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Early Action vs. Early Decision: What's the Difference?



Would you like to finalize your college plans as soon as possible? If getting an early acceptance letter sounds good to you, then you might want to apply early action (EA) or early decision (ED).

Before choosing one of these admissions plans, you should thoroughly understand what it entails and consider all the important factors. This guide will weigh the options of early action vs. early decision, along with offering advice for choosing the best plan for you. To begin, let's review what you need to know about applying early action.


What Is Early Action?

Early action has, like its name indicates, an early deadline. Under early action, you both apply earlier than the regular deadline and find out earlier if you've been accepted.

The most common EA deadline is November 1, with November 15 as a close runner up. Most colleges send out notifications to early action candidates in mid-December, so you should have your response before the end of the calendar year. This winter notification is a whole lot sooner than regular notification, which is usually in April. You might be accepted, denied, or deferred to the regular applicant pool and considered again in February or March.

For the most part, you can apply to as many schools as you want early action. There are a few exceptions to this rule, though. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, for instance, all have restrictive or single choice early action. Restrictive EA means you can only apply to that one school early. You can later apply wherever else you want regular decision. Make sure to read your schools’ early action policies closely before submitting applications to multiple schools. 

Regardless of whether your school has restrictive or non-restrictive early action, you aren't obligated to attend the school if accepted, nor do you have to respond to an offer any earlier than usual. You still have until the national response deadline of May 1 to decide where to enroll. This policy gives you the opportunity to compare admissions offers, as well as financial aid packages, from all the schools on your list before choosing one.

This policy is the main difference between early action and early decision. While applying early action isn't binding, early decision is. Applying ED means that if you get accepted, you will enroll in the school.




What Is Early Decision?

You can only apply to one school early decision. The reason for this is that early decision means you're making a binding agreement to enroll in that school if you get accepted. This contract will be part of your application and will require a signature from your parents and school counselor, as well as from you.

Typically, early decision deadlines match early action deadlines. You may apply by November 1 and hear back in mid-December. If accepted, you'll agree to enroll and send in your deposit within about a month. Like with early action, you could be accepted, denied, or deferred (in which case, you're no longer held to the binding agreement).

Some schools also offer Early Decision II, which is also binding but has a later deadline. Early Decision II deadlines are usually in January, and you'll hear back in February. With both ED I and ED II, you'll be obligated to send in a deposit months before the national response date of May 1st if you get accepted to your school of choice.

Early decision is a good option for students who want to make their college plans early and know exactly what school they want to attend. If you've done your research and are 100% sure about a college, then applying ED signals your enthusiasm to the admissions committee.

Most schools only offer one or the other when it comes to early action and early decision. Let's take a look at some popular schools with early admission plans and their deadlines. 




Popular Schools With Early Action

Some popular schools that offer early action, in addition to their regular decision deadline, include,

  • Boston College
  • CalTech
  • Georgetown
  • Harvard
  • MIT
  • Princeton
  • Stanford
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Michigan
  • UNC Chapel Hill
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Virginia
  • Villanova
  • Yale

All of these schools have an EA deadline of November 1, with one exception. UNC Chapel Hill has an even earlier EA deadline of October 15.

Of these schools, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, CalTech, and the University of Notre Dame have restrictive or single choice early action. Again, these types of EA mean you can only apply early to that one school. The other schools on the list don't have that restriction.

Below are some well known schools that offer Early Decision deadlines.




Popular Schools With Early Decision 

Popular schools with early decision deadlines in November include,

  • Brown
  • Cornell
  • Dartmouth
  • Duke
  • Johns Hopkins
  • Northwestern
  • University of Pennsylvania

All of these schools have November 1 deadlines. As mentioned above, some schools offer both Early Decision I and Early Decision II, both binding but with different deadlines. The following schools offer both the early and later Early Decision deadline.



Deadline for ED I

Deadline for ED II

American University

November 15

January 15

Boston University

November 1

January 4


November 15

January 5


November 1

January 2


November 15

January 1


November 15

January 8


November 15

January 1


November 1

January 4


November 1

January 1


November 15

January 1



As you can see, the ED II deadlines resemble regular decision deadlines. Instead of having to wait until April to hear back, though, you should be notified in February. If you're accepted, you'll be expected to send your deposit shortly thereafter. 

Now that you know how early action and early decision work and which schools offer them, let's talk about the advantages of each plan. Starting from the colleges' perspectives, what's the point of offering early deadlines?



Is applying EA or ED a win-win situation for students? We'll break it down below.


Why Do Colleges Offer Early Action or Early Decision?

There are a few reasons that early admissions appear to benefit colleges. One is that students who apply early tend to be particularly competitive. Those students who are prepared to apply in November to these often selective schools are often the most qualified candidates. 

A few years ago, Harvard and the University of Virginia eliminated early admissions, claiming that it unfairly advantaged wealthier students with more "cultural capital" and greater college counseling resources. When other schools didn't follow suit, both schools reversed their decision and reintroduced early action, saying that they found that students from all backgrounds desired an early option. Practically speaking, they probably also found that they were missing out on some of the most qualified applicants, who just ended up applying elsewhere. 

Another reason that schools may benefit from early admissions is that it gives them a more accurate sense of their "yield." In other words, they can more accurately predict how many students will accept offers of admission, since early candidates are more likely to enroll (and ED applicants are pretty much certain to enroll). Being able to more accurately predict their numbers may be a reason that some schools offer both Early Decision I and Early Decision II.

Finally, a third reason that schools benefit from early admission is that it allows them to space out their review of applications over a longer period of time. For schools with limited staff and resources, spacing out the process is more feasible than reviewing all applications in one hectic review season.

While these are some of the reasons that schools benefit from early deadlines, what are the advantages for you as an applicant? 




What Are the Advantages of Applying Early?

One common idea around early admissions is that early applicants have a better chance of getting in. Is this true? Are you more likely to get accepted if you apply early?

Unfortunately, there's no black and white answer for this. There are some compelling reasons to think that applying early does boost your chances. For instance, data shows that a higher percentage of early candidates get accepted than regular candidates

In 2019, for instance, colleges reported a 73% acceptance rate for EA applicants versus a 64% acceptance rate for the overall applicant pool. This held true for ED applicants, too, with colleges reporting a 61% acceptance rate for ED applicants compared to the overall applicant pool acceptance rate of 49%. 

Applying early action, and especially early decision, may also signal to admissions committees how committed to and excited about a school you are, thereby making an impression in your favor. However, these reasons don't mean you should automatically apply early.

The fact that a greater percentage of early applicants are accepted may largely reflect their own merits. It may be that the most qualified candidates apply early, while the pool of regular applicants include those for whom the college is a reach. Most students don't apply early to a school if their grades and scores aren't at least on target with the school's expectations.

Ultimately, applying early can be a great option if you're prepared to do so, but whatever advantage there is won't make low grades or test scores look any higher than they are. It's not advisable to rush your application or to apply to a school where your academic profile is weaker than that of the average accepted student. 

Your first priority should be sending the strongest application you can, whether that's in November or January. 


It's time to strengthen application. We can help.


How to Build a Strong Application 

We know better than anyone that building a strong college application is easier said than done. Early action and early decision options are just a few of the details that can make navigating college admissions tricky business, so we’re here to help you through it!

PrepScholar's Complete Admissions Package will guide you through the entire college admissions process, from the very first step of picking your schools to making a final school decision. Our expert advisors are here to help you explore financial aid packages, perfect your application essays, navigate decisions like EA or ED, and more.

Our students see real results, too. In fact, 83% of Complete Admissions participants make it into at least one of their reach schools. (And yes--that includes the Ivies!) If you're ready to take your application to the next level and apply EA or ED, you can get started here.





Which Should You Choose? Early Action vs. Early Decision

In most cases, a college will only offer one or the other. Depending on the schools you're interested in, they might essentially make the choice between early action and early decision for you.

If you do have a choice, the most important factor to consider is whether or not you're 100% sure you want to attend a school. Before making the commitment of early decision, you should research and visit the school, as well as talk to students who go there about their experience. If you've reached this point of certainty, then early decision could make sense for you.

You also may consider financial aid as you decide between early action and early decision. With early decision, you agree to enroll regardless of the financial aid package you get. With early action, you still have until May 1 to compare different financial aid packages. This is one major reason early decision isn't a feasible or accessible option for everyone.

Make sure you understand your colleges' application policies and any restrictions they place on your applications to other schools. If you're applying to Harvard early action, for example, you can't apply early action anywhere else.

Keep track of all your deadlines, and keep preparing for any regular applications you plan to send in case your early application doesn't get accepted. You can still be putting together strong regular decision applications should you get denied, deferred, or decide to apply elsewhere.

If you're applying to meet a deadline in November, you want to work on your application materials throughout junior year and the summer. Your SAT or ACT scores, recommendation letters, and personal essay require several months to a year of planning and preparation. You can check out this guide for a more detailed timeline, as well as the full lists of deadlines or early action and early decision schools.


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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