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Early Action vs Early Decision: Understanding The Difference

A female high school student with long brown hair applies for early decision on her laptop

It’s never too early to start — and finish — the college application process. In fact, for many students, “early” is right on time. To gauge enthusiasm and offer expedited admissions verdicts to eager applicants, nearly all colleges and universities offer early action (EA) and early decision (ED) submission options. What is early action? What is early decision? We have your answers here.

In this guide, we discuss the difference between early action and early decision, why these submission options may be beneficial to you, and how you can start the college application process here on Appily today.


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What is early action admission?

Despite the similar names, Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) are two different types of undergraduate admission. EA can come in different forms, but standard Early Action is non-binding. You can apply to as many schools EA as you’d like, and you’re under no obligation to attend if you’re accepted.

However, certain schools, such as Harvard College and Princeton University, have single-choice early action, sometimes known as “restrictive” early action, which means that you can only apply to that one institution EA. You can still apply to any schools you’re interested in during the regular admission periods, though!

The primary difference between EA-restrictive and Early Decision is that if you’re accepted, you’re under no obligation to attend. Early action students are free to decide on a different college. You also have until May 1st to make your decision, which means you can also scope out institutions you're admitted to during regular admissions. 

The standard timeline for Early Action applications is typically due on or before November 1st and the expected notification day is mid-December.

What is early decision admission?

Early Decision is more final than Early Action in a few ways. There’s no “restrictive” or “non-restrictive” Early Decision; it’s standard that ED is binding. In this instance, “binding” means two things. You can only apply to a single school ED, with no exceptions. Two, if you’re accepted at that institution, you are under obligation to attend.

Early-decision students cannot choose to attend another college or university if they get a better offer later. 

Early Decision applications are typically due by the end of October, senior year of high school, and notifications will be released mid-December, around the same time as Early Action decisions. But it's always best to check with each school to ensure you meet their Early Decision deadline. 

Benefits of early decision admission

While applying early decision certainly is a big choice, it comes with a number of benefits. Since you are effectively locking in your college decision with an acceptance from your ED school, your chances of getting in are substantially higher. You’ll also know whether you’ve gotten into your dream school much earlier than many applicants, reducing your stress and giving you time to explore other options. Should you get accepted, applying early decision also gives you time to get familiar with your school.

Reduce admission stress

Students accepted through early decision can stop stressing about getting into college well before their peers who apply through the traditional process. You'll be free to focus on other things for the rest of your senior year.

Improves your odds

Keep in mind that the school’s standards and the overall strength of your application are important factors in whether you get accepted, whether you choose early decision, or apply later in the application cycle. However, if you apply early, you may have a better chance of getting into your college of choice.

Typically, early admission rates are higher than regular or overall admission rates for most schools. At some schools, the admission rate can be substantially better for early admission candidates. In fact, of the students who applied early to the University of Pennsylvania, nearly 25 percent were accepted, compared to only 9 percent who were admitted through the regular application process.

Currently, about 450 colleges offer some sort of early admission program, so chances are you're interested in at least one that offers it.

There's time to explore other admission options

There’s no doubt you’ll be disappointed if you don’t get accepted into your top-choice school. But the good news is you’ll be left with plenty of time to apply to other schools or explore additional academic or career options.

Before you send in early decision applications, it’s a good idea to create an action plan that outlines what you’ll do if you don’t get in. It's wise to create a well-rounded college list that has a fair number of target, safety, and reach schools. That way, you won’t waste any time getting back on track should you be denied or deferred.


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You can get familiar with your school

You'll need to keep focused on finishing up your high school degree, but one of the most exciting aspects of early decision is that you can start getting acquainted with your college months before you arrive. Whether it’s through social media, a summer internship or an informal chat session with other incoming freshmen, you can start to feel like you fit in long before you step on campus.

Figure out what clubs, sports, and special events your college offers and which ones you might want to take part in. You may even have the chance to chat with upperclassmen and ask them questions about campus life. 

In addition to having more time to get familiar with your school, early admission could improve your chances of landing premium student housing and the most desired on-campus job. Finally, when it comes time to create your class schedule, you may have a better chance of getting the classes you want at the times that suit you best.

Frequently Asked Admissions Timeline Questions 


Why is it important to apply early to colleges? 

Applying early to colleges isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s certainly advantageous. Colleges like to see early applicants, and the statistics show it. Both early decision and early action applicants are accepted at a higher rate than their standard deadline counterparts.

Of course, applying early also has several other benefits for applicants. Early action and early decision applicants are notified of their acceptance status much sooner than standard deadline applicants. Armed with that knowledge sooner rather than later, each applicant can take extra time to pursue other options or get familiar with their new dream school.

Is the acceptance rate higher for EA and ED? 

There’s some debate over this because, yes, it is true that a higher percentage of applicants are typically accepted during an EA and ED period than during regular admissions. The fact of the matter is that students applying during these early application periods are very likely above-average students, which makes the competition fierce in spite of the schools accepting more applicants.

It’s a toss-up, as more research would have to be done into the early application process. The fact of the matter is, though, that applying early can’t hurt your chances. In fact, if you’re determined to go to the institution, it might give you an extra nudge toward acceptance.

Do all schools offer EA and ED? 

Not all schools offer early action and/or early decision options — but most do. In fact, the difference between early decision and early action often accounts for which of the two options is offered at a given school. More competitive schools typically offer early decisions or both early decisions and early action options. Schools that are less competitive (or larger) may only offer early action.

Some schools have a policy of offering neither and instead assessing students all after the same deadline. It’s important to research your top one or two schools well in advance of the early decision and early action deadlines to make sure they offer these application options. 

Are all early decision applications the same?

If you know where you want to go to school and are ready to apply early, go for it! But remember that early decision applications differ from other accelerated admissions processes because they're binding. That means you must enroll in that school if you’re accepted. However, early decision policies vary from school to school, so you must find out exactly what you agree to before you finish your application.

When are early action and early decision deadlines?

There are typically two early action deadlines: early action one (EA1) and early action two (EA2). The EA1 deadline is almost always November 1, while the EA2 deadline is typically November 15. Some schools, however, list their early action deadline as December 1. Early decision deadlines vary slightly more, with most falling on November 1 or November 15.

However, other common ED deadlines include November 2, November 16, and December 2. Some schools also offer early decision two (ED2), which may have a deadline of December 15, January 1, 2 or 15, or even February 1, depending on the school. Always check the deadlines of your top schools before applying.

When do early action decisions come out?

Most early action and early decision notifications come out within a month or two of submission. In the majority of cases, applicants will be notified before the start of the new year. In all cases, EA and ED applicants will be notified weeks or months in advance of regular decision applicants.

How are early action and early decision different than being waitlisted? 

Schools use the waiting list to deal with the uncertainty of the admissions process. Just as students do not know whether they will be admitted, admissions offices do not know how many of the admitted students will accept offers of admission.

Too many students enrolling can be just as bad as too few. The waitlist allows the admissions office to maintain a good class size for incoming students. 

Once a school has instituted a waitlist, the admissions office will admit students off the waitlist as needed until they have filled the incoming class. The school also might use the waitlist to fill specific gaps in the student body, such as too few students interested in particular academic majors.

It's important to note that being waitlisted is also different than being deferred. You can read more about that in this article, Deferred vs. Waitlisted for College Admissions. 

How are early action and early decision different than rolling admissions? 

With rolling admission, you can submit your application anytime within the rolling admissions period. Colleges then review your applications in the order they come in. This is significantly different than early action and early decision deadlines. 

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