Early Action vs. Early Decision: Understanding the Difference

Early action vs. early decision…how are they different? First, let’s start with the basics of early admissions:

  • Both options enable you to apply for college prior to regular admission deadlines and get an admission decision before regular applicants.
  • If you apply early decision, you are bound to attending one school.
  • You can apply to multiple colleges as an early action applicant (check the fine print of each school for their unique policies).
  • Both application types are usually due November 1st and you will hear about your admission status by mid-December.
  • Early action is not better than early decision and vice versa. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.
  • Some admissions experts suggest that applying early increases your admission chances.

Comparing Early Action vs. Early Decision

Student writing and looking in the distance

Okay, now that you’ve got a general sense of the two ways to apply early to college, let’s look a little closer at the main differences between them.

Think about the actual name of each option for a moment.

“Early action” simply suggests that you’re taking action steps toward applying for college earlier.

“Early Decision,” on the other hand, has the word “decision” right in the name. It means that your mind is made up. You’ve decided that if you get into THIS school, you’re going no matter what—it’s your first-choice school. And that’s why early decision applications are binding. When you apply early decision to a school you are making a promise that you will attend if accepted.

Binding vs. Non-Binding

A really important thing to know about early decision applications is that they aren’t legally binding. This means that you can’t be taken to court if you apply early decision, are accepted, and then want to back out. BUT—they are binding within the college system. So if you change your mind and decide to attend another college where you did not apply early decision, you could face having your admission revoked.

On the other hand, early action applications are non-binding. You’ll find out if you got in earlier, but you can still weigh your options. You’ll typically have until the regular commitment date (May 1st) to make a choice.

What to Consider When Choosing Early Action vs. Early Decision

When you’re deciding whether you want to apply early action vs. early decision, here’s the biggest factor:

How badly do you want to attend a particular college? Do you have a true dream school? Do just know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that THIS is the school for you? If so, applying early decision is the way to go.

But before you take that plunge and commit, it may be worthwhile to spend some time really reflecting on the factors that make this school your #1 choice.

Factors to Consider

For instance, you may be dead set on a particular school on account of:

  • A particular program of study — is it the only place this program is offered? Is it the best of the best? Are there specific faculty members you’d love to take classes with?
  • Geographic location — Is it very important to you where you go to college when it comes to the city or state? What draws you to this particular place? Why will living there be integral to your college experience?
  • Financial Aid — some schools guarantee a certain amount of financial aid to admitted students, which may be a significant factor in your decision.
  • Extracurricular activities — Is there a sports team you’ve been scouted for? A club that you’d absolutely love to be part of? A Greek community that you feel drawn to?
  • Internships or other experiential opportunities — Is there a school-to-career pipeline of some sort that is offered at this school? Are you guaranteed some type of intern/externship, mentorship, or research opportunity you can’t get anywhere else?
  • Values — Is there something about the school’s culture and values that appeals to you? For instance, is it affiliated with a particular religion or committed to building a diverse student population?
  • Other personal reasons — You may be set on a specific school because of family legacy or the school’s history or prestige.

If you don’t feel “all-in” on a college because of any combination of the above reasons, but you’d still like to apply early, then early action is likely the better route for you. Also, if you’re a competitive applicant (great grades, class ranking, test scores, etc.), then early action or early decision may be a good choice for you.

Still unsure? Check out our quiz on whether you should accept early decision!

Pros

Of course, there are pros and cons to early action vs. early decision. On the upside, you’ll be better able to make your college plans earlier, which can be less stressful and more cost-effective. On the downside, you’ll have to assemble your application materials quickly, which could be stressful if you’re not prepared.

Let’s look at some key points of early action vs. early decision.

Early Action:

  • You will know your admission status early and have more time to make plans regarding housing, financial aid, jobs, classes, and so on.
  • You can apply to multiple schools early action and therefore you will have options when it comes to choosing a school. This includes having time to weigh out financial aid package offers from each school.

Early Decision:

  • If you get in, you can celebrate super early that you got into your dream school!
  • By making this type of preemptive commitment, you may be more likely to be accepted (more on this shortly)

Cons

Early Action:

  • You may have more applications if you’re applying early action, which can add a lot of pressure on top of an already busy schedule during your senior year.
  • If you get in more than one school, you may feel overwhelmed by indecision (although this isn’t an entirely bad problem to have!). Conversely, if you don’t get into any of your early action schools, you will only have a short window to apply regular decision elsewhere.

Early Decision:

  • You only get one early decision application, so if you start to waver on your decision, the entire college application process can get delayed.
  • There may be less financial aid options available and you won’t have the opportunity to weigh out other options.

How do I decide which schools to apply to?

Okay so once you have an idea of which early application route you’ll be taking, how do you decide schools to apply to?

  1. Look into which schools offer early action and/or early decision options; not all of them do.
    1. Some of the most common early action schools include Northeastern, University of Michigan, MIT, and Georgetown.
    2. Some of the most common early decision schools include NYU, Rice University, and Columbia University.
  2. Check the admissions page or call the admissions office of each school you’re interested in to double-check their early application policies and deadlines.

You can read more about how to choose the right college here!

Does early action or early decision increase chances of acceptance?

When it comes to the odds of getting into a college or university by applying early decision, the truth is that your chances depend on the school. Ask an admissions department directly about their acceptance rates and if early decision candidates are given any sort of priority, or take a look at their most recent class profile. Also, consider that:

  • Because applying early decision is binding, less students apply, which may increase your chances of getting in.
  • What appears to be higher acceptance rates could be due to stronger and more competitive candidates applying early decision.

In short, it certainly can’t hurt, so if you feel strongly about a particular fit, we say go for it! (On that note, check out these 3 tips for applying early decision).

Other Types of Early Action and Early Decision

To make matters a bit more complex, there are also a couple of lesser-known types of early action and early decision applications.

Early Decision 2

Early decision 2 (often just abbreviated as ED2) is an option some schools offer that is virtually identical to early decision (1) but has a different due date. So while most early decision deadlines are November 1st, early decision 2 is later, often January 1st or 15th (with notifications arriving in February). Both types of early decision applications are binding with one school, but ED2 allows you a bit more time to get your application together. It’s unclear if you stand a better chance of admission with early decision vs. early decision 2. But with either type of application, you’ll be demonstrating your seriousness about your interest in a particular school.

Restrictive Early Action

Restrictive early action (also known as single-choice early action or restrictive ea), on the other hand, is a type of early action application that is sort of like a hybrid of early decision and early action. It’s non-binding (like early action), but you can only choose one school to apply to (like early decision). A select number of elite colleges including Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford offer restrictive early action.

The gist is that you will want to look into the specific application types and deadlines for each school that you’re interested in and then go from there.

Early Action vs. Early Decision: A Final Word

Overall, the decision to apply early action vs. early decision to college hinges largely on how prepared you are to apply as well as how clear you are on where you want to go and what you want to study. There’s no wrong choice, and whateverway you apply early will show your seriousness and commitment to attending college, which is always a good look to admissions boards. If you want more help deciding which route is best for you, we encourage you to chat with your school counselor.

And what about if you apply early decision but don’t get in? You may feel bummed but the good news is that you’re still able to apply to plenty of other schools by the regular deadline.

Happy applying and good luck!

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Authors

  • Nadyja Von Ebers

    Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions. Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she's not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn!

  • Brendan Henrique

    Brendan Henrique is a GRE Content Expert for Magoosh. Brendan has been helping students with the SAT, ACT and GRE for over six years and has been a middle school science teacher for the past two years. He attended UC Berkeley (B.A.) for Cognitive Science and Loyola Marymount (M.A.) for Urban Education. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. of Learning Sciences at UC Berkeley where he will focus on building a framework for equitable STEM education. His Master’s thesis analyzed differing labor practices and their effects between charter schools and public schools. He has mentored hundreds of students domestically from Boston to Minneapolis to Oakland. He has also been able to teach students remotely in international locations ranging from China to Spain. Brendan is a proud board member of Love.Learn.Success, a nonprofit organization that runs after school programs in the Bay Area. Connect with him and Magoosh on LinkedIn!

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