allows you to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools before deciding which to attend. In contrast, the binding nature of early decision essentially locks you into also accepting whatever financial aid package is being offered. This means you could miss out on better financial aid offers from other schools.
How Long Do Early Action Decisions Take?
Colleges that receive your early action application in the first half of November will send their decisions by mid-to-late December. Meaning, that you will typically have waited less than two months. This is the timeline followed by Harvard, Yale, and most other elite schools.
There is one variation to this timeline that you may encounter (though not often), which is a deferral. For whatever reason—perhaps an especially competitive applicant pool—you didn't make the cut in the early action group, but you were close enough that the school wants to take another look at you. Deferred applications are reconsidered along with regular applications and are notified in the spring when those decisions are sent out.
Compared with regular admission, early action gives you valuable extra time to make an informed decision about what school to attend. Maybe you would like to visit your top three schools again before making your final choice. Well, with early action, you will have more time to do that before your response deadline, which is May 1st for almost all colleges in the U.S.
Having this extra time will also allow you to redirect your attention and energy from the application process to the decision process as quickly as possible. This can be very empowering and contribute to better decision-making. But does early action actually improve your chances of getting in compared with regular admission?
Colleges do not like to admit it, but in our experience, yes, there is a modest boost to an applicant's chances with early action. While it is not as large of a boost as early decision can provide, it can certainly help move borderline applicants from the rejection to the acceptance pile.
Rigorous number-crunching by the National Association for College Admission Counseling provides some hard statistical data to support this observation as well (check it out for yourself in their "State of College Admission Report" in the Sources section below).
The psychological advantages of early action are an important factor to consider as well. The college application process can be a stressful one in the best of circumstances, so why drag it out when you can get it over with?
Early action will dramatically reduce your wait and the uncertainty you endure before learning where you have been accepted. Imagine the relief you will feel knowing you've been admitted.
Can Early Action Hurt You?
Early action does not have negative consequences for most students, but there are specific scenarios with potential downsides, some of which are avoidable:
For students with weaker grades, applying early action limits your ability to demonstrate stronger academic performance in the fall semester of your senior year, since you will be applying before the semester ends and grades are reported.
If you are in this situation, early action may not be the best option for you. You may benefit more by applying for regular admission to show improved senior year grades, though you should discuss this in more detail with your school counselor.
Keep in mind that if you do choose to skip early action, you will really need to turn your grades around senior year to make it a worthwhile decision. The absolute worst-case scenario would be continuing to underperform senior year, missing out on early action and its advantages, and then applying for regular admission with mediocre grades and no good reason for having waited.
Another potential drawback of early action is the commonly known affliction called senioritis. If you have been accepted early by a college you want to attend, you may feel like you can just spend the rest of senior year taking it easy. After all, why bother working hard when you have already gotten into a school you like?
An attitude like this is the first symptom of senioritis, and if it spirals into a serious case, your senior year grades may suffer. If they suffer a lot, you may lose that college acceptance you were so happy about.
Why? Because most colleges still want to see your final high school transcript, and if it shows your grades suddenly taking a dive senior year, they could rescind your admission offer.
Yes, this can really happen, and it is one of the nastiest surprises in the college admissions process. Fortunately, it's also one of the most avoidable...so avoid it!
What Happens If You Apply Early Action and Don't Go?
Don't worry; nothing bad happens if you don't accept a school's early admission offer. The whole idea of early action is that you can say no without negative consequences. You can quickly confirm this by reading what colleges themselves say about early action.
For example, the University of Chicago states reassuringly:
"Applying as an Early Action applicant does not constitute a binding commitment to attend if admitted, and you have several months to let us know whether or not you will attend. If you would like to compare admissions offers and financial aid packages from multiple colleges when making your final decision, Early Action is a better choice than an Early Decision plan."
There you have it, straight from one of the best schools in the world: go ahead and compare offers from multiple colleges, they will not hold it against you!
Single-Choice and Restrictive Early Action
Before we conclude, there is a special variety of early action used by some Ivy League and Ivy-level schools you should be aware of: single-choice early action, also known as restrictive early action. As its names imply, this type of early action limits your choices more than the standard variety.
Colleges with restrictive early action request that you only apply early to their school, so you will not be able to apply early action to multiple schools at the same time. You are not obligated to attend if you do get in, and you can still apply to all the schools you want by the regular admission deadline.
Schools that impose this restriction want to make sure they are your first choice; making you forego other early action opportunities proves it. Sure, that may seem a little controlling, but the elite schools with these policies are in such high demand that they can impose a higher standard. Before you go this restrictive route, make sure it's for a school that really is your top choice.
By now, we've cleared up some of the mystery around early action and given you more insight into when it can work to your advantage. Remember, early action is only one part of a comprehensive college strategy. Without strong academics, activities, and test scores, it will not matter when you apply to an Ivy League or Ivy-level school, because you just won't get in.
Fortunately, here at Bentham Admissions, we offer a full range of SAT tutoring, ACT tutoring, and college admissions coaching services to ensure you will have the best application possible, whenever you decide to apply.