Duke TIP

Early Decision and Early Action

August 19, 2006

To the chagrin of high school students and parents alike, applying to college has gotten more complicated. Colleges now attract students by offering them one of two early admission options (chances to be accepted to a college in the fall or winter rather than at the regular time, usually May). They are early decision and early action (or early notification). Let me explain what these options mean, particularly for the gifted student.

Early decision is a binding commitment to attend a given college if accepted early. The application deadline is usually in early November, and the student can expect to hear from the admissions office by mid-December. The student can apply to other colleges, but he or she can have only one early decision application pending and must withdraw the other applications if accepted by the early decision college.

Early action is similar, but acceptance by the college is nonbinding, and the student does not have to accept the early offer or make a tuition deposit until the spring. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling policy states that the student can apply to other colleges without restriction; however, some colleges request that early action candidates not apply for early action elsewhere. The advantage is that the student will hear from colleges earlier in the senior year than other students will.

Admissions offices view early decision as an innovative way to increase their yield, or the percentage of accepted students who enroll. They also believe that it makes for a more engaged student body, because it provides first-year students who have more carefully considered why they want to attend the school.

Students and parents often view early decision as a vehicle for increasing the students’ chances of being admitted to highly competitive colleges. According to the College Board, more than 67,000 students applied under early decision in 2002, almost twice the number in 1997. Early decision makes sense for students who have thoroughly researched and visited their top choices and have determined that one school is clearly the best fit.

However, early decision can put pressure on the gifted student to select one and only one college. Many students are not ready to make that commitment early. Also, the gifted student may miss out on scholarships or financial aid packages offered by top schools. For these reasons, a number of premier institutions, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stanford University, and Yale University, have dropped early decision in favor of early action.

—Steven I. Pfeiffer, Ph.D.