What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision?

High school seniors have a lot of work to do to narrow down their college lists. They’ll need to finalize which schools they’ll apply to, think about which school is their top choice, and then decide on an application timeline. While most college applications aren’t due until January, options like early decision or early action may accelerate students’ timelines.


These options have become increasingly popular over the past five years. As Inside Higher Ed reported in January 2019, the overall number of students applying early decision and early action is on the rise, with a 4% increase in early decision applicants from 2016-2017, and a 9% increase in early action applicants. This change is even more pronounced at the top colleges, with Brown University seeing an increase of 21% and Duke University reporting one of 19%.


With such a rise in popularity, it’s no wonder that many students ask us about these options. To learn more about the differences between early action (EA) and early decision (ED), and the pros and cons of these choices, don’t miss this post.


Understanding the College Application Timeline


Many families who have not gone through the college application process before are surprised to hear that there is no single universal timeline. Different colleges have different application deadlines, and these can range from November to April, or even later.


In addition, many colleges have multiple application timelines to choose from. This is where early action and early decision come into play. These options are generally for students who have already chosen their top college, and have prepared their application ahead of time. Both early action and early decision offer an accelerated timeline in which students submit applications earlier and hear back about admissions decisions earlier, too.


While the exact conditions of these programs vary (which we will discuss in our next section), the basic understanding is students apply EA and ED to colleges at which they’d accept an offer of admissions, should they be given one.


It’s important to understand this timeline well in advance because there are some very enticing advantages to early action and early decision programs. Later in this post, we’ll discuss the specific pros and cons of each so that students can make the best choice for them.


What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision?


The conditions of early action and early decision programs vary slightly from one school to another, but the basic differences generally remain the same. Students should double check for each of their schools to confirm the exact rules, but one can use our descriptions as a general guide.


For EA, students submit their applications by usually November 1 or November 15. They then receive an admissions decision usually sometime in mid-December or January. Their admissions offer is non-binding, which means that they do not have to accept it and can still apply to other colleges and consider their offers also. Under an early action program, most colleges do not require a commitment to attend until the normal reply date of May 1, leaving applicants plenty of time to consider other choices if needed.


In general, EA is non-restrictive and students can apply to several schools EA. Some early action programs, though, are single-choice or restrictive early action (SCEA or REA). This means that you may only apply to one private school early action, if you apply to a school that uses SCEA. In this case, you are still not bound to attend that school, can still apply to other schools under the regular decision program, and still have until May 1st to commit.


ED functions a little differently and in general is more restrictive than EA. Early decision programs are reserved for your single top college choice, and they are binding. This means that you may only apply to one college early decision, and if you are offered admission, you are required to commit to that school. Application deadlines are still generally in November, but ED applicants usually receive admissions decisions even faster than EA applicants do.


What Are the Pros and Cons of Applying Early?


The major disadvantage of applying early is the accelerated timeline. Students will have less time to complete standardized testing, less time to perfect their essay, and less time to build up accomplishments or achievements. This can also make the college application process more stressful as they’ll have only a few months from the time school starts to gather all their materials and polish them up for their application.


One major disadvantage to early decision programs specifically is the inability to compare aid packages from one college to another. In fact, early decision in general has been criticized for its exclusivity, because families who are concerned with college costs often cannot afford to commit to a school before they’ve seen the financial aid package it has to offer. Being able to compare multiple financial aid offers is an advantage that many families are not prepared to forfeit.


Another disadvantage to applying early is if students change their mind. It’s difficult to know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life when you’re only 17 or 18, and choosing a college is an important milestone. It’s not entirely uncommon for a student to have a major change of heart during senior year, but if they’re already committed to a college through ED, they’re out of luck.


This being said, applying early does come with its share of advantages, and some of them are big. The most remarkable perk of applying early is the increased rate of acceptance for early applicants. Generally, the rate of acceptance for early applicants is significantly higher than for applicants who apply regular decision. This is especially true at highly selective schools like Harvard or Yale, where early applicants at a rate nearly twice as high as those who apply through regular decision.


So, why is it that early applicants have such a significant advantage in acceptance rates? The reasons are at least twofold. On the one hand, students who apply early tend to be stronger candidates. Their tests scores, GPA, and accomplishments do tend to be slightly more impressive than those of their regular decision peers. In this way, it does make sense that more of them would get in.


This doesn’t completely explain the difference in acceptance rates, though. Another reason that more early applicants are accepted is because colleges love a sure bet. Yield, or the percent of accepted students who actually end up enrolling, is an important statistic at many colleges. Not only does it speak directly to their desirability as an institution, but it’s also important from a financial standpoint because it allows them to more accurately predict how many students they’ll need to accept to fill the freshman class to capacity. The more students who enroll, the more tuition they’ll garner. EA and ED are a great indicator of interest, and students who are interested are more likely to enroll, regardless of whether or not a program binds them to do so.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.