Early Action vs Early Decision: Which Should I Choose?

Girl studying at a coffee shop.

Applying early for college could make it easier to get into your top-choice school. But how do you know which deadline to target to improve your chances? It starts with understanding the different types of college application deadlines and decision plans.

There are three major deadline types: regular decision, early action, and early decision. Most students apply via regular decision. It’s usually the latest deadline, which gives you more time to prepare your application. Regular decision is not a binding agreement. That means you can apply to many schools at once, and then compare acceptance letters and financial aid packages before making your final choice. 

However, if you already know what school you want to attend, you might be better off targeting an early action or early decision deadline. So, how do you know when to choose early action vs early decision? What are the differences? Here’s what you need to know to make the best choice.

What is early action? 

Early action is a college admissions process where prospective students submit their application materials earlier than the regular application deadline and receive an admission decision earlier, as well. Early action is typically non-binding, meaning that students who are accepted are not obligated to commit to attending the college or university. 

Early action deadlines can vary, but they usually fall in November or December of your senior year of high school, allowing students to receive their admission decision in January or February. By applying early action, you’ll benefit from knowing your admission status earlier. That can alleviate some of the stress associated with waiting for admission decisions. It can also help you with the college selection process by giving you more time to make your final decision. In most cases, colleges require early action applicants to provide a final decision on their acceptance offer by the national response date, which is typically May 1.

Early action can be a great option for students who have a strong desire to attend a particular college and want to receive their admission decision earlier. It allows you to demonstrate your interest and commitment to a college without being bound to attend if accepted.

Early action vs. restrictive early action 

Also called single-choice early action, restrictive early action this is a type of early action that’s exclusive but nonbinding. If you apply via restrictive early action, you’re prohibited from applying via early action or early decision to any other schools. This may be a good choice if you have a clear dream school but still need financial aid information before you can make a final decision. 

Keep in mind that restrictive early action is a less common application type. Most plans labeled “early action” are standard early action plans. With these garden-variety early action plans, you can apply early to as many schools as you want. With restrictive early action, however, you can only apply to other schools via regular admission plans. 

Early action vs. early decision

Early action and early decision are both admissions processes where students apply to colleges earlier than the regular deadline, but there are key differences between the two.

Unlike early action, early decision is a binding process in which you must commit to attending the college if you’re accepted. Like restrictive early action, you can only apply to one institution for early decision. If you’re accepted via early decision, you’re obligated to withdraw all other applications. Early decision applicants typically receive their admission decision earlier than regular decision applicants, often during January or February.

The main difference between these two is that early decision is a binding commitment, while early action is not. Also, students can apply to multiple institutions using standard early action, while they can only apply to one college during the early decision process. 

If you’re accepted to a school via early decision, you are expected to honor your commitment. If you break that commitment, there may be consequences. Here are a few to consider:

  • If a school discovers that you applied to two schools via early decision, you could lose your chance of acceptance at both. 
  • If you renege on an early decision commitment and don’t have a backup school, you may need to start the college application process over again next year. 
  • You could lose out on the opportunity to attend that college or university in the future, such as for graduate school.

The pros and cons of applying early

Applying early can be beneficial for students who’ve already researched their college options and have a clear first-choice school. That said, there are also some drawbacks to applying early.  

Pros of applying early 

  • If you’re accepted via early decision, you’ll get your college plans settled ASAP. This early admission decision will give you several extra months to figure out transportation, college housing, and other move-in logistics.
  • If you’re not positive where you want to go to school, an early action acceptance gives you more time to make your final decision.
  • Demonstrating strong interest and/or serious commitment to a school may increase admission rates in certain cases.   
  • You’ll still have time to apply elsewhere if you’re not accepted to your first-choice college. 

Cons of applying early 

  • The earlier deadline means you’ll have less time to solicit letters of recommendation and write your essays. 
  • If you apply via early decision, you’ll be making your choice before you receive your financial aid award letter. This means you won’t have the opportunity to compare different schools’ financial aid packages before you commit, and you won’t be able to submit a financial aid appeal on the basis of receiving a better financial aid offer at another school.  
  • If you’re not granted admission into your top choice school, you likely won’t find out until mid-December. That means you’ll have just a few weeks to fill out other applications before the regular decision deadline.
  • If you’re applying via early decision, you’ll have less time to research colleges before making a potentially binding commitment to a single school. 

As you weigh these pros and cons, keep in mind that there’s a lot about early applications that we still don’t know. It’s possible that applying early action or early decision has some impact on your likelihood of admission or your financial aid offer. 

However, most data on this is inconclusive. That’s because the majority of early applicants are strong students and tend to be financially well off, making it difficult to parse correlation vs. causation. Given that uncertainty, it’s best to apply early not to game your odds of acceptance but because you have a strong choice of school or because the application schedule works better for you.

Do I have a better chance of getting accepted if I apply early?

Demonstrating particular interest in a college or university may give your application an edge. According to data gathered by CNBC, anywhere from 50% to 69% of first-year admitted students were those who applied to college early. However, this isn’t necessarily because colleges show preferential treatment to early applicants. 

Early action

There’s no strong research showing that applying early action makes a significant difference in acceptance rates. Often, early-action applicants tend to be driven, well-organized students. So in general, these tend to be strong applicants regardless of their chosen deadline. 

However, colleges have no incentive to give extra preference to early-action applicants. After all, a student can apply to dozens of schools via early action and, if they get a better offer elsewhere, still back out. 

Early decision

Applying early decision, however, can have an impact on your chances of admission. According to data collected by national education consultancy CollegeVine, applying early decision can increase your odds of acceptance by up to 60% at some schools. This makes sense because early decision is binding. Admissions counselors know that if they accept you, your enrollment — and therefore regular tuition payments — are essentially guaranteed. That makes it easier for them to bet on you. 

Does every school offer early action and early decision? 

According to the College Board, about 450 colleges offer early decision, early action, or restrictive early action plans. Most offer just one of these, but some schools offer both early decision and early action. A few schools also offer one or more of these alternative options:

  • Rolling admissions: With a rolling admissions deadline, students can send in their applications whenever they’re ready. The college then delivers admissions decisions on a rolling basis.
  • Priority deadline: This is a deadline that’s slightly different from early action. Schools that offer priority deadlines prioritize applications received before this date, but usually accept and review those applications on a rolling basis. Students applying for certain school-specific financial aid opportunities, on-campus housing, and other programs should aim to apply before the priority deadline. 

Can I apply regular decision if I’m rejected early decision? 

If your early-decision or early-action application was rejected, you typically cannot reapply to that school within the same academic year. If the school isn’t certain whether you’re a good fit, the admissions office may defer your application. Deferral moves your application into the regular decision applicant pool. If you are deferred, then you typically don’t have to do anything — just wait for the regular admissions decision date.

If you believe your situation has changed appreciably since you first submitted your application, you can always contact your admissions office to see if they’ll let you try again. If they give you a second chance, avoid submitting the exact same application. Instead, ask the admissions office — or enlist a college admissions expert — to see if there was anything major missing from your first attempt. Then, refine your essays, rewrite your personal statement, and update your resume with any new extracurriculars, GPA details, or academic achievements.

Should I apply early?

Applying early may not be the right choice for every student. That said, it may make sense to apply via early action if you:

  • Have done a significant amount of college research. 
  • Have strong SAT or ACT test scores and don’t plan to retake the tests.
  • Feel confident you can complete and polish your application before the deadline. 
  • Want to get your offer of admission early, either to give you more time to plan or more time to compare admissions options
  • Aren’t quite ready to make a binding commitment to a school.
  • Want to demonstrate interest in a particular school but still need to wait for financial aid information to decide. 

Some students may be willing to take the next step up and make a binding, early-decision commitment to a school. That may be your best option if you: 

  • Want to boost your odds of admission at a certain school.
  • Are absolutely positive that you want to attend that school if you get in. 
  • Haven’t applied early decision to any other school. 
  • Already have plenty of savings to pay for higher education, or are able to make a commitment before reviewing financial aid offers. 

Pay less for college with Going Merry 

If you’re leaning heavily toward a specific college, applying early could give your application an edge. However, keep in mind that an early application deadline means you’ll have less time to polish and finetune your application. And if you apply via early decision, it’s binding. That means you’ll need to be positive that this is your dream school — regardless of the financial aid award they’re able to offer you. 

Optimizing your decision plan is just one aspect of the college application process. It can be a long journey, but Going Merry offers a number of resources to help you navigate the complexities. Compare the best colleges for your needs, learn how to get the most financial aid possible, and get personalized scholarship matches delivered to you. Find out how much you could save. Sign up for free today.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.


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