Applying Early Action to Colleges

Applying early action and early decision has become an increasingly popular practice among teenagers who are aiming for highly selective colleges and universities.

Today I am happy to share with you a post written on this important topic by Peter Van Buskirk, a former admission dean,  higher-ed speaker and educational advocate for families. You can learn more about Peter by visiting his website at The Admission Game and his college blog.

Later in the week, I will share more of Peter’s thoughts on applying to a a college through early decision.

Early Action (EA): What Is It?

Applying to a college Early Action allows students the opportunity to submit credentials to some highly selective colleges in return for notification ahead of the Regular Decision process. The big difference: students who choose this option are not presumed to be declaring a first-choice interest in the colleges to which they apply Early Action.

As a result, they are not committed to enroll if admitted and may, in some cases, apply EA to multiple schools. That said, a handful of institutions offer EA as a restrictive, “single choice” option that prohibits students from applying EA to any other school. Be sure to read the fine print regarding each institution’s EA program.

EA Inside the Numbers

If you are still thinking selectivity and rankings, you are right on the mark! While EA candidates do not enroll at the same rate as admitted Early-Decision candidates (presumably 100%), they are still likely to enroll at a much higher rate than students who apply Regular Decision.

Colleges know this because they track their yields on EA offers from year to year. They tend not to bend their academic standards for EA candidates. Rather, they are banking on the opportunity to realize higher conversion rates among high profile admitted students by making strong, positive connections with them early in the process.

Possible EA Outcomes

Much like the case with ED, EA outcomes include acceptance, deferral and denial. The only difference is that acceptance does not involve a commitment to enroll.

Who Benefits?

Unlike ED, EA really doesn’t improve one’s chances of admission. Why? Institutions are reluctant to commit places in the class to strong, but not superior students without first being able to compare them with the larger pool of candidates. EA does, however, provide peace of mind for those who use it early in the process.

Tips for Early Action or Early Decision

  1. Read the fine print for each institutional offering and understand your commitments before initiating an early application of any sort.
  2. Rather than looking for an “ED school,” focus on finding colleges that fit you well as you arrive at your short list of schools. If one of them becomes your absolute first choice, then ED should be a considered option.
  3. Do not apply ED unless you are dead certain of your commitment to enroll if accepted.
  4. Do not apply ED if you have not visited the campus first! Ideally, your visit will have included an overnight stay that enabled you to also attend classes and experience the campus culture.
  5. Resist the temptation to act on impulse. The feelings you have for a college now might change greatly over time leaving you committed to a place that is no longer where you want to be. Give yourself at least a month to reflect on your intended application before applying ED.
  6. Remember the ED Round II option. Many schools will give you the opportunity to “convert” your Regular Decision application during a second round of ED in January. The conditions are the same as with ED Round I, but you might be better prepared to make a commitment later in the year.
  7. Resolve all $$ questions and concerns before applying ED. Once you are admitted, there can be no contingencies. Ask the school’s financial aid office to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC) before you submit your ED application. Apply ED only if you are completely satisfied with the information you receive regarding your EFC. For more information about acquiring the early estimate, check my September 21, 2012 blog, Making College Affordable: Tips for Avoiding a Mountain of Debt.
  8. Sprint to the finish! Even though you might hold an EA or ED acceptance letter, it is likely to be conditional on your completion of the senior at the same level of achievement that earned you the offer of admission. More than a few colleges are known to rescind offers of admission when final transcripts show performances that drop measurably after offers of admission are secured.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.


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  1. Lynn’s advice is spot-on! I have been cranking our CSS Profile applications for our clients this week and next….Some schools want the financial aid application early for EA….others don’t. Some have their own application as well. But unless a student has followed Lynn’s advice, and gotten an “early read” not only from the net price calculator, but by talking to a financial aid officer (and can afford all 4 years)….we don’t ever encourage ED….only EA.

  2. Very informative article. Will an EA acceptance come with a financial aid offer: i.e, a listing of scholarships/merit awards, etc. that the student will be awarded? Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this perfectly timed post! Question: Do I NEED to get my CSS profile FINISHED by that 11/1 deadline. I am doing my best, but boy, if I had a little more time, that would help.

    That form is a nightmare. My eyes cross when I look at it (though I do have form phobia). Any advice as to how to get it done most efficiently? All at once? Space it out?

    I spent a few hours the other day, but I have to go back and finish…and I am DREADING.

    Plus, the stress of making sure his father is completing it (non custodial parent) is unbearable. What happens if he doesn’t finish it?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Debbie,

      I am sorry that the PROFILE is such a bear! Every school will have its own deadlines for the PROFILE. I would ask the institutions where the student is applying what their deadlines are for ED, EA or regular decision depending on how he is applying.

      If you need professional help completing the PROFILE, I would recommend a CPA in Bellevue, WA named Paula Bishop. She is who I often turn to with financial aid questions. Here is the link to her website:

      Good luck!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Thanks Lynn. I actually got the bulk of it done today….as in ALL DAY. I’m form-phobic so it might feel more overbearing to me than it does to others. Also, I have complicating variables. ugh.

        I’m down to the last few questions that need researching though, so I’m feeling quite accomplished. Next year won’t be so bad, I don’t think, now that I’ve done it once. And I’ve heard that FAFSA is a walk in the park as compared to CSS (hoping that’s true).

        Re when the form is due — that never occurred to me. I just assumed that it was due with the application. I thought that’s what I read (somewhere, though I can’t remember where right now).

      2. I just looked at one school where he’s applying EA and it says that it’s due Feb. 15 (though they suggest as soon after 1/1 as possible).

        I’m pretty certain that I didn’t pull the “do it as soon after 10/1 as possible” (i.e. as soon as it’s available).

        Is it BENEFICIAL in any way to submit it early, with the EA application? Maybe that’s what I heard or read?

        Let me know if I’m close in any way about that.


  4. My son is applying for EA (with a Nov 1st deadline) because most of the scholarships that he is applying for require him to apply EA. My son is applying to 10 schools (possibly 11) and all of his choices are schools that we can see him going to! So for that I am thankful.

    I also wanted to say that he is NOT applying to an IVY league school or any top school, but very good liberal arts schools where he will do well and succeed. (Pre-Med major)

  5. Early decision (ED) and early action (EA) plans can be beneficial to students — but only to those who have thought through their college options carefully and have a clear preference for one institution.