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Early action takes the wait out of applying to college. Early-decision candidates apply to colleges in late fall. Schools then either send an acceptance, put the application on hold for later consideration, or reject the applicant.

EVERYONE has a different approach. Some kids have a friend or parent open the envelope. Others will only open the thick envelopes. And then there are those kids so nervous that they rent a box at the local post office, to find out in private.

College acceptance and rejection letters can unhinge the most laid back of high school seniors. And April is the month when many seniors sweat out their future. Ivy League schools traditionally notify applicants of their decision by mail during the first two weeks of the month.

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Not all applicants choose to wait until April, however. Some students are confident enough about their junior year grades and SAT or ACT test scores to chance an early-action or early-decision application.

An early action candidate applies to the college of his or her choice in the late fall. The school reviews the application, and either sends an acceptance, puts the application on hold until it can be compared with regular applicants, or rejects the applicant.

Students who are accepted under an early action policy can still choose to attend another school.

Under the early decision program, however, applicants must give the school a firm commitment as to whether or not they will go there once they receive an acceptance letter.

Jennifer Berkowitz took advantage of early decision once she narrowed down her choices for college to just one school - Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. She admits that at first she didn't think early decision was the ideal strategy for applying to college.

``I was scared of it,'' says the 17-year-old from Falls Church, Va. ``I thought for a long time that I didn't want to get locked into one school. But if you look closely enough at schools, you learn what you want. Study them, go through their interviews.''

Almost all of Jennifer's friends are still waiting to hear whether they were accepted by their first choice of colleges. The tension is relieved somewhat, though, because they have heard from their second-choice schools.

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Although colleges and universities often won't admit it, some applicants use early action to ensure they at least get into their second-choice college. They hold off on applying to a tougher school until the regular application deadline, when grades and test scores may have gone up. If all goes according to plan, the second-choice school will accept them early, so they can relax a little bit while they wait until April for a decision.

The University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., accepts about 60 percent of its early action applicants, says Kevin Rooney, director of admissions. Some decisions on early action applicants are deferred until the school's regular deadline. Only 20 percent of the deferred applications are ultimately accepted, he says.

This is a significant difference from three or four years ago, when half of the deferred applicants were accepted. Competition for slots at Notre Dame has increased as the number of applications coming in at the regular deadline has gone up, Mr. Rooney says.

Rice University uses an early decision plan. The applicants applying early to Rice have the advantage of competing with a smaller group of students, says Susie Scown, assistant director of admissions.

``About 90 percent of our applicants are academically qualified, and we only accept 30 percent,'' Ms. Scown says. ``Early decision applicants are trying to stand out in the pool.''

Mychelle Curl decided not to apply early to any of the eight schools she was interested in. The 17-year-old wanted to hold out for word from her first choice, Vanderbilt University, rather than get locked into an early decision commitment.

Tension about college acceptance is high at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., where Mychelle is a senior.

``The school paper publishes who gets in where. You can't leave my school if you've just gotten into UMass, Amherst,'' Mychelle says. ``You might as well not go to college if you go there. You'll get laughed at.''

Mychelle has assessed her chances of getting into Vanderbilt on two different scales. As an ordinary applicant she says her test scores are average, but as a minority applicant they rate well above average.

She is comfortable with the boost that her minority status gives her in the college application process. ``If being black helps me, it's like my mom says - it's not how you get in, it's what you do when you get there,'' she says.

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