Should you apply ED? Let’s start with what ED and EA are.

Early Decision is a binding commitment that if you are accepted to the school, you will attend and will withdraw all other college applications. Early Action, on the other hand, is typically simply a quicker response from the school that still gives the student until the regular admission deadline to respond.

Many colleges fill a large percentage of their freshman class via ED– one third or more. And generally speaking, admission rates are higher in the ED pool than in the regular decision pool. For example, Trinity University admitted 63% of ED applicants compared with an admissions rate of 29% overall. Does that mean your odds of getting in are better if you apply ED? Not necessarily. Many admissions officers contend that the biggest difference between ED and RD is that the ED applicant pool is far more homogeneous than is the RD pool, and the profiles of students accepted during ED is quite similar to those accepted RD.

ED has a couple of significant disadvantages:

  • You don’t have the opportunity to compare financial aid offers. If you are thinking of applying ED anywhere, you should at a minimum do the school’s net price calculator first to ensure that there isn’t a big surprise in store. Remember that net price calculators can only show gift aid (grants and scholarships), not loans or work study, so they give you a pretty clear picture of what to expect.
  • You won’t get a decision early enough to avoid having to apply elsewhere. ED responses come out Dec. 15. Most regular application deadlines are Jan. 1, meaning that students probably need to be working on other applications regardless of applying ED.

So, why might you apply ED? Athletes and other targeted students generally are expected to apply ED. For students who have an absolute top choice school and for whom that choice is affordable, ED is probably a good way to go. And some schools have very few slots left after they’ve accepted their ED students. If this is the case at your top choice school, then waiting for RD is probably a disadvantage in the admissions process. You can find schools’ ED acceptance rates and overall acceptance rates on CollegeData under the Admissions tab.

What does “binding” mean anyway? When a student applies ED, the student, their parent(s) and their high school counselor all sign an ED agreement with the school. The agreement states that you will attend the school if accepted with an adequate financial aid package. Should you not receive an adequate financial aid package, you can decline on that basis or appeal the financial aid. While the ED agreement is basically an honor code rather than a legal document, it’s not something one should enter into lightly. It’s not unusual for schools to share lists of students accepted ED among one another or for admissions directors to reach out guidance counselors or to their counterparts at other schools letting them know of a student who backed out of ED for non-financial reasons.

Students applying ED can get one of several answers: They may be accepted, they may be rejected outright, or they may be deferred to either a subsequent ED pool or to the general admissions pool.

What about Early Action? Early Action comes in two flavors: “restrictive” and regular. Restrictive early action is a bit like ED: students can only apply to one school EA. However, the decision is non-binding. Regular EA simply means that the student submits their application earlier and gets an answer earlier. In all EA cases, students have until the RD deadline to commit. EA can be great for students who are ready with their applications. In some cases it can be required for certain scholarships, especially for public schools.

Each of these cases– ED and both types of EA– are a form of “demonstrated interest” on steroids. So to the extent that DI matters in admissions, ED and EA can give an applicant a bit of a leg up.

Why do colleges offer these various options? It has to do with selectivity and yield. ED admissions ensure that nearly every admission yields an acceptance. This helps schools to be more selective, which despite being dropped by US News for their rankings remains a big PR topic for schools. The top 100 most selective schools have acceptance rates ranging from 4% to 30%. Let’s say College A has a freshman class of 2,000. Their yield– the percent of admitted students who enroll– is 25%. That means they need to admit 8,000 students in order to fill a class of 2,000. If they want to have an acceptance rate below 30%, then they need to get almost 27,000 applications. However, if they can fill 500 slots through ED at a 100% yield, then they only have 1,500 left to fill via RD where they get a 25% yield. Now they only need 6,000 applications to fill the class. They could have their 30% acceptance rate with only 20,000 applications.

What did we do? Both of my kids applied EA to some schools. My son applied to both of his schools EA because his applications were ready and he wanted to be done with them. My daughter only applied EA to our in-state public school because a scholarship for which she was applying required EA. She did not do ED anywhere because she didn’t have a strong favorite and she ended up being admitted to her top choice via RD. One lesson we learned in my son’s case was that although most schools have fairly consistent acceptance dates for RD, it can vary a lot for EA. One school accepted him within 48 hours of receiving his application– and then started a relentless marketing campaign to get him to accept– whereas the other essentially ignored his application for two-and-a-half months and only met the Dec. 15 acceptance deadline by changing his status on the admissions portal from “in process” to “accepted” late in the day on Dec. 15, with an email notification not arriving for several days thereafter.