Understanding Early Action, Early Decision, Restricted Early Action and Rolling Admission

Before you decide to apply "early" to a college, it's a good idea to understand what that means. Like so many other areas of college admissions, it's not exactly straightforward.
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Before you decide to apply "early" to a college, it's a good idea to understand what that means. Like so many other areas of college admissions, it's not exactly straightforward. Early Action (I and II), Early Decision (I and II), Restricted Early Action and Rolling Admission have generally agreed-upon definitions, but some colleges also have individual early policies that they apply independently.

Over 500 colleges and universities offer EA or ED programs; some offer both. In the Application Info section (top left tab) on my adMISSION POSSIBLE® website, I offer up-to-date lists of colleges that offer early action, restricted early action and early decision plans, including their respective, current application due dates.

So that you can wrap your head around the concept, here are the general definitions:

In this non-binding application program, a student usually applies EA I on or before the first of November (sometimes Nov. 15) and receives an admission decision by the middle of December. If accepted, the student is not obligated to commit to the college until the mandatory May 1 "college deadline day." EA II is a second chance to apply early at the beginning or middle of January, with a response back from a college sometime four, six, eight weeks out. Early Action colleges usually allow students to apply to other EA schools.

In this binding application program, a student applies on or before Nov. 1 (sometimes Nov. 15) and then receives his or her admission decision by the middle of December. If accepted, the student is obligated to attend that college. (Upon acceptance, a student must withdraw all other applications.) If he/she does not get admitted to an ED college, the applicant can then apply ED II to another college with a later deadline. Some Early Decision colleges even allow students to apply to other early application programs, as long as they are not binding; but others don't. Check this out on the admission section of colleges' websites.

REA is a non-binding early action admission option in which a student may not apply to any other private schools' early program, except:

  • A college outside of the US
  • A non-binding rolling admission program
  • A public college or university whose admission is not binding.
  • An ED II program, if notification of admission occurs after January 1

Like EA applicants, a student has until May 1 to decide if she/he wants to attend the college or university. Schools that offer REA programs are Boston College, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Applicants are asked to sign a statement stipulating that they agree to file only one early application.

This is an application program at some schools -- usually larger public universities -- in which applications are accepted, evaluated and decided upon as they are received. Applications are accepted until the college fills all of its spaces. There is no limit to the number of Rolling Admissions schools to which you can apply even if you apply to EA, ED or REA colleges.

Having identified all of the above, I am sorry to report that every year many colleges seem to change what they do about early applications. The best approach to finding out how schools on your college list handle early applications is to go to their individual admissions websites and/or call admissions offices directly. The Common Application website and US News' Best Colleges 2015 are other good sources.

Many students and parents want to know whether applying early will give applicants an edge. Unfortunately, the short answer is that it depends. Applying early will not help you if you are not a competitive applicant. When push comes to shove, though, "hooked" students tend to have a better chance of getting accepted in early plans. What does "hooked" mean? It is an applicant who has a substantial admission edge if they apply early (or for that matter, regular) admission because they are:

  • A very desirable, recruited athlete

  • An applicant with a distinct, noteworthy talent the college is looking for
  • High potential, under-represented and/or disadvantaged minority students
  • Students who are children of major donors to the college
  • Students who are legacies (children of a parent who is an alumnus)
  • Children of parents who are celebrities, wealthy business executives, politicians and the like
  • Faculty children
  • Every year, college admissions websites provide information about how many students they admit from early admissions versus regular admissions. And every year, The New York Times posts early admissions rates for the previous year in a story that predictably appears sometime in March. This information can also be found at www.collegedata.com


    There are three outcomes of applying early: Acceptance, Deferral and Denial. In an earlier blog, "Early Applications. Bad News: You Were Deferred. Good News: You Weren't Denied," I go through the steps for how to handle a deferment. In my next blog, I'll let you know what's in it for colleges to offer early applications and how you can decide whether it makes sense for you to apply early.

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