Early Decision vs. Early Action: Ins and Outs, Pros and Cons, and How to Choose

Early Decision vs. Early Action

Early Decision vs. Early Action: Ins and Outs, Pros and Cons, and How to Choose

Published July 24, 2023

Early Decision vs. Early Action

Students have admission options when applying to college. These include Early Decision (ED), Early Decision 2 (ED 2) and Early Action (EA). Before you choose one, it’s essential to understand the pros and cons. This article explains each option and advises you on how to select the one that best fits your situation.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

Early Action is non-binding, allowing students to apply to multiple colleges and make their decision later. However, Early Decision is a binding agreement, meaning that if a student is accepted, they are obligated to enroll in that particular institution and withdraw all other college applications. 

Early Action (EA)

Early Action applicants apply by an early deadline and receive an admissions decision early in the cycle, and can consider their acceptance offer without the need to commit immediately. In fact, it’s possible to wait until May 1 to answer an Early Action offer.

This gives you time to evaluate admissions offers from other schools, where you might have applied following the regular admissions timeline.

Early Decision (ED)

When you apply for Early Decision, you essentially commit to attending the school if they offer to enroll you. You can’t wait to see what others offer you in terms of admissions, and you might not even be able to see a financial aid package before you commit.

Early Decision 2 (ED 2)

Schools may need to fill additional spots through another selective application process, and as a result students who may have been denied their Early Decision school can submit another application. 

Similar to the first round, ED 2 is a binding agreement that requires students to accept the offer if they receive it.

The only major difference between Early Decision and Early Decision 2 is the deadline. Early Decision deadlines generally fall around early November, so students will hear back from schools with a decision in mid-December.

Restrictive Early Action (REA)

Restrictive Early Action (REA) is a special case of Early Action, which is also a non-binding option. What’s different is that if you apply Restrictive Early Action, you may not apply to any other schools either Early Decision or Early Action. 

Applicants are expected to sign a statement that they agree to file only one early application.

Only a handful of selective schools have Restrictive Early Action. They are Boston College, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale University.

Early Application Acceptance Rates

Check out our R2C Insights tool to get Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision acceptance rates for all schools.

By having this information (and a lot more) in one place, the R2C Insights tool allows you to quickly sort, filter, and compare schools to find ones that will be more affordable for your family.

Should I Just Choose Regular Admission Instead?

While regular admission is a common route for college applications, there are reasons why students may consider Early Action or Early Decision instead. One advantage of early admission options is the opportunity to receive an early decision from colleges, providing more time for planning and alleviating the stress of waiting until the regular decision period.

Additionally, Early Action allows students to apply to multiple colleges and compare offers before making a final decision, while Early Decision can increase the chances of acceptance at a top-choice school. However, it’s important to note that early admission options may come with certain restrictions or binding commitments, so students should carefully evaluate their individual circumstances and preferences before deciding which path to pursue.

Is Early Decision Really Binding?

The good news is that, when it comes to a legally binding contract, you don’t have to worry about it with Early Decision. However, just because the school isn’t going to take you to court to enforce an Early Decision contract, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences.

When you agree to Early Decision at most schools, you agree not to apply elsewhere. You might have to withdraw applications at other schools if you’re admitted Early Decision, and you usually can’t apply for Early Decision at more than one school at a time.

Additionally, with Early Decision, you agree to attend the school if you’re accepted. So if the admissions offer is made, you’re expected to accept it immediately — sometimes even before you see your financial aid package.

You might also be required to send an acceptance deposit early on.

Some schools, like the Rochester Institute of Technology, offer “friendly” Early Decision plans.

Schools that offer these plans send financial aid information and packages to students early on, so long as they complete the FAFSA form.

Additionally, schools with friendly Early Decision policies don’t reduce your award amount based on your status. Some schools reduce your award or take you out of the running for merit-based scholarships if you apply using Early Decision.

With Early Action, you don’t have any agreement to attend the school; you just have an early acceptance, so you have peace of mind. You can still wait to accept and compare financial aid packages.

What Happens if You Break an Early Decision Contract?

While you won’t face legal consequences, definite consequences come if you break an Early Decision contract.

Some of the likely problems that come with breaking the contract include:

  • Your high school may refuse to send transcripts, mid-year and year-end reports with grades to additional schools.
  • You might not be able to get additional letters of recommendation for other college applications.
  • Other schools might not admit you for the upcoming school year if they know you broke an early decision contract.
  • The offer won’t be reinstated later if you change your mind again and want to attend after all.

You won’t have to worry about this with Early Action since there’s no binding expectation that you will attend the school.

If you turn down acceptance when you’ve applied for Early Decision, you should prepare to take a gap year since you might not get into other colleges in time for the fall semester.

The main exception is if you receive your financial aid package at your Early Decision school and you cannot afford to attend after all.

Can You Back Out of Early Decision for Financial Reasons?

The only reason that admissions offices will accept is the financial reason. Perhaps you were expecting more financial aid or a better package.

If you can show that financial issues are causing you to reconsider, you can back out and still apply for and attend other schools.

To learn more about if early decision is binding, watch our webinar with Ron Lieber, “Your Money” columnist at the New York Times and author of The Price You Pay For College, Nancy Griesemer, Educational consultant and Debbie Schwartz, founder of Road2College.

 

The Pros and Cons of Early Decision

Early Decision plans will get your child’s college journey off to an earlier start. While this allows them to get things moving earlier and help them plan ahead of time, it also presents some unique challenges.

Pros:

  • Applying early shows schools that your child is taking their application seriously, and it can give them an advantage over those that apply later in the year.
  • Getting accepted early can reduce your child’s stress levels during senior year.
  • If your child doesn’t get into their dream school, they will have more time to look for other options.
  • If your child isn’t accepted to a school they’re interested in through Early Decision, they can apply again during the normal admission cycle.

Cons:

  • Due to the Early Decision timeline, your child may need more time to send in improved SAT/ACT scores or GPAs.
  • If your child is accepted through Early Decision, they won’t be able to compare financial aid plans with other schools. However, this only applies to Early Decision plans and not Early Action.
  • Students who apply for early admission generally have exemplary test scores and GPAs, so the competition can be fierce.
  • While making a decision early may help decrease your child’s stress levels, they may want to wait and decide later when they can finalize plans with family and friends.

The Pros and Cons of Early Action

Pros:

  • Early Action is non-binding. You can apply to multiple colleges and still be free to compare offers and decide later.
  • You receive an early decision from the college, which allows you to plan your future accordingly.

Cons: 

  • Some colleges may have a lower acceptance rate during the Early Action round than the regular decision round, making it more competitive.
  • Since Early Action is non-binding, colleges may perceive applicants as less committed than Early Decision applicants.

Who Should Apply for Early Decision?

Not everyone should apply for Early Decision or Early Action. However, it can increase your chances of being accepted.

When you apply for early decision vs. early action, you have different acceptance rates. According to Inside Higher Ed, applying for early action gives you a better chance:

“Among all colleges with early decision, their regular admit rate was 50.7 percent, but the rate for early decision was 62.3 percent. For colleges with early action, the overall admit rate was 64.1 percent and the rate for early-action applicants was 73.6 percent.”

So, if you want a quick decision but you’re not sure early decision is the right move, early action can be one course of action.

Consider applying for Early Decision only if you: 

  • Are 100 percent certain of your first-choice school
  • Have done the research and know that you can pay for the school, regardless of the financial aid package (including using student loans)
  • Have a strong application and can meet the deadline
  • Will take standardized tests early enough to meet the deadline

Additionally, it helps to have a backup plan in place.

If your Early Decision school doesn’t accept you, you might have a short period to apply to other schools. Know your second and third choices, and prepare application materials for those schools so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute.

Only apply for Early Decision if you are sure this is your first choice school or your grades or test scores need work.

Also, realize that applying for Early Decision is something to take seriously, so don’t do it if you’re hoping to avoid stress and paperwork or if your friends are.

In the end, Early Decision comes with a lot of restrictions.

Can You Apply for Early Decision and Early Action?

Students can apply for both Early Decision and Early Action. However, if a student is accepted to their Early Decision school and also accepted to Early Action schools, the student is obligated to attend the Early Decision school.

Many students are fine applying through the regular process or applying for Early Action if they want an early decision.

It reduces the risk and allows more time to compare prices and financial aid packages.

How to Decide Which Admission Option Is Right for You

Choosing between Early Decision and Early Action requires carefully considering your circumstances. Take these steps to help you decide.

  • Identify your top-choice colleges and research their admission statistics and policies regarding Early Decision and Early Action.
  • Evaluate your financial situation and determine if comparing financial aid packages is crucial for your decision-making process.
  • Reflect on how certain you are about attending a particular college. Consider visiting campuses, talking to current students, and researching academic programs.
  • Consult with your guidance counselor, who can provide insights and support in making the right decision.
  • Assess your academic record, standardized test scores, and extracurricular involvement to gauge your competitiveness for admission.
  • Review the deadlines for Early Decision and Early Action applications and make sure you can meet them.

Use R2C Insights to Compare and Choose Colleges

Road2College offers a college search and comparison tool called R2C Insights. Try it for free to see colleges’ acceptance rates for the admission options discussed in this article – plus a whole lot more. We offer a free version to get started and a premium version to go deeper. 

You can use R2C Insights to:

  • Get personalized recommendations
  • Search for colleges in your price range
  • Find merit aid
  • See crowdsourced data on college offers
  • Dig deeper with advanced searches by majors, admit rates, deadlines, and much more.

Other Articles You Might Like:

Merit Scholarships Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List and Search Tool

The Price You Pay for College: Why It’s So Difficult to Predict Merit Scholarships

Exploring Early Decision 2: Pros and Cons, Tips, List of Ed 2 Colleges

JOIN ONE OF OUR FACEBOOK GROUPS & CONNECT WITH OTHER PARENTS: 

PAYING FOR COLLEGE 101

HOW TO FIND MERIT SCHOLARSHIPS

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