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Early Action? Early Decision? An Explanation Of Looming College Admission Deadlines

Old Chapel at Middlebury College
Amy Kolb Noyes
Old Chapel is one of the more recognizable buildings at Middlebury College. Middlebury is among the schools that had an early decision deadline on Nov. 1, but the school does also have a second early decision deadline of Jan. 1, 2020.

Last week brought the first early decision deadlines for high school seniors applying to college — and also a lot of potential questions: Just what is early decision and how does it differ from early action? Have college admissions changed since the "Varsity Blues" scandal broke earlier this year? How do college admissions officers view Vermont's new proficiency-based grading systems? What are the admissions options at Vermont colleges and universities?

Here's what you need to know...

Although college demographics are changing, the biggest population of incoming students is still high school seniors applying for fall semester admission as first-year college students. For those students, the college admissions process is now in full swing.

Lindsey Yablonowski is a school counselor at Peoples Academy, in Morrisville. She said there's a lot to weigh when it comes to choosing where to apply. She suggests students submit applications to at least four different schools.

"Because that's gonna give you a good range," Yablonowski explained. "You know, and you're thoughtful about that, having some reach schools, safety school and some in between – and also thinking academically and financially."

While many colleges and universities now accept a common online application, their application deadlines and decision options can vary greatly. In general, early decision and early action deadlines start in November. Most regular decision deadlines fall between January and early March. Some schools have rolling admissions, meaning they will accept applications until an incoming class is full.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

In short, early decision is a binding contract and early action is not. Therefore, a student can only apply early decision to one school, and they are agreeing to attend should they be admitted.

However, students can apply to multiple schools through the early action deadline. They will be notified early of the admission decision, but can wait until the normal spring deadline to commit to a school.

Middlebury College Director of Admissions Sam Prouty likened early decision to a marriage proposal.

"My sort of friendly analogy around early decision is that it is sort of like the engagement ring of the college admissions process," Prouty said. "So for a binding early decision, that is the young person's way of saying to that school, you know, 'You are the one that I love. I think that we're meant to be together, and I'm applying early decision as my way to convey that to you.'"

Not every school offers early action or early decision. But Carrie Felice, another counselor at Peoples Academy, said there are advantages to acting early.

"Some schools will just say they'll waive the application fee if they do it early, because it's helpful for schools too," Felice said. "They have a lot of applications that they need to go through. So if they have it ahead of time, they can start that process."

A brick building on a green.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR File
VPR File
The University of Vermont does not have early decision, but it does offer an early action option for applicants. UVM's deadline for early action was Nov. 1; the regular deadline is Jan. 15, 2020.

Admission Processes

With jail sentences being rolled out in the "Varsity Blues" admission scandal, college admissions rules and ethics have been in the news lately — but there have also been some changes to admissions guidelines this fall that have not made the tabloids.

Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Association for College Admission Counselingvoted in September totake out portions of its code of ethics that might violate anti-trust laws.

Until now, the NACAC code of ethics stated colleges could not offer perks to students who apply early decision, could not poach students who have committed to another school and could not recruit students to transfer from another school. It's unclear how many schools will actually alter their admission practices as a result of the change.

Also this fall, a federal judge upheld affirmative action in a lawsuit against Harvard University. That means, at least for now, schools can still take a student's race into consideration as part of the admissions process. The plaintiff in that case is hoping to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Proficiency-Based Grading

In 2013 the Vermont Legislature passed Act 77 which was designed to give high school students flexible pathways to graduation. A key component to the flexible pathways concept is proficiency-based learning, which is assessed through proficiency-based grading.

The upshot for students applying for college is that, depending on the system their high school has put in place, there may not be any letter grades, grade point averages or class rankings that signal to colleges how well the student performed academically in high school compared to their peers. Some students worry that could lead college admissions officers to rely more heavily on standardized test scores, like the SAT and ACT.

Sam Prouty at Middlebury College said while proficiency-based grading may be new to Vermont high schools, it's not new to college admissions offices.

"Anybody who has done college admissions for a long time will tell you that schools use all kinds of different transcripts," Prouty said. "They use all kinds of different grading systems and scales. Some of them use A, B, C. Some of them use 80, 90, 100. Some of them don't give grades at all. Some of them weight their grades, some of them don't. Some of them rank, some of them don't. ... Bottom line is we know what we're looking at."

Vermont College Deadlines

Here are the published admission deadlines for the colleges and universities in Vermont for first-year undergraduate applicants to enroll for fall 2020. Click on a school for more admissions information.

Bennington College

  • Early Decision I – November 15, 2019
  • Early Action – December 1, 2019
  • Early Decision II – January 15, 2020
  • Regular Decision – January 15, 2020

Champlain College

  • Early Decision – November 15, 2019
  • Regular Decision – January 15, 2020

Marlboro College [Editor's note: On Nov. 6, the college announced a planned merger with Emerson College which would result in closure of the Vermont campus. More about that here.

  • Regular Decision – February 1, 2020

Middlebury College

  • Early Decision I – November 1, 2019
  • Early Decision II – January 1, 2020
  • Regular Decision – January 1, 2020

St. Michael's College

  • Early Action I – November 1, 2019
  • Early Action II – December 1, 2019
  • Regular Decision – February 1, 2020

Sterling College

  • Early Decision – November 15, 2019
  • Early Action I – December 15, 2019
  • Early Action II – January 15, 2020
  • Regular Decision – March 1, 2020

University of Vermont

  • Early Action – November 1, 2019
  • Regular Decision – January 15, 2020

The following Vermont schools have rolling admissions. Click a school for more admissions information:

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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