As this year’s Single Choice Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) deadlines creep closer, I look back on my college application process, marveling at how far I’ve come in one year. Yet even as I’ve left the process behind, I’m reminded by my younger friends of a central question posed to every applicant: EA or ED?
The Early Application option allows students to apply early to a school without committing to attending the University. Within EA, there are restrictive and nonrestrictive options: restrictive EA (the version that Princeton offers) prevents the student from applying to any other private universities early, while non-restrictive allows the student to apply to multiple private institutions at the same time. Early Decision, however, requires students to commit to attending — if admitted, they must enroll. EA offers students far more freedom and time to think during the college application process; ED gives students a higher chance of getting into a single school. Yet ED is inherently flawed, and it’s time that more colleges move away from it.
ED forces students to identify and commit to a “dream school” far too early. In “Love and College Admission,” college counselor Brennan Barnard argues that falling in love with and making a binding commitment to a school so early is a “manufactured approach [that] rarely ends well and can result in frustration and disillusion.” In applying ED, students run the risk of committing to a school based on surface-level attraction rather than long-term interest and research. Indeed, ED robs students of months of research, growth, and exploration during the college application process — one of the most important periods in a student’s life. It supports the idea that a student will have a singular “dream school” to which they will be perfectly suited when in reality, there are countless colleges that any student may love.
I applied EA during my college application process, and as a result, I had plenty of time to think about the schools I was applying to. I found that as the college application process continued beyond the EA/ED deadlines, I became less attached to schools that I had previously loved. Furthermore, I grew to love schools that I hadn’t considered or hadn’t had enough knowledge about previously. Students should not be “locked in” to a school so early in a process that requires immense deliberation and thought over time.
The ED option is also riddled with inequality — students who can pay full or close to full tuition are better equipped to take advantage of the policy. While the Ivies offer need-based aid, it can often fall short of what students actually need. The commitment of ED prevents students who need aid from comparing financial aid packages or negotiating their financial aid. ED also generally decreases students’ chances of receiving any form of merit aid — Michelle Kretzschmar, the founder of DIY College Rankings, notes that “If a college knows you really want to attend, they have no reason to offer any incentive (or discount, because that’s what it really is) to attend.” As a result, ED is far better for colleges than it is for students. While students are “locked in” to going to a school, the college receives incredibly high numbers of applications that are full-pay and committed to attending.
Princeton does not have an ED option. While it abandoned its EA process last year to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, Princeton is offering EA once again. Princeton’s EA is a way of committing to a school — since it is restrictive, students will still have the opportunity to increase their chances at a university — while still allowing students the freedom to explore other options or change their minds. Restrictive EA is also the most realistic alternative for colleges to switch to, as many universities will still be concerned with their yield, or the percentage of students who choose to attend the university after being accepted. Harvard and Yale also offer EA; it’s time that the rest of the Ivy League — Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania — as well as other colleges, do the same.
Lucia Wetherill is a first-year from Newtown, Pa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.