Question: Do Early Action applicants have to send in their application sooner than regular-decision candidates do? If so, are they then given priority over the regular candidates? Where can I find a list of colleges offering Early Action?
Yes, with "Early Action" programs, students usually apply by mid-November--even when the college's "regular" deadline is in January or February-- and they receive a decision by mid-December. (Not all colleges use these same dates, but those are the most typical ones.) Unlike "Early Decision" plans, which are "binding" (this means you are committed to attend if admitted), with Early Action, you generally have until May 1 to make up your mind.
Most of the more competitive colleges in the U.S. offer either Early Decision (which is the most common), Early Action, or occasionally both. Go to this site below for a state-by-state list of colleges and their decision plans and deadlines.
Increasingly colleges are making rules about where you can or can't apply early. For instance, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford now have "single choice early action" programs that forbid students who elect these plans to apply elsewhere until receiving an Early Action decision in December. But, even if admitted, students can then send out other applications, and they have until May 1 to decide. Georgetown U., on the other hand, permits Early Action applicants to apply to other Early Action colleges but not to Early Decision schools. Some schools (e.g., Boston College) let their Early Action applicants apply wherever they please.
The whole thing is pretty confusing, and you really need a scorecard to keep track of what's what--especially because the policies seem to change every year.
One important thing to keep in mind: Applying Early DECISION often significantly boosts admission chances. It's the bird in hand vs. two in the bush theory. Colleges know that you're a sure thing, so even if they think you may not be the best thing, they may grab you anyway (especially if you're not asking for financial aid).
The disadvantages are:
1. You are committed before you can see where else you've been accepted.
2. Colleges don't always make their best financial-aid offers to ED applicants because they know they've already "bagged" them.
Early ACTION is often the opposite. Since the college must commit to YOU, but you don't have to commit to THEM until May, the Early Action standards can be extra high. So, Early Decision applicants usually ARE given priority over regular applicants; Early Action applicants usually are NOT.