Students aren’t the only ones in the admissions world who want certainty — so do colleges. Enter restrictive early action, a nonbinding pathway that limits the number of colleges a student can apply early to while offering applicants a shot at their dream school.
While applicants are under no obligation to attend if accepted, schools that use restrictive early action ask prospective students to apply early only at that institution. Typically, such colleges require students to sign a form stating that they will not apply to other early admissions programs.
“Restrictive early action is similar to an early action plan in that you can apply earlier than other applicants and receive your decision earlier than other applicants,” explains Allen Koh, CEO of admissions firm Cardinal Education. “The way it is different is that you are not allowed to apply to other early decision or early action universities with the exception of public universities.”
That specific exception, he explains, is because public universities may take longer to make a decision. “And because public universities are so much more affordable,” Koh adds. “Universities think it would be unethical not to let students apply to the public universities.”
Another common exception is for students who are applying to foreign universities, experts note.
Understanding Restrictive Early Action
Applicants who choose the restrictive early action route are essentially foregoing the chance to apply early at other schools. Families may also know restrictive early action by another name: single-choice early action, which refers to the same type of admissions program.
Unlike early decision, applicants are not bound to attend a college if accepted via a restrictive or single-choice early action program.
“Basically, restrictive early action is a nonbinding, noncommittal way in which students can demonstrate that a specific school, particularly one of the most selective private schools in our country, is their number one choice,” says Cindy Chanin, founder and director of the admissions firm Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring.
Restrictive early action is found at only a sliver of U.S. colleges, typically elite institutions like Harvard University in Massachusetts, Stanford University in California and others of that ilk. Colleges that use restrictive early action tend to be highly selective with low acceptance rates.
Who Should Apply Via Restrictive Early Action
As with early admissions plans in general, restrictive early action isn’t for everyone. It tends to require students to submit application materials well before others applying for regular decision.
“Generally speaking, most universities in this country have an early deadline of some sort of Nov. 1. Some are earlier, some are later,” Koh says. That tends to be true for all early action and early decision programs, restrictive or not, he notes. Students often hear back in December, and decisions are typically required by the standard May 1 deadline.
The accelerated deadline also means that students need a strong portfolio. Christy Pratt, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, says students should apply via restrictive early action only if they are truly ready.
“If they’ve had a strong showing ninth through 11th grade, the rigor has continued to build and there’s nothing significant changing between the end of their junior year and their senior year that would benefit our review, then absolutely go for restrictive early action,” Pratt says.
Restrictive early action schools such as Notre Dame want to see more than standout grades in incoming applications. Prospective students should also have strong essays and letters of recommendation, interesting extracurricular activities and personal narratives that reveal the content of that applicant’s character. Such applicants tend to be academic all-stars highly coveted by colleges.
“But for that student that maybe didn’t have as strong of a junior year as they had hoped, or feel that their application would be stronger with colleges seeing their fall semester grades of their senior year, they should not be pursuing restrictive early action programs,” Pratt says.
In addition to working ahead on early applications, Pratt urges students to pay particular attention to varying institutional deadlines. “Every school is different, so students need to look at individual websites to make sure that they are submitting everything by the deadlines.”
Trade-Offs of Applying Via Restrictive Early Action
One advantage of applying to a school through the restrictive early action program is that it sends a clear signal of how much an applicant prioritizes that college. But experts note there are also disadvantages to applying via early action, especially if a student isn’t ready to do so. Additionally, the odds of admission tend to be better when applying to multiple nonrestrictive early action and early decision programs.
“The advantages of restrictive early action are, generally speaking, you will find higher probabilities than early action, and definitely better probabilities than regular decision,” Koh explains. “The disadvantage is that you would be able to submit fewer overall early applications. And early applications do generally carry a higher probability than regular applications. Another disadvantage is that it is not as powerful as early decision. We find acceptance rates for early decision programs are generally higher than for restricted early action programs.”
Chanin encourages students to get strategic in their admissions approaches, especially when it comes to restrictive early action. If a student doesn’t get into a restrictive early action program, he or she will have to wait until the regular decision round when admission rates are lower.
“They’re basically hedging their bets on something that’s very unlikely for most students unless they’re in the top tier of the applicant pool,” Chanin says.
Koh encourages students to think about “game theory” when applying to colleges. Which admissions route gives them the best chance to get in?
Chanin frames that decision in slightly different terms, encouraging students to think about their return on investment in admissions. Is the student’s application strong enough to stand out in a small but mighty applicant pool at his or her dream school, or would it be better to submit early applications at multiple schools? That’s the kind of question students should ponder when applying, she says.
“Restrictive early action gives you the opportunity to say that you are truly interested in attending this very selective institution,” Chanin says. “And there will be a slightly higher admissions rate to apply restrictive early action than there would be during the regular application deadlines. But you have to keep in mind that you are pitted up against the strongest candidates, even though it’s a smaller applicant pool.”
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Correction 10/21/21: A previous version of this article misattributed a statement to Christy Pratt.