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Early Decision vs. Early Action – Which to Choose?

If you are entering the college admissions process, you might have heard of these terms. You might even wonder what they are. What is the difference? Which is better for your college admissions strategy, if at all? Insight Head of College Admissions Purvi Mody is here to share with you all the insights on Early Decision and Early Action, so you can pick the option that best suits your needs.

Quick Summary

  –   Both Early action and early decision have earlier application deadlines than regular admissions.

  –   You will also receive college admissions decisions earlier, usually starting in mid-December.

  –   You can apply to as many schools as you want using EA.

  –   ED is for only one school, and it is a binding agreement, which means you have to attend when you are accepted.

“Early Decision” and “Early Action” are likely terms that you have heard before when talking about the college application process. The biggest thing to get your head around – what is the difference between the two? They have similar names but are quite different in their outcomes. 



What is Early Action?

As the name implies, your college applications are due earlier than regular application deadlines. Typical deadlines for regular applications can be December 1st and January 15, whereas early deadlines mean you’re probably submitting around November 1st. For some schools and majors, you need to complete your admissions file by mid-October.


There is no limit to the number of schools you can apply to using early action. This can be a great option because it means you have submitted applications to schools early in the season – they’re off your plate! But why would you want to submit your applications a month before everyone else?


According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), early action means that “students apply early and receive a decision well in advance of the institution’s regular response date.” And that is a big advantage. You will receive your admissions decisions back earlier! You may find out in December or January about where you stand with your dream school. That may also mean you can relax and enjoy the rest of your senior year.


Another advantage with early action is that you do not need to commit until May 1 (the national response date), so you have almost half a year to decide and to compare financial aid packages. 


Though to make things confusing, some schools use restrictive early action (or single-choice early action), which is exactly like early decisions. The restrictive early action limits you to using the process only once. Thus, be diligent in your college research and weigh your options carefully before committing to applying early. 


What is Early Decision?

Unlike early action, early decision is binding! You can apply to only one because you are saying that if the school accepts you, you will 100% attend. Because of this commitment, colleges require signatures from you, your family, and a school counselor in order for you to apply early decision.


Early decision benefits students who know their first-choice college and who are confident in their odds of getting accepted. Similar to early action, you will also receive an admissions decision early, usually in December.


One of the challenges with early decision can be that you will not find out about other schools until later in the year. If you get into a different school that you’d actually like to attend more than your early decision school, you don’t have the option to switch. So be 100% certain about your early decision school. If you are torn on which school you would ultimately like to attend, or which major you’d like to do, early decision might not be for you.


Another aspect of early decision to consider is the financial side of it all. If you apply early decision, you’re telling the school that you will attend no matter what. This means they are less likely to offer you a scholarship or financial aid because they know they don’t need to add those incentives to sway you to attend their school. If you are counting on some financial help, early decision again may not be right for you.


Read more: Think it Through: Early Decision


What Are the Benefits of Applying Early?

By applying early, you stagger the deadlines, which alleviate the stress that comes with stacked regular admissions. Early action allows you until May 1 to decide whether or not you want to attend that school. Both early action and early decision show the schools that you have done your research and you are interested in these schools.


Something else to keep in mind is that some colleges do take a substantial amount of their incoming class from that early decision pool. Many elite schools look at early decision as a way to separate the students that are “kind of interested” from the students that are willing to commit 100% to that school. 


Should I Apply Early?

With all the advantages, it may seem compelling to apply early. Keep in mind that the early admissions process works best for students who know their dream school(s) and who feel they are competitive applicants.


How do you know if you are competitive? Check the school’s website. Most schools give you an idea of their applicant profile. In addition to your application, you need to thoroughly research the schools. It is not a blanket statement that “all elite schools will take a higher percentage of their class from the early decision applicants”. Some schools only take a slightly higher percentage, and in some cases, the difference between early and regular admissions rounds is not noticeable at all. Other than the academic offerings, campus, school culture, and location, you should also research the different available financial aid packages. 


Our biggest tip is to do your research! Talk to your school (and Insight) counselor, your parents, and family members. Figure out if you have a school on your list that might be a good candidate for early decision, and if you do, make sure you are prepared for the financially and mentally to commit to that school.