college admissionsEarly Decision…Early Action…Restrictive Early Action…Oh My!

It’s that time of year when students are considering whether they should apply to a school for “early decision”. When our clients begin their applications for college, they often ask whether or not they should apply for early decision and whether it will increase their chances of acceptance.  In order to make that choice we need to be sure our clients fully understand the term “early decision” and precisely what it means. Then, we can offer some advice as to whether it’s the best way to proceed when applying to college.

Let’s start with the definitions of what is available by submitting your application to a college earlier than the regular deadline.

Early Decision

Early decision (ED) is a binding agreement. This means if you are accepted through early decision, you are committed to attending that school, and must withdraw any applications you may have submitted for the regular deadlines at other schools. You are only permitted to apply to one college for early decision. If you are not accepted for early decision, you will either be rejected or deferred. Rejected applicants may not apply again that year. Deferred applicants will be reconsidered during the regular admission period and are free to apply to other schools.

Early decision deadlines for the 2019/2020 school year are generally November 1, and students are typically notified of the decision in December. However, there are schools with earlier deadlines, so each student needs to look closely at the deadlines and requirements of the particular school.


Early Action

Early action (EA) is non–binding, which means you are not bound to attend if you are accepted. In addition, when applying for early action, you can apply to as many colleges as you like. Early action deadlines are usually the same time as early decision, but again, you must check with your specific school. For example, the University of South Carolina’s early action deadline was October 15.


Restrictive Early Action

Restrictive Early Action (REA), also referred to as Single Choice Early Action, is an early admission option that is a hybrid of ED and EA. It is less restrictive that ED because the student is not obligated to attend the school if he or she is accepted. But it is more restrictive than EA because the student is only permitted to apply to one school for any type of early admission decision. In other words, schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton (all of which use REA/SCEA) only permit you to apply to their school in order to be considered for early admission. The number of schools that offer Restrictive Early Action/Single Choice Early Action is far more limited than EA, but also are among the most competitive and selective institutions. Each school that offers REA/SCEA has slightly different requirements so you should always check directly with the school. It should be noted that ED and REA requirements are absolutely firm. So if a student doesn’t follow the rules of the school’s ED or REA policy any offer of admission will be rescinded.

So…with all this information swirling in your head…what are the pros and cons of applying for any type of early admissions??


Early Action may seem like everyone should do it because it’s non-binding and allows you to consider other schools and their financial packages and scholarships. But, you had better have your application in tip top shape in time for the EA cutoff date or you’re just wasting your time.

Restrictive Early Action/Single Choice Early Action is a method by which colleges can identify students who are truly interested in their university, and most likely to enroll if admitted. The admission office wants to know that you are choosing to forgo the Early Action or Early Decision benefit at other applicable schools to show that their college is where you want to be. Each year it is harder and harder for admission offices to predict whether or not an admitted student will actually enroll at the college. Thus Single-Choice/Restrictive EA allows the admissions office to have a stronger gauge of the likelihood that a student might actually accept an offer of admission and matriculate at the college. You need to have an incredibly strong application, with nothing else that needs to be added or adjusted, to consider REA/SCEA as an option. On the other hand, you would find out as early as December if you’ve secured at spot at your top college choice while still having the option to consider other schools.

Early Decision: you had better be absolutely, positively sure that this is the be-all-end-all school you want to attend for the next four years. It is a binding contract between the student and the school; if any of the rules or requirements concerning the ED process are violated, the offer of admission will be rescinded. And trust me, if that happens, every other school you’ve ever considered will hear about it. So you must be sure about this option. In addition, unlike EA or REA, you can be flat out rejected in your application for ED. If that happens, your application will not be considered during the regular application process and you cannot reapply to that school for that academic year. Although admissions rates tend to be higher for ED candidates, one has to remember that the level of competition is far higher because you’ve got the “best of the best” all willing to commit fully and unequivocally to that school. That is some fierce competition. Since decisions are made in December (generally prior to the regular application due date) a student must be prepared for possible rejection or deferment and not be demoralized. Easier said than done. On the other hand, if you do get accepted ED, all of your stresses about applying to college are over because that’s where you are going. Bottom line: be very sure you want that particular school.

For whichever route you decide to take…Early Decision…Early Action…Restrictive Early Action/Single Choice Early Action …. Regular Admission…Rolling Admission……good luck to all of you. And be sure to read the fine print!

Leighanne Kubec and Amanda O’Nan are the owners of Clear College Counseling, a college consulting firm on Hilton Head Island that helps students and parents navigate the complexities of the college application process.