What You Should Know About Early Action and Early Decision Applications

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    You’ve done it! You’ve gathered your transcripts and letters of recommendation. You’ve written a successful college essay. Your resume and supplemental essays are edited to perfection. You’ve documented your volunteer hours. Now, you just need to submit your application. 

    That said, deciding when to apply can have a significant impact on your applications. This is especially true if you are interested in attending an Ivy League college or another highly-selective school, such as one of the top liberal arts colleges

    Choosing the best application deadline for you could have a significant impact on whether or not you gain admission to your top school. If you have a strong preference for where you’d like to attend, you may want to consider early action and early decision deadlines. 

    In this article, we will review the key differences between early action, early decision, and restrictive or single-choice early action. We will also discuss the pros and cons of applying early. So if you have questions like what is the difference between early action and early decision? and is early action or early decision binding? read on for further insight. 

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    Early application timelines

    College application season is a busy time of year! Stay organized and keep track of important college admissions dates. This will be especially important if you are interested in applying early action (EA) or early decision (ED). Typically, early deadlines fall between November 1st and November 15th. 

    Some schools, however, have started offering Early Action I (EA I), Early Action II (EA II), Early Decision I (ED I), and Early Decision II (ED II), with EA II and ED II having later application deadlines. These are good options for students who want to signal their interest and commitment to a school but who would also benefit from having a few more months to work on their college applications. 

    Now let’s talk about admissions decisions. Early decision applicants are contacted in December regarding their admissions decisions. Early action applicants may have to wait slightly longer, with the majority of decisions being made in December and January. Receiving an admissions decision early is one of the key perks of applying early!

    Now what about your decision? The national response date for regular and early action decisions is May 1st. This means that even if you apply early through early action, you do not have to notify the schools of your final decision until May 1st. Students who are accepted through early decision, however, will have to formally commit and send a deposit months earlier. This is important to keep in mind as you decide whether or not to pursue early action or early decision. 

    Early Action vs. Early Decision applications

    What’s the difference between early action and early decision? Is early action or early decision binding? Can you apply for both? Let’s review some of these key questions. 

    What is Early Decision?

    The biggest difference between early action and early decision is that early decision is binding while early action is not. A binding decision means that the student must attend the school if they are accepted through early decision. 

    Students who apply for early decision should be prepared to sign a contract, along with their parents and guidance counselor. This contract will vary from school to school but will essentially state the expectations on both ends. Students applying early decision will agree not to apply early to any other schools. They also agree to rescind all regular decision applications upon news of their acceptance.  

    Early decision benefits the student who is set on a particular school and has a good chance of being accepted. Some popular schools with early decision deadlines are Brown University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Pennsylvania. 

    What is Early Action?

    Early action is a nonbinding application deadline. Students can apply to multiple schools through this program and are not committed to attending upon their acceptance. Students who apply early action communicate demonstrated interest. They also show college admissions officers their ability to take initiative and plan ahead. Another perk of applying early is receiving your admission decision early.

    Restrictive early action, also known as, single-choice early action is another application deadline. Although nonbinding, it is a bit more exclusive than other early action programs. Students are only allowed to apply early to one school through restrictive early action. Every school has its specific guidelines on how they validate this. 

    For example, Princeton University offers single-choice early action, which they define (according to their website) as: 

    “Princeton offers a single-choice early action program. It is a nonbinding program for students who have thoroughly researched their college options and have decided that Princeton is their first choice. Students must complete their application by Nov. 1. They may not apply to an early program at any other private college or university, but they may apply early to any public institution, as long as the decision is nonbinding. Admission decisions will be made by mid-December. Admitted students will have until May 1 to respond and may choose to apply for regular decision at other institutions, enabling them to compare their admission and financial aid offers with those of other colleges and universities.”  

    Benefits of applying early

    Why consider applying early? What are the perks? Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of applying early.

    Shows a heightened interest in the school

    Applying early will demonstrate to a school that you really want to go there, especially if you apply as an early decision applicant. Most schools want a high yield. A yield refers to the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll. According to the U.S. News & World Report, schools like Harvard University and Stanford University boast a yield of about 82%. 

    Higher chances of being accepted

    Most highly-selective schools admit a significant portion of their incoming class from the early application pool. This mostly comes down to demonstrated interest. If a college knows you are intent on attending, they are more likely to offer you admission. 

    It’s important to note, however, that demonstrated interest only plays a small factor in admissions decisions. If you are a competitive applicant, applying regular decision doesn’t make you any less qualified. Applying early simply offers you a bit of an edge. At highly-selective schools, however, this “edge” may very well be the deciding factor!

    Time to plan accordingly

    Not only will you finish up with the college application process earlier but you will also be notified of admissions decisions earlier. Regular decision applicants usually receive their admission decisions sometime in March, and early decision and early action applicants will receive their admissions decisions much earlier, usually in December or January. This will allow you to plan ahead for college while enjoying the end of your senior year, stress-free.

    Disadvantages of applying early

    So what else do you need to know about early decision and early action? What’s the catch?

    Guaranteed commitment without reviewing financial aid

    A student must attend the school if they are accepted through early decision. This means attending the school without knowing the potential financial aid package they will receive and if they can afford to attend. For many students, understanding your financial aid package is a crucial deciding factor. This is why students need to make sure they have gone through all the financing options before applying early decision to any school to ensure they can afford it. 

    Many people criticize early decision policies on account that students cannot compare financial aid packages. Not only is this stressful for students and parents but it also favors wealthier applicants.  

    Less time to prepare applications

    Since the deadline is so soon after school starts, it can be extremely stressful and difficult for students to gather all of their materials on time. In some cases, students may even want to start preparing application materials and requesting letters of recommendation during the second semester of their junior year. 

    Applying early can be especially difficult when a student hasn’t taken their SAT or ACT yet or has a score they aren’t happy with and want to retake it. After all, coming up with an SAT study plan and schedule takes time and coordination. Students intent on applying early should take their SATs or ACTs no later than October during their senior year. 

    If a student does choose to apply early, they need to make sure they have a complete application without mistakes by the application deadline. 


    Something else to keep in mind about applying early is that it can feel tempting to slack off at the end of the year if you’ve already been accepted to your top college. It’s important to remember, though, that a school can rescind its offer of admission if your grades do not remain consistent. 

    Which schools offer Early Decision?

    According to Prep Scholar, there are 182 colleges and universities that offer early decision applications. It’s important to note that early decision programs are much more popular in private colleges than there are public colleges. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable colleges and universities that offer early decision:

    • American University
    • Bard College
    • Bates College
    • Boston College
    • Brown University
    • Carleton College
    • Colby College
    • Colgate University
    • Columbia University
    • Cornell University
    • Dartmouth College
    • Duke University
    • George Washington University
    • Hamilton College
    • Harvey Mudd College
    • Middlebury College
    • New York University (NYU)
    • Northwestern University
    • Rhode Island School of Design
    • Skidmore College
    • Tufts University
    • University of Pennsylvania
    • Vanderbilt University
    • Williams College

    Which schools offer Early Action?

    According to Prep Scholar, there are over 300 colleges and universities that offer early decision applications. While early decision is more popular among private colleges and universities, early action is equally popular among private and public schools. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable colleges and universities that offer early action:

    • Bennington College
    • Berklee College of Music
    • Colorado College
    • Emerson College
    • Georgetown University
    • Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
    • Harvard University
    • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
    • Princeton University
    • Purdue University
    • Stanford University
    • Warren Wilson College
    • Yale University

    Who should apply Early Decision?

    Students who have completed thorough college research and have a clear top-choice college may want to consider applying early. Early decision is only an appropriate choice if the student is already a competitive applicant. It’s also important to remember that if you apply early decision you won’t be able to compare financial aid offers. So make sure you can afford to attend, regardless of your financial aid package. 

    Who should apply Early Action?

    Students who feel motivated to complete some of their college applications early should consider applying early action. Unless the school specifies that they only offer single-choice early action (SCEA) or restrictive early action, early action is nonbinding and nonexclusive. In other words, if you feel confident about getting your application materials in on time, you’ll start hearing from schools as soon as December! This could be key for your decision-making process as it will also give you more time to research colleges to figure out whether or not they truly are the best fit. 

    What happens if you break your Early Decision commitment?

    Now comes the tricky question, what happens if you break your early decision commitment? The short answer is, legally, nothing. It may damage your reputation, however. Schools that participate in early decisions often share lists of accepted students with other participating schools. If a student is on multiple lists, they may lose all of their acceptance offers. Similarly, if a school finds out that a student did not rescind all other applications upon their acceptance, the school may choose to reverse its admissions decision. 

    Schools tend to be a bit more understanding if a student wants to back out of their agreement due to financial considerations. Again, likely there will be no legal repercussions. Early decision agreements are made based on honor, respect, and reputation. The key takeaway here is that if you try to play the system, you will likely be caught and lose credibility and respect. If you feel like you need to back out due to financial considerations, a school is more likely to be understanding.

    Key takeaways and moving forward

    It is up to the student, their guidance counselor, parents, and any other support system the student might have to determine how and when they should apply to colleges. There are many benefits to applying early but the student should create a game plan in order to garner the best results. 

    At Prepory, we recognize there is more to college applications than demonstrating interest. If you’re having trouble navigating the college application process, reach out to learn more about our services. Let one of our college admissions experts help you go from where you are to where you should be.

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