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The college application process can be stressful. Perfecting your personal essay, obtaining letters of recommendation and submitting high test scores are all common points of focus for high school seniors. Another part of the college application that can cause stress is whether to apply early. You may have heard the terms “early decision” and “early action.” Do you know what the difference is between the two? This article examines the benefits and drawbacks that early decision and early action offer, which will help you decide whether either one is right for you.

What is early decision?

Early decision (ED) is a binding contract in which the applicant agrees to enroll in a school if he or she is accepted. Under the terms of ED, applicants are allowed to apply to only one school. Whereas the deadline to apply regular decision (RD) at most schools is January 1, the deadline to apply ED is usually November 1.

The benefits of early decision

Applying ED has a number of benefits. The first one is that because you are submitting your application early, you also receive a decision from the school early. Whereas RD applicants usually hear back from schools regarding their admittance or denial around April 1, ED applicants receive their notification around mid-December. For students who do not want to wait to hear back from schools, ED provides the opportunity to know their futures a bit earlier.

Another benefit of applying ED is that it can increase your chances of gaining admittance. Because ED is a binding contract, if you get accepted into a school, you are required to attend. Most colleges and universities care about having a high yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll), and they will appreciate your making a commitment to them. Because of this, many schools admit a higher percentage of applicants from the ED pool than from the RD pool. If you have a clear-cut favorite school, applying ED can help you gain a competitive advantage over the other applicants.

Furthermore, applying ED can potentially save you money in application fees. Because ED applicants receive their decision notifications from schools in mid-December (before the January 1 deadline for RD applications), applying ED provides students with greater flexibility in applying. For example, if you apply ED and get admitted, then you do not need to submit any more applications to other schools and will save hundreds of dollars in application fees. On the other hand, if you get rejected ED, you will still have time to apply to more schools before the January 1 RD deadline.

The drawbacks of early decision

ED is primarily intended for students who know what their definite number one school is. Because ED is binding, you need to be positive you are committed to attending that school if you apply ED. You should not apply ED if you are still deciding where you want to go.

In addition, ED is not a great option for low-income students. The fact that you are obligated to attend a school if you get accepted ED means that you will not have the opportunity to compare scholarship or financial aid offers from different schools. For many students, the choice of which college to attend is boiled down to which one offers the best financial aid package. Applying ED means you will be required to attend the school if it accepts you, regardless of how much money it offers.

What is early action?

Early action (EA) is a nonbinding alternative to ED. Whereas students can apply to only one school ED and are required to attend if they are accepted, students can apply to as many schools EA as they want and are not required to attend if they are accepted. The deadline to apply EA is generally the same as the deadline to apply ED.

The benefits of early action

Applying EA allows you to submit your applications early and receive decision notifications from universities early. If you want to get ahead of the game and finish your applications early, applying EA will save the hassle of applying later on. Applying EA also reduces the stress and anxiety associated with waiting to hear back from schools.

Another advantage of EA is that it gives you more freedom than applying ED. Getting accepted to a school EA does not mean you are required to attend. You can apply EA even if you are unsure whether you want to attend. In addition, applying EA to multiple schools allows you to compare financial aid packages and select the school that is most affordable.

The drawbacks of early action

Applying ED can improve your chances of admittance, but applying EA does not. Schools give no preference to EA applicants over RD applicants. In fact, applying EA may actually harm your chances of admittance if you are relying on your second semester grades to boost your application. For example, if you had weak grades junior spring and you hope to turn them around senior fall, applying EA means that schools will not see your senior fall grades when assessing your application. Applying EA also means that you will have less time to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. If you need the additional time to improve your grades and test scores, you might be better off applying RD.

Which one is right for you?

It is important to know the differences between regular decision, early decision and early action. When submitting your college application, you need to be aware of the timelines for each, as well as how your choice can affect you. To help you decide whether to apply RD, ED, or EA, we have summarized the differences in the following table.

You should apply RD if . . .You should apply ED if . . .You should apply EA if . . .
You need more time to complete your applicationYou know for sure what your top-choice school isYou want to apply early, but you don’t know your top-choice school yet
You are counting on your grades from senior fall to improve your applicationYou want to boost your chances of gaining admittanceYou want to apply early, but you need to compare financial aid and scholarship offers
You need more time to retake the SAT or ACTYou want to avoid having to complete multiple applicationsYou want to receive your decision notifications from schools early