Early Decision and Early Action FAQ

Published January 2010, last updated June 2010

This FAQ and information page is meant to provide information about the Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) admission programs that many schools offer, including: the dates required for these applications, the advantages and disadvantages to these types of applications, and factors an applicant should consider before opting for one of these choices.

It is highly recommended that anyone considering the Early Decision option read and thoroughly consider the potential disadvantages to this choice before submitting an ED application.

1. What are the Early Action and Early Decision options and what is the difference between the two?

Early Action and Early Decision programs usually require a significantly earlier application deadline than for regular decision (RD) applicants. In turn, schools usually guarantee a decision (accept/deny/waitlist/hold) for these applicants earlier in the cycle as well.

Each option, depending on the school, has its own deadlines – both for the application submission as well as a response time from the school. Normally, the deadline for submitting the application is in late October or early November and nearly all schools will respond by the end of December (though this is not universally true; see the next question for more details).

There is one significant difference between the two options, however. Early Action is a non-binding application which simply guarantees a response by a certain date; Early Decision, however, requires that the applicant agree to a binding commitment to the school, guaranteeing that, if accepted, the applicant will withdraw all other applications and matriculate to the school in the following school year. There are occasionally additional requirements for this type of application, which are also mentioned below.

You are heavily encouraged to research the requirements of the ED option for any schools you’re considering to with this application type.

2. How do I go about applying Early Action or Early Decision?

Most schools have a checkbox on their application where you can indicate specifically which type of application you would like to submit. For example, the Early Decision option at Michigan appears on the application like this:

It should also be noted that you will normally also be required to submit an additional signed document declaring your intention and understanding of the Early Decision option. Sometimes this comes as an additional segment of the application itself, while other schools may require you submit an additional document. Other times, there are additional stipulations which you must agree to (which are discussed in another question to follow).

3. Do all schools offer these options?

No, not all schools have Early Decision or Early Action options. Many have one or the other, though few (if any) have both. A list of the top 100 schools (as per USNWR rankings) with basic information for each school (including due dates, type of applications offered, decision dates and additional notes) is available here: http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=tfkuUqLgK6o-tmc-z9CA_3w&single=true&gid=0&output=html . Below is a screenshot of the early application options offered at the Top 30 law schools.

4. Aside from the binding agreement, are there other stipulations of the Early Application or Early Decision agreement?

The Early Application option generally does not have any further stipulation. It merely serves as a convenient way for applicants and admissions departments to get notice of their decision earlier than would otherwise be normal. It is possible that the school may require an earlier deposit deadline, though this is unlikely. It would be a good idea to check each school's website for this information.

The Early Decision option, however, often comes with at least a few requirements. First, Early Decision is a binding agreement, so the applicant must commit to attending if accepted and is normally required to withdraw all other applications within a given timeframe (5 days, for example). Other schools, such as Cardozo, may require the applicant to write an additional essay indicating why the school is his or her first choice. In the case of The University of Michigan, accepted Early Decision applicants are required to start their law school career the following summer (a semester before the normal start date).

In most cases, admitted Early Decision applicants are generally not allowed to defer their acceptance to the next year – an option that may exist otherwise under extenuating circumstances for students who wish to wait an extra year before pursuing their J.D.

5. What are the advantages of each option?

Early Action offers several concrete advantages over a regular cycle application. First, because the application is coming in so early in the year (before a majority of the applications are submitted), the class has not yet been filled. There is evidence that schools generally offer more acceptances during the beginning of the cycle before the class has been filled and applicants have begun to accept schools' offers. (Chiashu.com provides decision date graphs which show, nearly universally, that more applicants are accepted at the beginning of the cycle rather than later in the cycle.) The later an applicant applies, fewer spots will usually be available, increasing the competitiveness of the application process. Second, an Early Action application will also result in an early decision (and sometimes an early scholarship award). Beyond the peace of mind afforded by an earlier response, this can also be helpful in negotiating scholarship offers, many of which are also given on a “rolling” basis. For non-traditional applicants, this option provides an ample amount of time to decide where they may have to move and how to accommodate such a transition (moving a family, finding a new job for a significant other, etc).

Early Decision offers similar advantages, though it does not allow the applicant any freedom in choosing where to attend, if accepted. First, and maybe most significantly, Early Decision indicates to the application committee that their school is truly your first choice, and that if accepted, you would definitely attend. To the school, this means that in accepting you they have a yield ratio 1:1 for all ED applicants accepted – a significant factor to the school, as yield percentage is considered in most law school ratings formulas. Also, if the admissions committee sees an ED applicant which stands out for some particular reason (high LSAT, high GPA, diverse background, unique accomplishments), they have a surefire way of getting that applicant into their school. To the applicant, this all means that an ED application is often given a boost in consideration as the admissions committees are aware, and perhaps flattered, that you have chosen their school as your first choice. (However, the degree of “boost” gained is a hotly debated topic which certainly varies depending on the school – search the TLS forums to see more on this.) For "splitters," or borderline applicants, an ED application may be a good way to increase your chances of acceptance at a school. Also, like the Early Action option, ED allows the applicant more time to figure out their transition to law school.

6. What are the disadvantages?

Early Action has very few, if any, real disadvantages. The only possible negative about EA is the difficulty, sometimes, of getting it submitted and complete by the deadlines. These types of applications almost always prevent the application from taking any LSAT after the September/October test date, so taking the LSAT in December or February is generally out of the question. For those applicants still in undergrad, Early Action also prevents one's first-semester grades from being considered in the application – a possible disadvantage for applicants hoping to pull up their final years’ grade to strengthen their admission prospects. These disadvantages, however, are fairly small compared to the advantages of submitting an EA application with no strings attached.

Early Decision, however, is a different matter entirely. There can be significant disadvantages to this application type and it is strongly recommended that anyone considering this option carefully and thoroughly review the disadvantages. First, because this is a binding application, if accepted to your ED school, you cannot accept an offer from another school, regardless of the circumstances. It does not matter if you received more merit aid from a different school – you have committed to your ED choice and there is no escaping this reality. Furthermore, this also means that you can obviously only apply ED to one school.

This brings us to the second disadvantage: weaker financial aid. If you are strongly in need of scholarships or financial aid, an ED application may be the wrong choice. Since the school is all but guaranteed your matriculation, it is not necessary they persuade you to attend through the use of monetary offers. While most schools claim to evaluate ED applicants exactly the same as their regular applicants in scholarship consideration, it doesn’t prevent another school from making a better offer that you cannot accept nor leverage against your ED school. One must be absolutely sure that they are committed to attending their ED school – at full price – before applying because once it is done, there’s no backing out (aside from not forgoing law school). Third, for an applicant who is an “auto-admit” or even just better than borderline accept, it is not likely a wise choice to choose the ED option. If your numbers and qualifications are strong enough to make you a likely “admit” at a particular law school, applying via Early Decision will likely hurt your chances at scholarships you may have qualified for otherwise. If you within the numerical range (GPA and LSAT) of the school and you are not 100 percent sure you want to attend, there is little sense in locking yourself into attending and potentially passing up other offers or utilizing other offers to leverage scholarship money from the school in question. The same disadvantages discussed above in regards to Early Action also apply here.

7. Should I apply to other schools along with an Early Decision application?

Yes. Early Decision and Early Action applications do not by any means guarantee acceptance (even for students comfortably within or above the school's median numerical ranges). Even if your acceptance may be very likely, it is still recommended that you apply to other schools in case your first choice doesn't turn out in your favor.

8. Any suggestions for potential EA or ED applicants?

As stated many times, before submitting an ED application, make sure that you are 100 percent committed to that school and have done the appropriate research into the school's specific policies and requirements. If the school requires you to start a semester earlier (during the summer, as Michigan does), then you should be aware of it and ready to make the transition.

In terms of the actual applications, it is probably a good idea to also submit an essay explaining why said school is your first choice. Cardozo requires this of all its ED applicants, whereas Michigan, Penn, and Duke explicitly offer this as an optional essay. Although schools like UVA don't specifically ask for them, Deans from other schools have indicated that they are receptive to this type of essay when submitted. This takes an extra step in showing the school just how committed and knowledgeable you are.

Some have suggested visiting the school you are applying to (especially when it’s an ED application). If you are going to commit to the school completely, it is a good idea to have seen and experienced the school firsthand. While this may be difficult and expensive, it is a very good idea if you are not 100 percent sure about an ED application.

9. Is EA or ED right for me?

This is a very personal question and one which cannot be answered by anyone but yourself. However, if you answer "yes" to any of the following questions, I would suggest either not submitting an ED app, or at least thoroughly reconsidering the option.

-Are you unsure of which school you want to attend?

-Will merit scholarships and financial aid be a major factor in your decision on where to attend?

-Are you above the school's median numerical ranges (GPA, LSAT)?

-Would you regret having to turn down acceptances from other schools which may accept you?

There are important considerations when applying ED. While it can be a valuable tool in the admissions process, one should be fully aware of the implications of such a choice before submitting your application.