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Early Admissions: How does it work and how should I approach it?

There seem to be many different forms of early admissions, can you clarify them for me? What factors should I use to determine whether early admissions is right for me?

Marjorie G.


Let me preface my comments by saying, you will probably get a slightly different perspective on the subject, depending on your source. My professional advice is based on my twenty-nine years counseling students about this option. And even all of them had different views, which I respected.

I begin the topic with an imaginary visual…early admissions is a big umbrella, and under it hangs, early decision (ED), early action(EA), and possibly priority. However, the most popularly discussed are ED and EA. The best advice I can offer is that YOU will be the most important factor, because you must decide what will work best for you as a process and financially.

As evident in the word “early,” you must plan to submit your personal (application/essay/etc.) and academic (school records/test results/recommendations) by an approximate date, determined by the college that could be November 1-15. There are cases where I’ve had students aiming for before November 1st. It’s imperative that your documents are at the admissions office by the deadline date (same for regular, too).

Become familiar with the terms and how each process can differ. ED is 99.9% binding (I don’t like using universal qualifers); whereas, EA is not, unless it’s restrictive (REA) or single-choice. To keep it simple, I suggest to students that if they are inquiring about EA, just ask if it is restrictive and request clarification. I also refer to EA as being a cousin of ED; similar, relative to deadline date, yet different, as in the binding policy.

You can only apply to one college ED. If you are accepted, you must relinquish your other applications, upon notification of the college’s decision. You will sign on the submitted application that you are aware you are applying ED and understand the binding policy.

I have had many high achievers elect not to pursue ED, because they wanted to have more flexibility in the process, in case something better, as in the case of financial aid from another institution, was offered after they applied. Also, many experts will caution seniors to seriously consider their financial need before committing to the ED process. Financial aid reports are usually presented after December; which is generally after the student has been accepted via ED.

Many students prefer the early admissions option because they feel they are showing “demonstrated interest” to a college…it’s telling the committee they really want to attend. However, remember that your academic profile needs to meet the requirement of the college. It does no good to apply early admissions, if your record is below the expectation of the institution.

My best advice, again, is to determine what will work best for you. Decide which process will benefit you more effectively in the admissions review. Don’t disregard the significance of time management and organization. Your main concern should not be the desire to get a quick decision; especially, if it’s not an acceptance.

Marjorie is an educational consultant. She has been a high school counselor since 1982.

Doris D.


Early admissions is the process by which applicants apply for admission early in their senior/last year of high school, generally by November, and receive and admissions decision within six weeks. There are several early admissions programs: (a) Early Decision, the applicant makes a commitment to attend the school if he/she is admitted; (b) Early Action, the applicant is not obligated to attend the institution if admitted; (c) Restrictive Early Action, the applicant also is not obligated to attend the institution if admitted, but the student can not apply to other schools under any early admissions program. Confused yet? If you are, it is not surprising because the number and complexity of early admissions programs sometimes makes it a challenge for students and parents to understand the differences. Nevertheless, the definitions that I have provided give you a broad sense of the three major early admissions programs. For more specific information, you should refer to the college/university’s website.

Is Early Admissions right for you? If you have completed your college search and have determined that a school is your #1 choice, then you may want to consider applying early admissions–it’s really as simple as that. Keep in mind however, that if you are admitted to a school that has a binding Early Decision program, then you are obligated to attend the school if you are admitted. Generally, the only way that you can be released from the Early Decision agreement is if you applied for financial aid and received an aid package that does not allow you and your family to afford the institution. When I worked at Cornell, we sometimes had students who were admitted Early Decision, and then wrote to us in January or February to say that they were now not sure if they wanted to attend Cornell. After speaking with some of these students, I discovered that they had not thought through their commitment completely and had not done a thorough college search.

On another note, students should realize that when admissions officers review your application during the early admissions process, they are looking at your high school transcript through the end of the eleventh grade. While they know the courses that you are taking in the senior year, they generally do not have grades from the senior year. Therefore, the decision is based on your performance through the junior year. If you feel that your academic performance in the first semester of the senior year will be outstanding and you want it to be considered during the admissions process, then you may want to apply Regular Decision. Applying Regular Decision means that the application is due in January or February of your senior year and admissions officers will generally have the grades from the first semester of your senior year when they review your application.

The final comment I will make with regard to Early Admissions programs is that the majority of students who apply to colleges and universities do not apply Early Admissions. However, some colleges admit a large percentage of their first-year class under the early admissions program so this leads students to consider early admissions as an easier way to be admitted to a college/university. If you have questions about an institution’s rate of admission for early admission vs. regular decision, you should ask the institution to provide you with the admit rate for their early admissions group and the regular decision group. Note however that even if the admit rate for early admissions is higher than the admit rate for regular decision, it may not mean that it easier to be admitted. It may mean that students who are generally more likely to be admitted (such as legacies) may apply in greater numbers during early admissions. Ultimately, you should make your decision as to whether to apply to an institution under early admissions based on the thoroughness of your college search and where that institution is on your list of preferences.

Doris is an internationally recognized admissions professional with over 30 years experience working in undergraduate admissions at Ivy League schools and other elite universities. She specializes in providing campus tours of Ivy League schools as well as forums on applying for admission to elite universities. As an educational consultant, she works with students and secondary schools all over the world and regularly travels to Asia.

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