Monday, December 11, 2023

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

If you’re looking to get a foot in the door at the college of your dreams, applying for early action or early decision could make you stand out above the rest. With early action and early decision, students are able to apply to prospective colleges way before the regular admission deadlines.

Choosing to apply early shows eagerness and confidence — precisely what schools want to see in candidates. Even better, while most of your classmates are sending their applications in January or February, you may have already received your letter of acceptance!

But first, you’ll need to know the distinctions, pros, and cons between the two options before deciding which is right for you. Here’s all you need to know about the differences between early action and early decision.

What is Early Action?

Early action is a non-binding process that allows you to apply to one or more colleges earlier than regular applicants. This grants students the chance to receive a decision —  and potentially gain admission — before the school’s regular response date.

You can submit college applications around early to mid-November (sometimes as early as October) and receive results around January or February of the following year.

It’s up to you if you want to accept the offer right away or wait until May 1 (National College Decision Day), but the beauty of the non-binding clause is that you are not obligated to attend even if you get in.

But watch out! When applying under early action, you may encounter a restrictive or single-choice early action process. Under this agreement, you can only pursue early action in one school but are free to apply in other institutions during regular admissions. You’ll only likely encounter this distinction in the most competitive universities.

Pros and Cons of Early Action

  • Non-binding
  • Can be used in multiple schools
  • Restrictive EA can only be used in one school

What is Early Decision?

Similar to early action, early decision allows you to apply to college before the regular application window. However, it’s a binding agreement so you can only use this option for one school. If admitted, you’ll need to withdraw your other applications (if you applied for early action) and enroll in the college.

You and your parents, along with a counselor, are required to sign an agreement upon application, stating that you are committed to enroll. The college will offer an early financial aid package, and if you don’t agree to the terms, that’s the only time you can back out from your commitment.

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 before May 1.

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. Deferred applicants, on the other hand, can try their luck during the regular admissions period. In either case, you can continue with applications to other schools.

Pros and Cons of Early Decision

  • Increased chances of admission
  • Binding
  • Can only be used in one school

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 Action Early 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 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. 
A woman expresses happiness while reading a letter
Getting early action or early decision can take a load off your plate. Photo: fizkes/Shutterstock

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 early action and early decision.

Higher Acceptance Rates 

You’re always rolling the dice when applying to colleges, so why not increase your odds? Colleges offering early action and early decision often accept more early action and early decision applicants than regular applicants. 

Early Decision Acceptance Rates

According to the most recent Admission Trends survey data, a quarter of US colleges offer early decision plans. These schools have an average acceptance rate of 61 percent for their early decision applicants, while regular admission applicants have a 49 percent chance of acceptance. You’d have a 12 percent higher chance of getting in during early decision.

Early Action Acceptance Rates

Similarly, about 38 percent of colleges in the US offer early action. On average, these colleges accept around 73 percent of early action applicants, compared to 64 percent of regular admission applicants. This means that applying early at early action colleges increases your odds of acceptance by 11 percent.

It won’t hurt to look into the early acceptance rates at your desired colleges. Submitting a strong profile ahead of other students can be a recipe for success!

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 of your life! 

You’ll be able to focus on other important things and have more time to enjoy your final year in high school. Plus, you’ll save money on application fees and spare the trouble of curating multiple applications for other colleges. You’re done!  

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. 

Explore available student clubs, start planning your class schedule, or reach out to online forums to learn more about life on campus. You can try to score premium student housing or nearby accommodations since you’ve been accepted earlier than other students.

Second Chances

If your early action or early decision strategy does not work out, you may still be able to take your chances during regular admissions or pursue other colleges. Being rejected, although painful and disappointing, comes with the territory. So don’t be too hard on yourself!

Take some time to reflect on where you can sharpen up 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 

Then again, applying to college well in advance can also come with serious disadvantages. Before rushing out your application, consider some of the common downsides of early action or early decision. 

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

Plus, applying early means you can’t use your senior year grades and extracurricular activities to boost your profile. Your current grades will need to be in tip-top shape.

For early decision applicants, committing to only one school also invites pressure. Once the application is in, students are restricted from exploring other options. And yes, early decision applicants should be firmly settled on the school they want to attend but doesn’t everyone change their mind once in a while?

Limited Financial Aid Offers

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

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

READ MORE: How to Apply for Grants and Scholarships

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. Remember, around 49 percent of early decision and 27 percent of early action applicants don’t make it in. Build a contingency plan and be prepared to submit additional college applications. That way, you won’t have to scramble at the last minute if your admission is denied.

Early Action vs. Early Decision: Which Should You Choose?

Apply as an early decision applicant if you’re convinced that the school you want can fulfill your academic and extracurricular needs and that you can afford to attend. Such commitment only works for those who’ve done thorough research and are confident that they have a strong application.

If you are prepared to apply early and want to keep your college options open, early action is the way to go. Whichever direction you take, accelerating your college search allows you to say hello to the next chapter of your life sooner than later.

Frequently Asked Questions About Early Action vs Early Decision

Not all colleges offer early action and early decision. According to the College Board, 450 colleges in the US offer either early action or early decision, and even fewer offer both options. Some of these institutions also do two rounds of each process, generally termed as ED I, ED II, EA I, and EA II.

Early action and early decision are more common in private colleges than public ones. 

More often than not, early decision applicants secure a college slot — about 61 percent of the time. The rate is so favorable because colleges want to improve or maintain the yield rate (the percentage of accepted students that enroll), which is considered an important element in calculating world rankings. 

Your college application will still be the determining factor as to whether or not you are accepted. However, applying early can demonstrate the interest and commitment it takes to attract the attention of admissions officers. 

Early application deadlines may vary from school to school, but most institutions that adopt these strategies start accepting applications on November 1 and 15. They typically send results out in December.

But take it from us, it’s better to check the actual deadlines released by your prospective colleges before applying.

Between the two options, early decision has more impact on your financial aid offers than early action.

ED applicants may miss the chance to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools since they are bound to only one. The limiting nature of the agreement may be challenging for students to compare how different colleges can meet their needs, so it’s best to tread cautiously.

However, if the school you applied to cannot give you the appropriate financial support, you are allowed to decline early admission.

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