Countless judgment calls impact where a student opts to go to college. Applicants who’ve already picked a dream school or a specific degree program to pursue still face a laundry list of choices come college application season—from figuring out how to pay for college to deciding if it’s smart to apply early action vs. early decision. The college application process can feel downright confusing.
Applying for and then attending college can be time-consuming and expensive—The Fed currently clocks American graduates’ educational debt at $1.67 trillion. So, being aware of how the college admission process works could prep students to apply with greater confidence. Numerous students opt to apply for early action or early decision admission.
Both application strategies—early decision and early action—are popular among students who want to communicate their interest in attending one school (over its competitors). But, as with much of college admissions, there are important differences to know about early action vs early decision.
College admissions is rife with confusing jargon. So, it’s understandable if the difference between early action and early decision admission is a little foggy.
On paper, the two options sound similar. In practice, applying early action vs applying early decision can restrict the choices then available to admitted applicants. .
Here’s a helpful overview of early decision vs early action—including a guide to when to apply and how each admission route might impact students’ ability to choose between schools. The guide to why, how and when to apply early to college.
Understanding Early Action and Early Decision
Early action and early decision are opt-in college admission routes. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, early action means that “students apply and receive a decision well in advance of the institution’s regular response date,” whereas early decision means “students make a commitment to a first-choice institution where, if admitted they definitely will enroll and withdraw all other applications.”
Translated into simpler terms, “early decision” binds a student to attend a specific school while “early action” lets applicants know earlier if they’ve been admitted.
In the first case, students commit to enrolling (and withdrawing pending applications at other schools). In the second, they receive a decision early but (usually) have until the spring to commit one way or the other.
It’s worth noting that not all schools offer both options. At some universities, applicants who apply via the early action method are also expected not to apply early action or early decision at other schools, too.
Identifying Why to Apply Early to College
Early decision and early action admissions may offer applicants some benefits. One reason some students opt to apply early is to firm up admission before the usual deadlines. If accepted, a student can then prepare well in advance to move to a specific area or attend one institution (assuming it’s binding or they accept the admission offer).
Early college admissions also help universities know in advance that a certain number of seats have been accepted and/or allotted.
When deciding how many colleges to apply to, it can be useful to balance matches, reaches and safety schools. Finding the best college fit is an individual choice. Admission selectivity, big-name faculty, academic majors offered, location, and the total cost of attendance might shape students’ choices.
The Princeton Review recommends starting with six schools, including:
• Two dream schools (the ones probably immediately leaping to mind when you read the phrase “dream schools”)
• Two target schools (“where your academic credentials fall well within the school’s average range for the most recently accepted class”)
• Two safety schools (“where your academic credentials exceed the school’s range for the average first-year student”)
Future graduates can be sponge-like information seekers, filtering details about different universities and their educational offerings. Curious about comparing courses of study? This guide to choosing a college major may be of help. After all, the presence or absence of specific majors (e.g., electrical engineering vs. English) might impact whether or not to pursue early action at a given school (or if it’s worth applying there at all).
Making a Decision about Early Decision
There are some critical distinctions between early action and early decision. While not all schools have early action and early decision options when applying, those that do will typically let you choose between one or the other.
Early decision is, typically, binding. If an applicant gets accepted via this method, they’re committing to attending that specific school (and, by extension, committing to withdrawing their name from consideration at other schools).
Commiting upfront to one school is no small thing. It will, by definition, limit an applicants’ choice. Students who opt for the early decision route, generally, have a dream school in mind and want to express their drive to attend that institution over others.
One trade-off with early decision is that rejected applicants, typically, are not then allowed to reapply to the same school during the regular admissions window. Admission offices at individual universities publish deadline information regarding both approaches, but early decision deadlines commonly arrive in November. Generally, early applicants are notified of the school’s choice in December.
Early action is, typically, non-binding. Students may be able apply early action to multiple colleges, but some schools have more restrictive early action policies.
Early admission, when non-binding and non-exclusive, could allow students to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools. After all, in many early action applications, a final decision to commit need not be made until spring (and students can still apply regularly to other universities).
Here’s one of the bigger trade-offs between early action and early decision college admission: With early decision, admitted applicants are guaranteed a spot at the school. But, by committing upfront to just one institution, students accepted via early action are less able to compare financial aid offers from competing schools.
So, the potential peace of mind of getting accepted early might be weighed against the possible downside of having different offers on the table.
Although early decision is generally binding, it’s possible—though not usually advisable—to break that agreement if an applicant changes their mind about a school—or, if their financial circumstances change and they need to rethink attending a specific school.
Still, applicants who back out of an early decision acceptance for non-financial reasons (i.e., the financial aid offer is insufficient) could run the risk of ruining their reputation at that school and potentially at others.
Admission officers may find out, for instance, that a student applied to more than one school early action and then contact that school to inform them—potentially jeopardizing the applicant’s admission there, too.
To apply for early decision, a student, parent, and also a guidance counselor have to guarantee the applicant’s binding intention to enroll if accepted. While a school can’t force a student to attend, it can be helpful to know many schools share lists of early decision applicants with each other. If an applicant is on the fence, applying via standard regular decision might be the savvier move. (Check out this guide to apply early action for more info.)
Both options are generally recommended for students who are:
• Informed about the colleges they’re applying to
• e Crystal-clear about their first choice school
• Able to demonstrate a solid academic record before senior year.
SoFi’s ultimate college application checklist may help with mapping out the road ahead. College Board, a not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success, also has a self-evaluation questionnaire for students to fill out for themselves.
Both early application routes can speed up the admissions decision process—as they move the application deadline up by a few months into the fall.
Note that it’s likely parents (along with students) can coordinate with teachers and counselors about securing letters of recommendation in time for the early fall deadlines. For most early applicants, the early application process mirrors the regular application steps. Generally, there aren’t extra hoops or different questions just to apply early to college.
Paying for College
Regardless of when a student decides to apply, paying for college is likely front of mind. While some families are able to cover the cost of college through existing funds and assets, numerous applicants (and their parents) also seek out financial aid.
The term “financial aid” refers to funding that can cover certain costs of attending college. Financial aid is available from federal and state governments, educational institutions, and private groups. It can also be awarded in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs.
According to Sallie Mae, 34% of students (and 20% of parents) borrowed funds to pay for college .
Educational loans often fall into two major categories: 1) federal student loans (guaranteed by the US government) and 2) student loans managed by a private lender. It’s important to note that government loans come with certain built-in federal benefits that private loans do not guarantee—including income-driven repayment plans and, when eligible, public services student loan forgiveness.
There isn’t necessarily a “best” option for paying for college, since different applicants may be eligible for different sources of financial aid or sorts of loans. The amount of aid a student might qualify for varies depending on federal, state, institutional, and lender eligibility guidelines.
The specific type of aid offered can also determine how much money needs to be repaid during and after college. Federal grants don’t need to be repaid, but generally loans will need to be paid back (unless forgiven or in forbearance).
For some in-school student loans, students are responsible for the interest that accrues while they’re enrolled. In other cases (i.e., Subsidized Direct Federal Loans), the US government pays the interest on the student’s behalf for a set period of time (during enrollment and the first six months after leaving school).
Depending on where a school is located, there are different options when it comes to getting the money needed to pay for college. Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of grants, scholarships, and other helpful information—such as, average student loan debt.
When applying for state-level aid, one tip is to read the fine print. Eligibility rules can change from state to states. And, in some cases, eligibility has to do with a student’s primary state of residence (not exclusively financial need). Frequently, state schools may offer in-state tuition discounts or scholarships only open to residents of that state.
Financial aid is a complicated topic. Students and families debating early action vs. early decision can check out these guides on how to pay for college, trying to find more financial aid, and finding free money for college.
Thinking Beyond Early College Applications
Students who are ambitious enough to pursue early college admission are likely thinking about what comes after the offer letter. Some may have already applied for local or institutional scholarships. Others may be weighing different ways to pay for college.
On top of scholarships, applicants hoping to secure financial aid usually fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) for the academic year when they plan to enroll.
After exhausting federal student loan programs and scholarships, college applicants and their families might evaluate if private student loans could help pay for attending college.
A private student loan from SoFi may help borrowers cover the total cost of attendance—making financing college fast, easy, and all online.
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