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Early decision is a common early admission policy used in college admissions in the United States for admitting freshmen to undergraduate programs. It is used to indicate to the University or College that the candidate considers that institution to be his or her top choice. Candidates applying early decision typically submit their applications by the end of October of their senior year of high school and receive a decision in mid-December. In contrast, students applying "regular decision" typically must submit their applications by January 1 and receive their admissions decision by April 1.
Some colleges offer either an early decision program or an early action one. Others accept applications in a relatively long window known as rolling admission. Early decision differs from early action in that it constitutes a binding commitment to enroll; that is, if offered admission under an early decision program the candidate must withdraw all other applications to other institutions and enroll at that institution. Early action is not binding, so a student admitted to a school early action could choose not to enroll in that school. Furthermore, early decision programs require applicants to file only one early application, while, depending on the institution, early action programs may allow candidates to apply to more than one early action institution.
Typically, a candidate who has applied early decision can receive one of three outcomes in December. He or she may be admitted, in which case they are bound to attend the school which admitted them; rejected, in which case they will not be able to attend the school; or deferred, in which case they will be reconsidered for admission with the second round of early decision applications or with the regular decision pool and notified later with their final decision. Generally when an applicant is deferred he or she is released from their binding early decision agreement.
Admission rates for "early" applicants tend to be higher than the overall admission rates for the institution; this is particularly true of the most selective colleges. This is usually attributed to three factors: first, candidates who apply "early" can only present colleges with their transcripts until the end of junior year of high school and therefore must be particularly strong applicants with very persuasive transcripts; second, candidates who apply "early" have dedicated themselves to an institution and are more likely to match the institution's admission standards; third, student athletes sometimes apply "early" to their top choice school to demonstrate their commitment to a college varsity coach who, in turn, can push their applications in the admissions process. Some advisors suggest that early decision is the best choice for students who have clearly settled on one particular college.
Controversy surrounds early decision. Critics of the program think that binding an applicant, typically seventeen or eighteen years old, to a single institution is unnecessarily restrictive. Furthermore, candidates for financial aid are, if admitted under early decision, unable to compare financial aid offers from different colleges. It was in answer to these criticisms that, starting in 2004, Yale and Stanford switched from early decision to single-choice early action. Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia announced in the Fall of 2006 that they would no longer offer Early Action or Early Decision programs, which they claim favor the affluent, and moved to a single deadline instead. The University of Florida followed suit the following year. However, the University of Virginia, followed by both Harvard and Princeton reinstated their single-choice, early action program to promote diversity and provide opportunities for students looking for such an option in 2011.