If you're a high school students looking to apply to college, one of the biggest decisions you'll face is whether to apply through early action vs early decision vs regular decision. Each option has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and it can be challenging to determine which one is the best fit for you. In this blog, we'll explore the key differences between early action, early decision, and regular decision to help you make an informed decision.
Many schools, particularly highly selective colleges like Harvard or Stanford, offer early action and/or early decision options, and each year a handful of students choose this path. While the idea of submitting applications before the regular submission period may sound even more intense, there are enormous benefits to applying to college early. First and foremost, you're telling the school you're so passionate about their school that you picked them first! You're also showing the school that you have the fortitude and determination to complete an extensive application process months ahead of your peers.
You may even be rewarded with early relief and acceptance to your dream school if you apply early. But, before you start the process, it's important to be prepared and understand the implications associated with this path.
If you're unfamiliar with the early action, early decision, and regular decision processes, we're going to break each one down for you. By evaluating each option, deadline, and the pros and cons, you can make informed decisions about college application submissions.
|Early Action||Early Decision||Regular Decision|
|Deadlines||November 1st||November 1st||Mid-December to Mid-January|
|Advantages||Non Binding and high acceptance rate||Higher acceptance rate||Apply to as many colleges you wish and make your final commitment without consequences|
|Disadvantages||Offered at limited universities||Binding and limited financial aid available||Lower acceptance rate and competing with a bigger applicant pool|
Nearly 450 colleges accept early decision applications, and many offer both early decision and early action. Before starting the application process, list your top universities (based on qualifications and preferences) and categorize them into dream, target, and safety schools. It's to your advantage to apply early to your dream school because early applicants often have better odds of getting accepted.
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If you apply for early action, you will submit your application two months earlier than the regular decision deadline (November 1st vs. January 1st). Students who apply early tend to be more proactive and driven, two qualities colleges look for in applicants. Colleges are also flattered to know you chose to apply early to their college and that it ranked among your top choices.
If your apply early action and get accepted, you do not have to accept or reject the offer immediately as it’s a non-binding offer. You can even wait until you've received decisions from all your applications before you decide.
With a few exceptions, most universities have early action application deadlines of November 1st. See the Early Action and Early Decision Deadlines below for a list of some of the top schools' early action/early decision deadlines.
It's hard to find a reason not to apply early because if you are accepted, you can hold on to that offer and still apply to other schools on your list. Other advantages to applying early action include:
There are very few disadvantages to applying early. The main drawback to early action is that only a few institutions, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale, offer early action. Selective colleges can safely provide this option because they know you will probably accept their offer even if it's not binding.
Early decision is a binding agreement between an institution and a student, so you should only apply to that school if you're 100% sure you want to attend. If you're accepted in the early decision round, you must commit to attending that school. The institution wants to be sure that you will attend and that you don't receive or accept offers from other universities. This is part of their calculation in granting you admission before your peers.
Early decision is important to colleges that are more uncertain of their 'yield' (the percentage of accepted students who actually attend). It's a way for them to consolidate a portion of their cohort early. Early applications also allow colleges to predict the fall student numbers more accurately before other institutions, allowing them to prepare better.
Application deadlines for early decision and early action are typically the same. They fall around November 1st.
While both early decision and early action applicants have a higher chance of getting accepted. The odds are even higher for early decision applicants because they show an even greater commitment to the institution. If you're 100% sure of your top school, it works in your favor to apply to that school in the early decision round.
Admissions officers understand the commitment that goes along with an early decision offer, so the fact that you're willing to apply under these circumstances means you're fully committed to attending that school.
The main drawback with early decision plans is that they don't work well for students who need financial aid. Colleges typically don't have financial awards ready ahead of time, and students must decide before they see how much financial aid they will receive. If they wait for their financial aid package, they risk missing the admission deadlines of other schools.
Another disadvantage is that you can only apply for early decision at one school, so it's important to know without a doubt that you can attend that school and pay the tuition costs. If you reject an early decision offer, you cannot apply to that college again. The decision is final.
A few schools offer two early decision categories and deadlines (ED I and ED II). The main difference between these two is the deadline. The deadline for ED I is around November 1st, and ED II falls around January 1st. Acceptance rates for ED I are usually higher, but ED II acceptance rates are typically higher than the regular decision rates. The decision for both is still binding and still occurs before regular decision offers.
Students who apply during the regular decision cycle follow the standard application deadlines. They compete with a larger group of applicants and must wait longer for each school's final decision.
Regular decision deadlines range from mid-December to mid-January. Schools typically notify students of their decisions between late March and early April.
The main advantage of applying through the regular decision process is that you can apply to as many schools as you wish and make your final commitment without consequences.
The clear disadvantage is that most students wait until the regular decision period to apply for college. You're potentially applying to schools along with tens of thousands of other highly qualified students.
|University||Early Round Applicants||Early Round Acceptance Rate||Regular Round Acceptance Rate|
Most universities allow international students to apply through their early action and early decision process. Attending university in the United States can be costly, though, especially for international students. Some colleges may only accept early applications from international students who aren’t applying for financial aid. If money is an issue, international students shouldn’t enter into a binding early decision option.
It can be beneficial for international students to apply for early action or early decision (if offered). Colleges like to show their commitment to diversity by accepting applicants worldwide. If you’re a qualified international student, it would be to your advantage to apply early before equally eligible students apply during the regular decision round.
International students who get accepted through the early decision process can start making travel plans, obtaining visas, and gathering documents before the rush because they know in December which college they will attend in the fall.
If you’d like to study in the United States and take advantage of the early action and/or early decision application process, start by making a list of the colleges you’d like to attend. Then research each one to make sure there are no restrictions that apply to you.
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The acceptance rate data above shows that students who applied in the early action and early decision rounds had higher acceptance rates than those who applied during the regular decision round. Some colleges practice different admissions standards when considering early applicants, so it’s wise to check each college’s standards.
Students with strong academics tend to apply early. Those who apply early also have a high interest in studying at a particular university which nearly guarantees they will accept the offer.
Here are more benefits to applying in the early action and early decision rounds:
You will spend less time waiting for a decision than your peers because early applicants typically hear from colleges in November. Additionally, you probably won’t apply to as many colleges in the early rounds, so you’ll answer fewer essay prompts.
Since you’re not applying to as many colleges, you’ll spend less time and money on individual applications. Not only does this free you up financially, but it also means you have the latitude to pour your energy into that top application.
If you get into your top college, you can wrap up your college search! You will have more time to sort housing, courses, and moving before heading off to college.
If you don’t get into your dream college, you can still apply to other colleges. The application process will be easier because you already have experience filling out applications, and you have all the basic information ready to go.
If you’re hoping to submit your early action or early decision application, you should be perfecting your essays, participating in the right extracurricular activities, getting your letters of recommendation, and filling out your paperwork. Double-check all your work, and don’t forget a final grammar and spell-check. Tiny mistakes can distract from your hard work.
Most early applications are due in November, while regular round applications are due in early January. Early round applications also mean that students can potentially apply twice to the same school, and any students who missed out on their preferred school in the early round can reapply in the regular round.
Most of the universities listed below are early decision options, while some of the most competitive universities, such as Harvard, are early action.
|University||Application Deadlines||Expected Notification Dates|
|Stanford||November 1st||December 15th|
|U Chicago||November 1st||December 15th|
|Georgetown||November 1st||December 15th|
|NYU||November 1st||December 15th|
|Johns Hopkins (ED 1 & ED II)||November 1st/January 3rd||December 15th|
In 2020, Princeton cancelled their early action applications. Thankfully, Princeton has reinstated its Single Choice Early Action program. Please check the school's website for the deadlines of any school missing from this list, including the unique application and deadlines for the University of California system.
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It never hurts to apply for early acceptance as long as you understand the process and commitment. Before you begin the application process, do your research. Choose your dream college or colleges. Are you socially and academically a good match for these colleges? You should meet or exceed the college's profile for SAT/ACT scores, GPA, class rank, and ideally, have a solid academic record. Make sure they are schools you really want to attend, especially if you're applying for early decision. You have to accept an offer from an early decision college.
The choice between early action, early decision, and regular decision ultimately depends on your unique circumstances and preferences. Early action and early decision have an obvious advantage for students who have a clear top-choice school and want to increase their chances of acceptance. With that in mind, it’s important to carefully consider the binding commitment of early decision, as it limits a student's ability to compare financial aid offers from other schools.
Regular decision allows for more flexibility in decision-making, but it also means waiting longer to hear back. Ultimately, it’s crucial to thoroughly research and consider all factors before making a decision on which application route to take.