Early Action vs. Early Decision: 4 Key Differences

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What’s Covered:

 

Applying early action (EA) or early decision (ED) can have a serious influence on your college options. If you’re contemplating applying early action or early decision, here are four key differences between the two, some similarities, and insight into how applying through early affects your odds of admission. 

 

Similarities between Early Action and Early Decision

 

Timeline 

 

The trait that is the most similar between early action and early decision is the timeline. Both EA and ED deadlines usually occur in early November, with decisions being released in mid-December. Some EA schools, however, may not release decisions until mid-January or February. This is still in advance of regular decision admissions notifications, which typically occur in March or April.

 

Higher Acceptance Rate 

 

Both early action and early decision generally have higher acceptance rates than those for students applying regular decision. For example, even as Harvard’s class of 2025 posted a record-low early action acceptance rate of 7.4%—it hadn’t fallen below 13.4% in the past decade—it was still twice as high as its record-low overall 3.43% acceptance rate. 

 

Fellow Ivy Leaguers entering the University of Pennsylvania’s class of 2025 saw a similar admissions trend. The school accepted 15% of students through early action, a substantially higher proportion than its 5.68% overall acceptance rate. Harvard and UPenn aren’t unique—the early decision and early action acceptance rates at top schools are generally higher than their regular decision acceptance rates. 

 

Key Differences between Early Action and Early Decision

 

1. Whether Acceptance is Binding 

 

Whether or not acceptance is binding is one of the most notable differences between early decision and early action. Students who are accepted ED are bound to attend the institution. 

 

Early action applications are non-binding and consequently less restrictive. Simply, EA applicants have more options and control over their college options—most colleges don’t require EA applicants to make an admissions decision until the regular May 1st deadline and students can reject an offer without repercussions. 

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2. Ability to Compare Financial Aid Packages

 

The binding nature of early decision ED isn’t just a commitment to enroll at a college if admitted; it’s also agreeing to accept the financial aid package offered. This strips ED applicants of the ability to compare financial aid offers from different schools and makes it imperative that students understand the cost and affordability of the institution they’re applying to. Most colleges will waive an applicant’s agreement to attend if they can’t afford it, but they are under no obligation to do so.     

 

On the flip side, students who apply EA will be able to consider financial aid packages from their Early Action and Regular Decision schools. Having these different offers gives students leverage and allows them to better negotiate their financial aid.

 

3. Number of Schools You Can Apply To 

 

Due to the restrictive nature of early decision, a college-bound student can only apply to one college via ED. In most circumstances, they’re allowed to apply to other institutions through either early action or regular decision, but must withdraw their applications and matriculate at their ED school if admission is granted.  

 

Unlike early decision, students applying through early action can apply to as many schools as they desire through EA and regular decision with no obligation to attend if accepted. The exception to this is schools that offer restrictive early action (REA) or single-choice early action (SCEA). Common at competitive schools, like those of the Ivy League, candidates applying via REA and SCEA processes are not bound to attend if accepted, but may not apply for ED or EA at any other institution—they may, however, apply to as many schools as they like through regular decision. Some REA schools also allow students to apply EA to public schools. 

 

4. How Much Your Acceptance Odds Increase 

 

Both early decision and early action applicants generally have higher acceptance rates than regular decision candidates, however, ED candidates get the bigger admissions boost. In our data, we have observed that ED applicants have a 10-12% admissions boost over RD applicants, while REA applicants have a 6-8% boost and EA applicants have a 4-6% boost. 

 

This is because ED also has the greatest benefit to the schools, as it allows them some control over the ratio of accepted students to those who enroll. This is known as a school’s yield rate—an important metric that influences everything from a school’s ranking to its desirability as a destination for students. 

 

Is Early Decision Better than Early Action?

 

Is early decision better than early action? Yes and no. ED is more binding than EA—it assures what school you’ll attend if accepted, limits how you can apply to other schools, and creates uncertainty in financial aid. It also bolsters your odds of acceptance at an institution, which is a huge benefit if you’re certain of where you want to attend and can afford it if you gain admission. 

 

On the other hand, early action is less restrictive than early decision. You can apply to multiple schools early, compare different financial aid packages, and do not need to make a decision about where to matriculate until May 1—the same college decision day as that of students who applied regular decision. The downside is that you don’t get the same bump in the odds of acceptance. 

 

In most cases, a student will not have a choice in whether to apply for ED or EA at a particular school—most schools only offer one or the other. What they will have to decide on is whether to apply ED at one school or EA at another (or few others). 

 

What Are Your Chances of Acceptance?

 

If you are considering applying early decision or restrictive early action, it’s important that your profile aligns with that of accepted students at the institution. ED and REA can give viable candidates an improved chance of admission, but if a school is a real stretch, students could be “wasting” their one early application. 

 

Wondering what your odds of admission are at a certain institution? CollegeVine can help. Our free chancing calculator uses a variety of factors—like GPA, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities—to predict your chances of acceptance at over 1500 schools across the country. Although our chancing engine doesn’t account for early decision or early action applications, it does give you a good idea if your profile matches that of accepted students at an institution—providing important insight into whether you should apply early.

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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.

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