Early Action vs. Early Decision for College Applications

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 21, 2022 | Published June 29, 2021

Updated July 21, 2022

Published June 29, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

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If you want to apply for college, you might consider submitting your application early. Early action and early decision programs allow you to receive your offer letter before other students. Understanding the differences between these programs can help you plan for your future and aid in securing appropriate financial aid if needed.

In this article, we discuss early action compared to an early decision by reviewing their key differences and discussing the advantages and disadvantages of applying to college ahead of other students.

What is early action?

Early action (EA) is a college application process that allows you to apply to schools and potentially gain admission before other prospective students can even apply. As an EA applicant, you typically have until November to submit your admissions application. Early action schools usually send out acceptance letters in January or February. 

Though most early action schools are non-binding, allowing you can apply to several universities and colleges using the EA process, some Ivy League schools use a single-choice early action process. This restrictive model only allows you to seek early action with one university, but you can complete the regular admissions process with other schools.

Related: How To Write the Best College Admissions Resume (With Template)

What is early decision?

Early decision (ED) is an accelerated admissions process that creates a binding agreement between a student and their first-choice school. Since ED is binding, you can only apply to one school using this process. Additionally, early decision schools usually require signatures from the student, their parent or guardian and a school guidance counselor.

When using the early decision process, you typically receive the school's decision letter in December. If you’re accepted, the school offers you a financial aid package that has been tailored to meet your family's specific needs. You must enroll in the school and send in a non-refundable deposit before May.

If a school rejects your application, you may be unqualified for regular admission with that school, or you could receive a deferment notice that allows you to complete the regular admissions process.

Related: How To Choose a College in 6 Steps

Early action versus early decision

Here's an overview of the major differences between the early action and early decision process:

Commitment

If you apply as an early decision candidate, you agree to attend the college upon acceptance. The school requires the accepted student to withdraw any other applications they may have submitted. Early action requires less commitment, as schools only expect students to consider acceptance offers. Even if a school accepts a student via early action, the student can commit to a different school if it better suits their interests or budget.

Related: How To Write Your High School Resume for College Applications

Flexibility

Students can apply for early action to multiple schools, but early decision is exclusive to one school. The good news is that either option allows you to apply to other colleges under regular admission plans. For instance, even if an early decision student applies to one college, they can apply for other schools via standard applications in case their first-choice college rejects them.

Related: How To Write School Applications Letter

Timeframe

Early decision can be an attractive option for students who want to know their plan for post-secondary education sooner. Offer letters usually come by December and give you until May 1st to send a nonrefundable deposit. Early action offer letters typically arrive in January or February, which is still earlier than offer letters in the traditional admissions cycle. You can make your early action decision no later than the May 1st national response date.

Related: How To Be a Good College Student

Financial aid

When applying using an early decision plan, students receive their admission offers and financial aid packages simultaneously. Because of this, you can't compare the financial aid offers from multiple institutions. If you want to compare financial plans from various institutions, early action may be the preferable option.

Related: Should You Go to College? 5 Reasons You Should (or Shouldn't)

Should you apply early?

You should consider applying to an institution early if you:

  • Have researched colleges

  • Have found a school that matches your academic, social and geographic requirements

  • Have decided on a school that is your first choice or have made a list of your top schools

  • Meet or exceed the school's admission requirements, such as class rank, GPA and standardized test scores, making you a competitive applicant

  • Possess a consistently satisfactory academic record

In other words, early application plans may be less than ideal for you if you're unsure of where you want to attend college or need to bring your grades up during your senior year.

Related: How To Find the Right Major in College

Advantages of applying early

If you have narrowed down your options and chosen your first-choice school, applying early can provide many benefits. For example, it offers the following benefits:

Expresses interest

Applying for early decision or early action programs can help you express your genuine interest in the school. Admission committees often appreciate proactive students, meaning your initiative can increase your chances of acceptance. It might even help less-impressive parts of your application appear more competitive.

Related: 25 of the Most Popular Undergraduate Majors

Reduces stress

Regular decision programs usually require students to submit applications by February. Being unsure of which college you attend until mid-March to early April can cause unnecessary stress during your senior year. With ED and EA programs, you can better plan for your future by researching housing options or planning your budget.

Related: How To Create a Resume for a College Application

Provides more time

The additional time that ED and EA programs provide to students proves to be invaluable. If your first-choice school rejects you, you can use the extra time to apply to other schools. You can research institutions that better fit your qualifications or revise your applications to impress admission committees with your accomplishments.

Related: 14 Career Advice Tips for College Students

Disadvantages of applying early

Though there are plenty of benefits associated with applying early, some drawbacks to consider include:

Pressure you into making a decision prematurely

Choosing the right school is very important, which is why you should give yourself an opportunity to explore all of your options.

Reduce your time working on other applications

If the school rejects your early application, this leaves you with only a few weeks to send in applications to other colleges. To avoid the rush and stress associated with this, prepare other applications while you wait to hear the admission decision from your first choice.

Cause students to stop working as hard

Sometimes, students mistakenly believe that after acceptance into a school, they can relax for the rest of their senior year. Though you can certainly take a break from stressing over college applications, it's important that you continue to work hard to prevent your college of choice from withdrawing its admission or financial aid offer.

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