Early action and early decision programs are often confusing for many high school seniors. Both let you apply to college early, but they have some very important differences.
In this post I’ll attempt to clear up some of the confusion by answering the most common questions about these two application programs.
Important Note: Colleges vary in their early admission policies. Make sure you check the website of each school you’re applying to for its requirements.
What is early decision?
As I mentioned, with early decision you apply to college early, before the normal admission deadline. One of the benefits of this is that you find out early whether you’ve been accepted.
The important thing to know about early decision is that you must attend the college if you’re accepted.
Because of this, you can apply early decision to only one college, so it should be your first choice.
Even if you apply early decision, you can still apply early action or regular decision to other colleges. But if you get into your early decision school, you must withdraw your other applications.
What is early action?
Early action is similar to early decision in that you apply to college early and you also find out early whether you’ve been admitted. Unlike early decision, however, if you are accepted through early action, you don’t have to attend the college.
Another benefit is that you don’t have to let the college know whether you’re enrolling until the regular notification deadline in May.
You can apply early action to more than one school, as well as apply regular decision to other colleges.
Normally if you apply to a school through early action or early decision, you can’t apply to that same school through its regular decision program. For example, if you applied to Villanova early action and were not accepted, you can’t apply again through its regular decision program.
What is restrictive early action?
Restrictive early action is the same as early action with one very important difference. You can apply to only one school during the early action period. In that way, it’s similar to early decision. In fact, it has replaced early decision at some schools.
Many highly competitive colleges were concerned about the stress put on students who had to commit to a school early in the college process. If a student applies early decision, the college knows that it is the student’s number-one choice. This greatly helps the school manage its numbers for enrollment. Restrictive early action allows the school to determine a student’s real interest, but without the stress of commitment.
Like regular early action, you don’t have to attend the college if you’re accepted.
Schools that use restrictive early action include Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Yale.
What is single-choice early action?
Single-choice early action is just another name for restrictive early action.
What is regular decision?
Regular decision is the normal application process. The deadlines are usually between January 1 and February 1. With regular decision, there are no restrictions on the number of colleges you can apply to.
What is rolling admission?
Colleges that use rolling admission review make decisions on applications as soon as they get them. They don’t wait for a deadline. So the earlier you apply, the earlier you’ll find out whether you get in.
Some colleges, especially the more competitive ones, have a “priority” or a “preferred” deadline. This means students who apply before that date will have a better chance of getting in. These priority deadlines can be very early (Michigan State – November 1, Penn State – November 30) or late (University of Tulsa – January 15, Quinnipiac University – February 1).
Many colleges that use rolling admission have a long window during which you can apply, but it is to your advantage to apply as early as possible. Once the spaces in the class are filled, the schools stop admitting students.
Schools differ on how long they take to review your application and notify you as to whether you’ve been admitted. It can be as long as a few weeks or as many as 12 weeks depending on the college.
What is early decision 2?
Some colleges have a second early decision program, aptly named early decision 2. The requirements are the same except that there’s a later deadline, usually January 1.
Early decision 2 is a good choice if you didn’t get into your first choice early decision and have a definite second choice.
What is the difference between early action and early decision?
There’s a critical difference between early action and early decision. If you’re accepted early decision, you must attend that college. If you’re accepted early action, you do not have to attend the college.
What is the difference between early action and regular decision?
Early action programs have earlier application deadlines and notification dates. Otherwise they are basically the same. Restrictive and single-choice early action programs have additional restrictions (see question #3).
What are the benefits of early action?
There are several benefits to applying early action.
- At most schools, early action acceptance rates are higher.
- You get the college application process and stress over early.
- If you’re accepted, you can still decide not to attend the school.
- You don’t have to let them know until the notification deadline in May.
What are the benefits of early decision?
The benefits of early decision are similar to those of early action.
- Again, early decision acceptance rates are higher.
- The college application process and stress are over early.
The disadvantage to applying early decision is that if you decide you no longer want to attend that school, you must still attend.
And if you think colleges won’t find out, believe it or not, colleges communicate with one another, especially the more selective colleges. If a college finds out you broke an early decision agreement, it will either refuse to admit you or, if you’ve been accepted, withdraw its acceptance.
Are early decision acceptance rates higher?
Yes, for most colleges. Here are some examples of the differences in admission rates.
When is the early decision deadline?
The deadline for early decision applications is normally November 1. Some programs have deadlines as early as October 1 and as late as December 1. In comparison, the regular application deadline is usually between January 1 and February 1.
When is the early action deadline?
Like early decision, the deadline for early action applications is commonly November 1. It can be as early as October 1 and as late as December 1.
Is early decision binding?
Yes. You must attend the college if you’re accepted.
Is early action binding?
No. You do not have to attend the college if you are accepted.
When do early decision results come out?
Early decision notifications usually go out by the middle of December. For early decision 2, they are out by the middle of February.
When do early action results come out?
Early action results normally go out by the middle of December.
What does it mean to be “deferred?”
There are three outcomes when you apply early action or early decision. The school can accept you, reject you, or “defer” you. If you are deferred, your application goes into the pool of students applying regular decision.
It also means the college believes you are a good candidate. Otherwise, it would not waste its time on your application.
How early can you apply for college?
You can apply to a college as soon as the application is available. This is true not only for early action and early decision, but also for regular and rolling admissions.
More than 500 schools use the Common Application, which is available August 1. This year about 60 schools are using the Coalition Application, which should be available in the summer.
Colleges that use their own applications have their own dates, which are available on the school’s website.
If you want to get a head start, both the Common Application and Coalition Application publish their essay prompts several months ahead of the availability date.
Early decision and early action programs allow you to apply early to college and find out earlier whether you are accepted. The main difference is that if you apply to a college early decision and are accepted, you must attend that college. With early action, you do not have to attend the college.
There is evidence that if you apply to a college either through early decision or early action, you have a better chance of being admitted.
Here is a chart comparing all the admission programs colleges use.
Early action and early decision are great programs, and each has its own strengths. If you have a clear first choice, apply early decision. If you are a strong candidate but unsure whether you want to go to a particular school, early action is the better choice.