Four years after stepping away from a binding Early Decision admissions program, the University of Virginia announced Tuesday it will adopt the non-binding variant known as Early Action.

Students applying in fall 2011 may submit their U-Va. applications by a Nov. 1 early deadline. They will receive a decision by Jan. 31. They may still apply to other schools and have until May 1 to make a decision.

Greg Roberts, dean of admissions, said in a release he had floated the Early Action idea among high-school college counselors for several months and found the response “overwhelmingly positive.”

Early Action affords both colleges and students the chance to wrap up their college decision months ahead of schedule. Having an acceptance letter in the bag by Valentine’s Day can be a stress-reliever for students; for admission officers, it’s a way to wrap up a portion of the freshman class well ahead of the regular admissions cycle.

From 2000 to 2006, U-Va. offered Early Decision, a program that’s fundamentally the same but requires students to commit to the university if accepted. That’s a potentially trickier proposition for students, who might never know what they have given up by forsaking other colleges. It’s also a mixed blessing for colleges: the very top students might not choose Early Decision if they think they have a shot at Harvard or Yale, neither of which offers the ED program.

U-Va. is openly critical of Early Decision. So is Charles Deacon, admissions dean at Georgetown University, who favors non-binding Early Action because it does not scare away top students.

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