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    Everything You Need to Know About Early Decision vs. Early Action

    By Will Geiger

    Will Geiger is the co-founder of Scholarships360 and has a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. He is a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed 10,000 admissions applications and essays. Will also managed the Kenyon College merit scholarship program and served on the financial aid appeals committee. He has also worked as an Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut. Will earned his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania and received his undergraduate degree in history from Wake Forest University.

    Full Bio

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Learn about our editorial policies

    Updated: September 18th, 2023
    Everything You Need to Know About Early Decision vs. Early Action

    When applying to colleges, you will be forced to make lots of different choices. One of the biggest choices for students is which application plan to use. Typically, colleges offer a range of application plans that all have different timelines, pros, and cons.

    While Regular Decision is the typical application plan with a January deadline and March response date for decisions, you may notice other application plans such as Early Decision and Early Action.

    Applying under an early application plan is a big decision and you’ll want to understand the differences between Early Decision vs. Early Action. In this post, we are going to help you understand:

    Keep on reading to learn everything you need to know about these popular early application plans.

    What is Early Action?

    Early Action is an application plan that has an earlier timeline than Regular Decision. This timeline usually looks like this:

    • Application Deadline: Generally November 1st or November 15th (but some colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgia Tech will have an October 15th deadline)
    • Decision Notification: You will receive your decision anytime between December and February.

    The other big thing to know about Early Action is that it is a non-binding process. This means that if you apply Early Action to a college and are accepted, you are not bound to attend (this is not the case with Early Decision, but we will get to that later). 

    You might also come across a few other versions of Early Action called Single Choice Early Action or Restricted Early Action. Both of these types of Early Action have restrictions associated with them. For instance, they may prevent you from applying Early Decision or Early Action to certain colleges. 

    Does Early Action increase the chances of admission?

    This is a tough question, and may vary school-to-school. Some colleges prioritize Early Action applicants, as applying early action shows initiative. They may also be able to give out more generous financial aid during the Early Action process. Harvard’s admissions statistics are nearly three times higher for early applications. However, the dean of Georgetown University recently stated that the admissions process for Early Action is actually tougher at Georgetown.

    He was quoted by the school newspaper as saying, “The early pool tends to be more of the ‘haves’ as opposed to the ‘have-nots.’ First-gen and low-income kids tend to apply later and so we don’t want to give away a disproportionate number of spaces early.”

    So, while Early Action may have benefits at many schools, it may be an even more rigorous admissions process at other schools. Rather than an improved chance of admission, the main advantage of Early Action is to give you a picture of your options earlier rather than later.

    Bottom line about Early Action

    Early Action can be a great option for students who want to apply to a college “early” without a binding commitment. If you see Single Choice Early Action or Restricted Early Action, you will want to get details about the actual restrictions that you are agreeing to. The best place to find these details is on the admissions website of the college in question.

    Related: When should you take the SAT or ACT?

    What is Early Decision?

    Now that we’ve discussed Early Action, let’s talk about Early Decision, which is the other big early application option.

    The Early Decision timeline tends to be a bit more condensed than the Early Action timeline and will look something like this:

    • Application Deadline: Generally November 1st or November 15th
    • Decision Notification: You will receive your decision during the first few weeks of December.

    Unlike Early Action, Early Decision is a binding process which means that you are agreeing to attend the college or university if admitted. Keep reading to learn more about why this can be a good move.

    What about Early Decision 2?

    You might also come across something called Early Decision 2, which is a second round of Early Decision that some colleges offer. Early Decision 2 works the same way as Early Decision, but has a slightly different timeline. Students need to submit their applications by January 1st or January 15th and will typically hear back in early to mid-February about final acceptance decisions. 

    Bottom line about Early Decision

    Early Decision should be reserved for students who are 100% sure that the college they are considering is a place they want to attend. While students will receive an admissions “bump” from an ED application, that advantage comes with a promise that you, your parent/guardian and counselor need to make in writing.

    The downside to ED is that you won’t get to weigh different financial aid options. You can check out this post about ED and financial aid to learn more about what this can mean for you.

    Why should students consider Early Action or Early Decision?

    So you might be wondering, why would a student agree to a binding admissions plan like Early Decision? Wouldn’t it be better to weigh your options and apply to lots of colleges

    Well, there is a very big reason why many students apply for Early Decision. By agreeing to attend the college if admitted, the college admissions office will generally give you extra consideration. At most colleges and universities, the Early Decision acceptance rate is higher than the general acceptance rate.

    The other benefit to both Early Decision and Early Action is that you will get your decisions sooner! The admissions process can be a stressful one and it can feel good to either be done sooner or have some college options earlier on in the process. Plus, an earlier timeline is a great way to force yourself to finish work earlier on in the process.

    Questions students should ask before applying Early Action or Early Decision

    You should not make the decision to apply Early Action and especially Early Decision lightly. Here are some questions that students, parents, and guardians can ask themselves before actually pulling the trigger on submitting an Early Decision or Early Action app:

    Am I 100% sure this is the college I want to attend if I am considering Early Decision?

    Early Decision is a binding process, so you should be 100% certain that the college is the right one for you. Remember, you shouldn’t have any major doubts and should have thoroughly researched the college, assessed whether it will be a good financial fit through the Net Price Calculator, and toured the campus in person.

    If you have any doubts, you might be better off holding off until Regular Decision.

    Also see: How to choose a college

    Do I feel confident about my academic record?

    One of the downsides of Early Decision and Early Action that are less discussed is that you will not be able to submit a full semester’s worth of grades before applying. So if you had a rough junior year or have an up and down high school record overall, it can be a good move to have a full set of fall semester grades to submit.

    Same goes for your test scores—if you are planning on taking certain fall tests for the SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests, you may not be able to submit in time for Early Decision or Early Action. You can check in with the college admissions office for more details about this.

    Related: Do colleges use weighted or unweighted GPA?

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Early action is a non-binding admissions process that allows you to apply sooner in the school year and hear back sooner
    • Early decision is a binding admissions process that requires you to apply early and commit early to a school, should you be accepted
    • Applying early to a college may impact your financial aid situation, which means you should take your time examining what finances look like before applying or committing to a school
    • Early decision and early action are not inherently better than applying through regular decision, which means you should also consider regular decision as an option when applying to college

    Frequently asked questions about Early Decision vs. Early Action

    Do colleges prefer early decision or early action?

    Knowing what a school prefers is a tough question to answer because every college will function a little differently. Regardless of a college’s preference, the real question here is whether early decision is right for you. If you’ve been dreaming of attending a school since you were a little kid and have your decision made before you’ve applied, then early decision might be the best route for you. However, if you’re just applying to add more potential colleges to your list, early decision probably is not the best route for you.

    Is there a downside to early action?

    We mentioned above that the biggest downside to applying to early action or early decision is that you will have to submit grades from your junior year of high school and may not have had the chance to take the SAT or ACT, as well as having to make a hard commitment with your early decision applications. While these things may not be a big issue for some, others who may have had struggles during junior year with grades, or who have scored poorly on the SAT or ACT and have not retaken it, may not be able to submit their strongest application.

    What grades do colleges look at for early action?

    What grades you submit to a college depends on when you are applying. Generally with early action, you’ll be submitting grades from your junior year, since you will be applying in the fall semester of your senior year and won’t have a full semester of grades from senior year to submit. If your grades from junior year are not as good as you’d like them to be, consider applying to regular decisions and spending your senior year picking your grades up. There’s nothing wrong with waiting a little longer to submit a stronger application.

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