Monday, May 20, 2024

Early Action vs Early Decision: What’s the Difference?

Weigh both options before diving in.

Want to study at the college of your dreams? An early action or early decision application plan can increase your chances of getting your foot in the door. 🚪

Submitting your college applications earlier than the regular deadline can mean that you’ve already received a letter of acceptance around December to January, while your classmates are still preparing the requirements. 

But before jumping on the bandwagon, here’s the 101 on early action vs early decision to see which pathway is a better match. ✅

What is Early Action (EA)? 🤔

Early action allows you to apply to one or more colleges earlier than regular applicants without the commitment (aka a non-binding agreement) to attend a school that accepts you. 

READ MORE: How to Apply for College in 9 Simple Steps

Have your complete college application documents (such as your high school transcript and letters of recommendation) ready for submission by the usual early action deadline of November 1st or November 15th. 📅

A seated Asian male high school senior focuses on preparing his early decision college application documents on his laptop
Deciding between early action vs early decision? Make sure you’ve got all your college requirements ready as early as the summer break before senior year. Photo: pressfoto/Freepik

You can receive your admission status as early as December. If accepted, you can say yes to the offer right away, wait until May 1 (National College Decision Day), or choose not to attend the school because of the non-binding clause. 

But watch out! ⚠️ When applying under early action, check whether your desired college has a restrictive or single-choice early action process

Under this agreement, you can only pursue early action at a single college instead of multiple schools, but it’s still non-binding. You’re likely to encounter this in the most competitive universities within the US.

Some colleges and universities offering non-restrictive early action are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, and the Georgia Institute of Technology

On the other hand, Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Princeton offer single-choice early action to their applicants. 🏛️

Pros and Cons of Early Action

A table comparing the pros and cons of taking early action in a student's college application

What is Early Decision (ED)? 🤔

Similar to early action, early decision allows you to apply to colleges before the regular application window. However, it is a binding agreement which means that you can only pursue this option for one college, and you’re obligated to enroll if you get accepted. 🧑‍🎓

Ensure that you’ve done your research and zeroed in on the best college for you, because you’ll be required to sign an agreement stating your commitment to enroll at your chosen school and withdraw any other applications. ✍️

Colleges offering early decision will offer a financial aid package. If you don’t agree with the terms, that’s the only time you can back out from your commitment.

Two high school seniors compare financial aid packages from their early decision college results
Research the potential financial aid package for an early decision college applicant at your target school for a smoother journey if you get in. Photo: Freepik

Early decision deadlines usually fall in November, and you’ll know whether you got in by December (that’s fast!). Accepted students will need to pay a nonrefundable deposit, usually ranging between $100 to $400, before May 1st. 💸

If your application doesn’t make the cut during early decision (it happens), colleges can go two ways: rejection or deferral. Unfortunately, rejected students cannot submit another application to that college in the same year

On the flip side, deferred applicants can try their luck during the regular admissions period. In either case, you can continue with applications to other schools. 👍

Early decision can give colleges insight into potential enrollment numbers, and top schools like Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Pennsylvania typically offer this.

Note: The early decision applicant pool may be smaller because many high school students are still exploring what they want to do in college. But, prospective students should expect to compete with high-quality applications that are likely sent in by seniors who are sure of what they want. 

Pros and Cons of Early Decision

A table comparing the pros and cons of taking early decision in a student's college application

What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision? ⚖️

Early action vs early decision — they might share similar names and timelines, but these application agreements offer contrasting conditions. Check out the key differences here:

Early ActionEarly Decision
You can apply early to multiple colleges.You are bound to one institution.
You can compare financial aid offers from other schools.You rely on one financial aid package, but you’re allowed to decline if it is insufficient. 
You can take more time to figure out which school will work for you.You send a stronger message of commitment to the institution. 

Advantages of Applying to College Early ✔️

Apart from checking “apply to college” off your to-do list, there are several other highly enticing benefits of choosing between early action vs early decision application pathways. 

A trio of high school seniors rejoice after getting accepted in their early decision college
Juggling your early action or early decision college applications with high school work may be challenging, but can pay off once you get responses by December. Photo: Freepik

Higher Acceptance Rates 📈

You’re always rolling the dice when applying to colleges, so why not increase your odds? 🎲 

Selected colleges offering early action and early decision tend to accept more applicants compared to the regular application period. For example, good-ranking schools like Tulane University have a 68 percent acceptance rate for its ED applicants, which is higher than its regular admission rate of 11 percent. 😲 

Early applicants also have a better shot at institutions like the American University (86 percent for ED; 41 percent for regular applicants) and the University of Miami (57 percent for ED and EA; 19 percent for regular applicants).

Other schools have also increased the number of ED students they admit per year by around five percent. For 2022 to 2023, ED applicants have had more luck applying to schools like Vanderbilt University, Boston University, and Georgetown University. 🏫

A couple of happy freshmen students celebrate their first day in college after securing their slots through early action
Getting into your dream college after months of waiting is great, but securing your spot earlier than everyone else is even better — thanks to early decision or early action options. Photo: Freepik

Reduced Admission Stress 🧘

Getting an early start on your college applications can help you shake admissions stress. If your first-choice school offers you admission and an acceptable financial aid package, you can start preparing for the next stage in your education at an earlier time. 😄

A high school senior plots her plans in her notebook after getting accepted into her early action college choice
Early action or early decision gets college applications out of the way with time to spare. You can plan out your housing, budget, and other concerns to make a brand new start after high school. Photo: lookstudio/Freepik

While everybody else is crossing their fingers waiting for college results, you no longer have to worry and have more time to enjoy your senior year of high school.

Plus, you won’t have to shell out more money on college application fees, have better housing options to choose from, and can begin to create a solid budgeting plan. 🥳

READ MORE: These Are the 60 Ranked US Colleges Without Application Fees [2023]

More Time to Get to Know the School 🤓

Along the same lines, applying early and getting accepted right away can give you more time to learn the ins and outs of your new school. 

A group of high school seniors visit their prospective college campus after submitting successful early action applications
Securing your college choice early can buy you more time in the adjustment and preparation period from high school. Photo: Freepik

Explore available student clubs, start planning your class schedule, or reach out to online forums to learn more about life on campus. 🏫 

You’ll have first pick of student housing or nearby accommodations since you’ve been accepted earlier than other students. Plus, you can use your extra time to check out more financial aid options that might have opened up.

Second Chances ✨

If your early action or early decision strategy does not work out, you can take your chances during regular admissions or pursue other colleges. Rejection may be painful, but it comes with the territory, so don’t be too hard on yourself. 🤗

A female high school student edits her early action vs early decision college applications in a quiet public place
Didn’t get into any of the colleges you’ve applied to? Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of alternative options: consider community college, look for a full-time job, or write an appeal letter. Photo: Freepik

Take some time to reflect on how to sharpen your application and what you’re looking for most in a college, then give it another go during regular admissions.

Downsides of Early Action and Early Decision 👎

Applying to college early has its pros, but knowing its disadvantages sets you up to make a balanced decision. Consider some of the common negatives of early action or early decision before rushing your application. 

Group of multiethnic students walking together outdoors in college campus, holding books and notepads and laughing
Your priorities will decide whether you choose early action or early decision. Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Increased Pressure 😫

Early decision and early action can speed up the college application process, but they also mean that deadlines are hot on your heels. 

You’ll have to deal with juggling admission requirements and schoolwork sooner than your classmates, which means kissing goodbye to free time at the beginning of the school year! 

Your grades must also be in tip-top shape before and during the deadline season because you won’t have the extra time to boost your profile with improved senior year grades and extracurricular activities. 📃

A couple of exhausted high school seniors after juggling homework and college applications to meet the early action deadline
Enjoy your high school senior year while preparing for college with proper time management. Photo: Freepik

For early decision applicants, committing to only one school also invites pressure. Once the application is in, students are restricted from exploring other options. 

It’s hard to live with the regret of settling with a school you dislike that you’re obligated to attend. So, make sure your early decision college is the one that ticks all your boxes, like the quality and variety of programs, the type of community you want to be in, and proximity to your home. ✅

Limited Financial Aid Offers 💲

For students who rely on financial aid and want the best deal possible, applying early may not be the safest course of action.

A stressed female high school senior reads the insufficient financial aid offer of one of her early action colleges
Do complete research about the college you’re sending an early application to so you can create a backup budget in case things don’t go your way. Photo: bearfotos/Freepik

While early action offers more leniency, early decision ties you to one school where you’ll only get one financial aid proposal. Such restrictions prevent you from taking chances at other schools that may have better academic subsidies. 😞

TIP: Before pushing through with your early college applications, review the school’s website or call their financial aid office to get an idea of how much assistance is available. 

READ MORE: How to Apply for Scholarships and Grants: All You Need to Know

False Sense of Security 😵

Many colleges accept a high number of early decision and early action applicants, but it doesn’t mean that admission is 100 percent guaranteed. 

A male high school student prepares his college applications and contingency plans in case he gets rejected or deferred in the early application stage
College admissions can be a tough competition, so adjust your expectations and be ready for whatever happens to keep moving forward. Photo: Freepik

Build a contingency plan and be prepared to submit additional college applications so you won’t have to scramble at the last minute if you get denied admission, especially since you can’t reapply during the regular admissions in the same cycle of a particular college. 👍

Early Action vs Early Decision: Which Should You Choose?

Most colleges only offer one or the other, and rarely both.

A female high school student researches the difference between early action vs early decision as part of her application preparations
Whether you plan to pursue an early action vs early decision college application, diligent research and timely preparations are the keys to success. Photo: Freepik

Apply as an early decision applicant if you’re convinced that your dream college can fulfill your academic and extracurricular needs and that you can afford to attend your chosen school. 💯 This commitment is best for students who’ve done their research and are confident with a strong application.

Meanwhile, if you’re prepared to apply early but want to keep your college options open, early action is the way to go. 😀


Now that you know the difference between early action vs early decision, it’s time to make headway on your college applications because the clock is ticking! 

Whichever direction you take, accelerating your college search allows you to say hello to the next chapter of your life sooner rather than later. 👋

Frequently Asked Questions: Early Action vs Early Decision: What’s the Difference?

Do all colleges offer early action and early decision?

Are my chances of acceptance higher with early action or early decision?

What are the deadlines for early action and early decision?

Will applying early affect my financial aid package?

Is early action better than early decision?

Is there a downside to applying early action?

Is it harder to get in early action or regular decision?

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