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

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College application season is in full swing, and application deadlines are quickly approaching. It's important to understand the various deadlines and how they impact you and your application. There are a number of factors to consider, and this article will give you a better sense of your options.

You may have heard of Early Decision and Early Action, but what do these options really mean, and which one is best for you? First, let’s take a look a why colleges offer early admission.

Many applicants focus on acceptance rates when applying to a college or university. Most colleges have higher early acceptance rates than regular acceptance rates. Therefore, the logic seems to be that a student has a higher chance of getting into a school if he or she applies early, right?

Not so fast. The reason colleges offer early admission in the first place is to gain greater control over the makeup of their freshman classes and to increase their yield (the percentage of students who accept offers of admission). When students apply early to colleges, those colleges get a good idea of what that year’s applicant pool may look like overall. It also gives the schools some control over their yields and acceptance rates. If they let in a certain number of students early, they can then tailor how many students are accepted during the regular decision process.

Higher yields and lower acceptance rates look great when it comes to college rankings, so you can assure yourself that colleges work hard to improve their numbers in both areas. Furthermore, many of the students in the early applicant pools tend to be incredibly competitive applicants, including legacy students (those who have family ties to an institution), recruited athletes, and students from higher-income families who may not need to compare financial aid offers. Colleges want to lock these students in early so other schools don’t get their hands on them. Therefore, colleges have a good understanding of what they’re getting when they accept students early. It is a great deal for them to get a head start on the process before the wave of regular decision applications.

So, what does this mean for you? Well, let’s look at the different options in more detail.

Early Decision (ED)

Many private schools offer an Early Decision policy for freshman applicants. The deadline is generally at the beginning of November and decisions are released in mid-December. Students can only apply early decision to one school because these programs are binding, meaning if you are accepted you must attend. You must also withdraw any other college applications you have submitted up to that point. Although you are not legally bound to attend the school, if an applicant violates the early decision agreement, the school may inform both the student’s high school and the other colleges to which the student has applied. The student’s high school may stop sending transcripts and/or recommendation letters on that student’s behalf, and the other colleges may rescind any offers of admission. Generally, the only time a college will release a student from the early decision agreement is if the financial aid package does not meet the student’s financial need. Early Decision acceptance rates tend to be the highest of the admission deadline policies because ED is binding, so schools rely on the fact that most of the accepted students will definitely attend. ED is perfect for those students who have a top choice school and have put together a strong application by the end of October.

Early Action (EA)

The Early Action policy is non-binding. The deadlines are usually at the beginning of November with decisions typically released in mid-December as well. Students may apply to as many schools as they like under early action. You also do not have to respond to a school’s offer until May 1st, allowing you to compare multiple financial aid packages. Early Action acceptance rates are somewhat higher than Regular Decision acceptance rates. EA is a great option for students who are well-prepared by the end of October but not quite ready to commit just to one school.

Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA)

The Single-Choice Early Action is also non-binding. The deadlines are also at the beginning of November and decisions are usually released in Mid-December. The difference is this policy is restrictive, hence the name “Single-Choice.” Under SCEA, you may not apply early to any other private schools. The acceptance rates under this program are higher than the regular decision acceptance rates. SCEA is a great way to demonstrate interest and let a college know that it is your one choice.

Which option is best for you? Well, it depends on where you are in your process.

You should apply Early Decision if you:

  • Have strong grades & rigorous coursework through junior year

  • Finished all SAT/ACT/SAT Subject Tests

  • Prepared all application materials by the end of October

  • Have a number one choice school that has been fully researched

  • Meet or exceed the college’s general acceptance profile

  • Want to receive a college decision early and are ready to commit

You should apply Early Action if you:

  • Have strong grades & rigorous coursework through junior year

  • Finished all SAT/ACT/Subject Tests

  • Prepared all application materials by the end of October

  • Have multiple colleges in mind that have been fully researched

  • Want to receive a college decision early but aren’t quite ready to commit

You should apply Single-Choice Early Action if you:

  • Have strong grades & rigorous coursework through junior year

  • Finished all SAT/ACT/Subject Tests

  • Prepared all application materials by the end of October

  • Want to demonstrate that a college is your number one choice

  • Want to receive a college decision early but aren’t quite ready to commit

If you end up applying under one of these programs, it’s important to continue working on applications for other schools. Once you hear back from your early school, you will receive either an acceptance letter, a rejection letter, or a deferral letter. If accepted, congratulations, you can continue senior year with a weight lifted off of your shoulders. If rejected, you cannot apply to that school again for regular decision. If deferred, your application will move to the regular decision pile and you will receive another decision in March.

The main thing to remember is that if you decide to apply early, you must be interested in your school of choice, and you must be honest about your chances. College admissions can be unpredictable, and there really are no shortcuts, but if you research and understand the process well, you can improve your chances of admission.


Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."