What Is Early Action vs Early Decision? Differences Between Admission Types

It is Important to Understand the Differences between Early Action and Early Decision

Written by Jason

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Last updated Jun 4, 2023 | Published on May 28, 2022

When you first heard about applying to colleges, you may have envisioned this process: You apply to various schools, they say “Yea” or “Nay” and you decide on the school that fits you best. As you might already know by now, it is a little more complicated than that notion! In fact, it can be downright mind-boggling to keep the admission processes between various schools straight. From Early Decision to Regular Decision and Rolling Decision, how do you keep it all straight? 

In this article, we will go over the differences between the Early Action vs Early Decision admission types. We will also touch on Early Decision II and Regular Decision and Rolling Admission so you get a feel for the differences. 

We will also discuss how Early Action and Early Decision compare, the pros and cons, why you may want to apply early, and why you might want to consider Early Action and Early Decision. By the time you are done reading, you will get a sense of which type — Early Action and Early Decision — appeals to you the most.

What is Early Action?

In the case of Early Action (also called EA), you apply to colleges early and generally receive a decision in advance of the institution’s regular response date. It is a non-binding decision, which means that you are not required to commit to the institution in the case of Early Action. You are also able to compare financial and merit aid awards from the colleges you are accepted at to ensure the best affordability option. 

Early Action applications are usually due on or before November 1 of your senior year, and you will typically hear back around mid-December to early January.

Many Early Action and Early Decision Deadlines are around November 1

For example, let’s say Kiley applies Early Action to University A. She applies prior to November 1 of her senior year and finds out that she has been admitted to the university. She decides to keep looking around at various colleges and universities because she is not sure that University A is the right one for her. On May 1 of her senior year, she lets University A know that she will not attend the university. Instead, she decides to attend University B, an institution that she applied to Regular Decision. 

Regular Decision means that you submit an application by a specified date and receive a decision during a specific and previously stated period of time. Exactly like Early Action, Regular Decision is non-binding. Regular Decision college application deadlines usually occur sometime in January and acceptance letters usually come to you sometime in March. You must accept or decline admission by May 1, also known popularly as College Decision Day throughout the country.

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What is Early Decision?

Early Decision (also called ED), is an application plan where you apply early and make a commitment to a first-choice institution. Early Decision is a binding application, which means that if you are admitted, you will enroll and withdraw your other applications. You are not able to compare financial and merit aid awards when applying in any Early Decision application plans so be sure you are comfortable with the full cost of attendance (tution, room, board, fees, living expenses).

Below, we will go into more detail about Early Decision I and II.

What is Early Decision I and II? 

In the case of Early Decision, schools offer both Early Decision I and Early Decision II options. In both cases, you will withdraw all applications you have submitted to other schools. Note that a deferral generally releases you from your Early Decision I and Early Decision II agreement. A deferral means that a school wants to review your application along with the regular applicant pool — it is not a rejection or an admission to the school.

As you might imagine, the deadlines are different between these two admission types. The deadline for Early Decision I is usually November 1 of your senior year, which means you will usually receive an admissions decision by December 15. This usually occurs before the Early Decision II and Regular Decision deadlines. 

Always Submit Your Applications Prior to Early Action and Early Decision Deadlines

Let’s say Katie decides to apply Early Decision I. She applies to University X on November 1 of her senior year, then receives her admission acceptance letter on December 14. She celebrates because she is done! She will attend University X in the fall semester of the following year because she knows that she is required to attend that particular university.

On the other hand, the Early Decision II deadline is usually January 1 or January 15 of your senior year, with a final admission decision around March 1. You might want to use the strategy that you apply Regular Decision to all the other schools on your list. In both cases, you will withdraw your other applications if accepted in the Early Decision I or Early Decision II round.

Imagine that David decides to apply Early Decision II. He gathers his admission materials and applies to University Y by January 1 of his senior year. He receives his admission acceptance letter on February 14. He will attend University Y because he’s required to withdraw his applications at all other institutions. Like Katie, he is thrilled because he is done applying to colleges and can concentrate on the rest of his senior year.

Keep in mind when applying Early Decision II that schools have already admitted students for Early Decision I, which means that Early Decision I might be more advantageous when you are applying for school — you have less competition.

What is Rolling Admission?

Colleges with rolling admission evaluate all applications as they receive them throughout the academic year. It can be advantageous to apply early to rolling admissions colleges such as the University of Pittsburgh. They have experienced two record setting application cycles and students who apply early (August 1 is the earliest date that upcoming seniors can apply) stand a more competitive advantage for acceptance.

You will typically hear about an admissions decision within four to six weeks or sooner. Rolling admission institutions are not binding like Early Decision programs. You will have until the school deadline to decide on which institution you would like to attend.

Barry Duerr Counselor Day Picture

Let’s say Jessica applies rolling admission to three different schools. She visits College A in September of her senior year and submits her application on September 16. She hears back on September 30 — she is accepted! She visits and applies to College B on December 5 and receives a decision on December 13 of her senior year. Unfortunately, she does not get accepted to that college. Finally, she visits the last school, University C, in February of the second semester of her senior year. She hears back on March 1 — another acceptance! She makes a final decision by May 1 to attend University C. 

Jessica likes the idea of rolling admission because it allows her to be flexible with her applications. She can decide to add a last-minute school to her list, even late in her senior year.

Early Action vs. Early Decision: How Do They Compare?

The biggest difference between Early Action and Early Decision is their binding/nonbinding status. When you apply Early Action, you are not required to attend the school that you applied to, whereas with an Early Decision situation, you must attend that college or university.

In the case of Early Action, you have the ability to make a final decision by May 1. You can apply to as many Early Action schools as you would like, and you are under no obligation to commit to the college if you are accepted, even though you receive an early response to your application. In many ways it is the best of both worlds, as you apply early and get informed early of your admissions decision.

Some competitive schools offer single-choice early action, which they may call Restrictive Early Action (REA) such as Notre Dame, also called Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) such as Yale University. In this case, you can only apply to that one school REA but can apply to other schools regular or rolling admission. Many REA plans allow you to apply to public universities that have an Early Action plan. It is always best to review the REA details at each college.

Notre Dame Class of 2026 Admissions Stats

Here is an example of how REA might work: Let’s say Latasha signs an agreement with College C that she will file just one early application. However, within the terms of the agreement, she applies to two other colleges via rolling admission. She also decides to apply for a local university’s early application program as well as a college overseas. She can do this because her programs are non-binding.

Early Action vs. Early Decision: Pros and Cons

What are the pros and cons between Early Action and Early Decision? Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of both. 

Pros of Early Action

The benefits of Early Action include the following: 

  • Can compare multiple schools: Early Action allows you to compare multiple schools. Early Action allows you to take a few more months to make a final decision. It gives you time if you are waffling between several schools or still hesitant to make a commitment to a single institution. In short, Early Action gives you time to explore other options. As a student, it is often important to keep your options open because you may change your mind.
  • Allows for more financial comparison: You are allowed to apply to more than one institution with an Early Action, which means that you can get several financial aid awards and compare the costs of all colleges side by side.
  • You will receive your decision early: The most obvious benefit of Early Action is that you will get an admission decision earlier as compared to other types of admission plans. This could also result in other advantages, such as acceptance to a competitive major, the first pick of residence hall rooms, and roommate selection advantages. (However, note that this is not all guaranteed.) Best of all you can enjoy your senior year with a lot less stress knowing you have college acceptances!

College Decision Day is May 1 Each Year

Cons of Early Action

The downsides to Early Action may include: 

  • False sense of security: Early Action might lure you into a false sense of security. In other words, you might feel as if you are “guaranteed” a shot, which is not true. 
  • May feel a rush to apply: As indicated by the word “early,” you still have to assemble all your application materials early. If you do not think you can get everything ready by the Early Action deadline, you may want to stick to the Regular Decision deadline. Also, the Regular Decision round may allow you time to improve your senior year grades and secure an improved SAT or ACT score. 

Pros of Early Decision

Some of the pros of Early Decision include the following: 

  • You arrive at a decision sooner: You know where you are going to college sooner, which can be a huge benefit (and relief!). If you know for sure you want to attend a particular school — and know you and your family can comfortably afford it — you might want to consider going the Early Decision route. 
  • Secure your spot in the class: Especially in the case of a highly selective institution, you will nail your spot in a major that may be difficult to join.

Entrepreneurial Center Classroom at the University of Tampa

Cons of Early Decision

  • You are locked in: Naturally, the biggest downside is that it prevents you from exploring different options during your senior year. What if you have a change of heart? What if you suddenly do not want to attend school 1,000 miles away? You need to be certain that you want to attend a particular school before you choose to apply Early Decision.
  • Early Decision means “early:” You may feel a lot of pressure to get everything ready by the Early Decision deadline. It may be worth considering everything else you have going on to make sure you can dedicate the right amount of time to getting the application in and done.
  • May have to rethink your college list: If you did not get into the school to which you have applied Early Decision, you will have to seriously consider the other colleges on your list. The application volume has been record setting the past two cycles with no end in sight. The ability to develop a balanced college list is more important than ever. It is wise to have a top three list of colleges to avoid any disappointment if your Early Decision college does not accept you.
  • If your hopes were completely dashed: You only wanted to apply to that one college, but you were not accepted, you may have to rethink your options and opportunities. It may be hard to not get into the one college you really wanted to get into and that is the risk you take with an Early Decision application. 

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Why Apply Early?

For a second, let’s put the Early Action vs. Early Decision choice aside and determine why you might want to apply early in the first place.  

Shows You Are Serious

If you want to declare your intentions of applying to a particular college early on, you can show you are serious when you apply early. For example, only 6,300 students applied Early Decision at Boston University out of a record setting application pool of 80.797.

Cuts Down on Admission Stress

Naturally, the biggest benefit to applying early is that you will already know where you are going to school! You will not have to stress for months about getting into the “best” college over the course of several months. You will know early on which school you are attending.

Qualify for Merit Aid

Many colleges require a completed application by an early deadline to qualify for merit aid (non-need based aid). This is very important, as merit aid is essentially an institutional scholarship based upon outstanding academic achievement and may be renewable for four years. Ohio State University automatically considers applicants for merit aid if their application is submitted and completed by November 1. 

It is Important to Apply Early Action to Ohio State for Merit Aid Consideration

Why Students Should Consider Early Action vs Early Decision

It is important to consider your personal preferences before you choose between Early Action and Early Decision. Do you have your dream college on your list or do you want to have choices available to you? Do you want a large range of financial aid opportunities or are you and your family comfortable with one option? 

There is a lot to consider before you land on one admission type over another. Consider your goals and what you really want — and definitely consider the fact that you might change your mind later!

What Students Should Know Before Applying Early Action or Early Decision

It is important to note that Early Action or Early Decision may increase your ability to get into a desired college. Many families and students might assume that they are a “better” method of guaranteed admission, but it is still a very competitive process as a majority of serious applicants are applying early.

Let Us Help Guide Your College Expectations

In addition to this, it is also important to realize that your financial aid award might not be the best it can be unless you have several schools in which to compare. For example, if you have two schools on your list and get into both of them, you can share one of the awards you have received with the schools to potentially get a better aid award from the other.

Our Advice: Early Action vs. Early Decision

Deciding between Early Action and Early Decision is important, and at Campus to Career Crossroads, we can help you decide on the right application type for you. We will take your personal goals and preferences into consideration and help you make the right decision for your timeline, future career goals, and list of colleges. 

Let us help you make this all-important decision and let us guide your college search! Contact Campus to Career Crossroads today to launch your future.


Do I have to apply Early Decision to have a successful college journey?

No. Some students do not feel comfortable with the binding decision route. Sometimes students never find that one dream college they want to attend or simply want all of their options open. There are amazing colleges throughout the country with Early Action and Rolling Admission application plans. 

Do all colleges have Early Decision and Early Action application plans?

No. You need to read the fine print of each college’s application plans. For example, Duke University only has Early Decision and Regular Decision admissions plans. The University of Michigan only has Early Action and Regular Decision admissions plans.

Duke University's Application Deadlines

You can find this information on each college’s admissions webpage or the Common App’s member page. When in doubt, always call the admissions office to be 100% certain of their application plans and deadlines.

Is a deferral the same concept as being waitlisted?

No. Applicants are most commonly deferred from an Early Action or Early Decision application round. Deferrals generally happen when a college sees potential in your application but wants to review it with all applicants in the Regular Decision round. After all, colleges are looking to admit the best class that meets their institutional priorities (not always the most qualified academic applicants). 

A waitlist notification is rendered at the end of the Regular Decision round. Unfortunately, colleges are waitlisting more qualified students than ever before with the record setting application volume. It is important to enroll at a college you have been accepted at before May 1 as there is no guarantee you may come off the waitlist.


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