Early Action vs. Early Decision for College Applicants

ByI. Mitic
May 18, 2022

Getting accepted to your college of choice early gives you peace of mind. You can cruise through your senior year of high school knowing which university you will get to attend, as long as you attain the required grades at the end of the year. 

However, as you might expect, opting for either early action or early decision comes with certain costs. In some cases, it may even be binding. 

In this post, we’ll look at the difference between early action vs. early decision. We’ll explore what both terms mean and why some students choose to apply early. 

What Is Early Action?

Early action is a process students can use to apply for a place at a university and receive a decision well ahead of the conventional response date. Such schemes let students know where they stand regarding their chosen colleges well in advance, allowing them more time to make plans for the future. 

In most cases, students who apply for early action have already been diligent and spent quite a bit of time exploring which school they would like to attend. They’ve researched grade requirements, course syllabuses, and fees, and then come to a decision on whether a particular school is a good fit.

So, is early action binding? The simple answer is “no.” Even if a student receives an offer, they don’t have to take the placement. They can reject the institution if a better college comes along. 

What Is Early Decision?

So, if early action is getting a response about placement well ahead of the usual date, what is early decision for college?

The difference between early action and early decision is that, in the latter, the student has to make a commitment to a first-choice institution. If it accepts their candidacy and admits them, they must enroll and withdraw all applications from other colleges. They cannot pick and choose. 

Harvard, for instance, is one of the early decision colleges. If it accepts a student’s application and the student has an early decision agreement with the institution, they must accept the place and forgo all offers from other universities. 

For many students, the binding nature of early decision is a disadvantage. It means that they lose the opportunity to compare the financial aid packages closer to the enrollment date. It also prevents them from taking advantage of the financial aid that other colleges may offer. While they can still get a private student loan to fund their education, it can make finances trickier to manage. 

Conversely, early action is entirely non-binding. Students can reject college offers and pick the institution offering the best all-around deal, including better terms to repay college loans

However, just because early decision offers are binding, students aren’t legally beholden to attend. Colleges rarely, if ever, initiate lawsuits against students for lost tuition revenues. In reality, institutions have no way of preventing someone from breaking this type of agreement. However, doing so frequently may affect the reputation of the student’s high school, and prevent future students from benefiting from such programs. 

The conditions under which a student backs out of an early decision determines how the college will respond. If the matter is purely one of personal preference, universities are likely to take a dim view. In their opinion, students should honor their word.

Still, if the college offers inadequate financial aid, especially with dealing with interests on college loans, then it may be more understanding if the students turn the offer down. In some cases, institutions may allow students to back out if such decisions will put them in severe financial jeopardy. 

How Many Colleges Let You Make Early Decision and Early Action Applications?

The College Board estimates that around 450 institutions across the US offer either early action, early decision, or both. Generally, they are more common in private institutions, although public colleges also run them. 

Early decision offers are considerably more common among highly selective schools. In an attempt to snap up the best students early, both Yale and Harvard apply this approach, thus eliminating the temptation for the most talented ones to look elsewhere.

Some colleges offer multiple rounds of early decision, sometimes called ED I and ED II. The deadline for ED I is November 1 for most colleges, with admission decisions being made by December 15. Once you receive approval, you’re free to enjoy the rest of high school, knowing that you’ll be going to your college of choice in the new academic year. 

The deadline for ED II is usually around February 15 of senior year. If the college admits you, you’ll need to withdraw your other applications. 

Colleges tend to be quite secretive about the difference in acceptance rates for ED I and ED II (as you might imagine). However, publicly available data suggests that applications are likely to be more successful if made earlier rather than later. Even so, applying under ED II can significantly boost the likelihood of admission. 

Ideally, you should think of ED II as a second chance to apply to your college of choice. If you missed ED I due to external factors, or your preferred school rejected you at ED I, all is not lost!

Why Apply for Early Action or Early Decision?

Colleges are keen to promote early decision because it helps them improve their yield rate – the percentage of students who choose to enroll in a particular college or university after being accepted for admission. Yield is valuable to institutions because it is an indication of their desirability among the student population, something that affects their national ranking. 

Owing to this incentive, schools with early decision programs tend to have higher acceptance rates. Colleges make a small trade-off, giving up the absolute best crop of students in return for those who commit to attending and boosting their yields. The result for regular students like you is a slight increase in the probability that an institution will accept your application versus a senior year student who applies independently, outside of an early decision program. 

Early action isn’t as effective because students don’t commit to attending a particular university. As such, colleges have no guarantee that their yield rates will increase and, therefore, don’t benefit from taking on these students. 

There may also be a psychological reason why early decision applicants are more likely to get into the university of their choice. As admissions experts point out, students who apply early at a different time from the bulk of applicants are much more likely to have their applications read and considered in full. Admissions officers will probably pay closer attention to each application in a stack of 30 than 1,000. 

What Type of Students Should Enter the Early Action or Early Decision Process?

Most students applying for early decision or early action are academically strong. They already have a high GPA, increasing the likelihood of getting into the school of their choice. 

This fact partially explains why admission rates are higher for students who apply early. Not only are they the most proactive, but they also tend to be the most academically gifted as well. Colleges know this, which is one of the reasons why they run such schemes.

Early action and early decision are also good for students planning on traveling a long distance to college or who worry about where they will wind up in the future. Knowing precisely where you will be next year gives you a longer planning horizon. 

What You Need To Know Before Applying for Either Early Action or Early Decision

In this section, we’ll cover some of the things you need to know if you want to apply for either early action or early decision. 

Deadlines Are Shorter

Early action and early decision deadlines arrive much earlier compared to the regular application process. ED I deadlines, for instance, are November 1 of senior year – only a couple of months into the syllabus. ED II deadlines are a couple of months later, usually in February.

The Application Process Is the Same

Even if you don’t have your senior grades yet, the application process for early decision and early action is largely the same. Specifically, you have to provide exam results and teacher recommendations. That’s why, if you are not academically on track, you may want to wait until later in your senior year to see if your grades improve. If they do, you will be in an advantageous position to apply to your college of choice.

When applying, always do your research and think strategically. Figure out where you stand compared to your preferred college’s academic requirements. If you’re roughly where you need to be, then applying for early admission makes sense. But if your grades are a long way off, you may actually jeopardize your chances of getting into your preferred college.

NACAC Rule Changes: Early Action vs. Early Decision

The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently introduced a host of rule changes designed to reduce collusion among colleges and make early action and early decision applications fairer to students. 

These changes included: 

  • The removal of barriers preventing colleges from offering incentives to students applying for early decision or early action
  • The lifting of bans on pursuing students already accepted for admission elsewhere
  • The lifting of the ban on soliciting students enrolled at another institution

As a result, early action and early decision work is improving for students. For instance, colleges now regularly offer incentives such as academic advising or early access to registration for candidates who take up such schemes. The hope is that the new incentive structures will help colleges target more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, thus working toward equality. 

Even so, the long-term ramifications of these changes remain unclear. It will require several full academic year cycles to gauge the outcomes, and there hasn’t been enough time for that to happen since the NACAC approved the new rules. The fear is that students may make decisions without really knowing whether they are getting a good deal financially.  

Conclusion

When it comes to early action vs. early decision, the former means that a university has decided to accept a student’s application early, offering them a place on their chosen course. Early decision is similar, the key difference being that the student must drop their applications to all other universities if their chosen institution accepts them. 

Ideal candidates for early action and early decision are students with good grades in their junior year on standardized tests. The stronger your GPA, the more likely it is that an institution will accept your application. 

Above all, if you opt for either scheme, you need to be certain that it is the right decision. Do your homework on each college you apply for to check whether it is suitable for you. Then, find one that offers both the academic and extracurricular life you want.

FAQ

Is early decision or early action better?

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For students, early action is usually better than an early decision. That’s because early action is non-binding but still provides the student with a place at the institution. Early decision is a commitment on the part of the institution to admit the student, who must promise to abandon all other applications if accepted. That’s why early decision may come with a slightly higher chance of admission. 

Does early action give you a better chance of acceptance?

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Early action doesn’t usually provide a better chance of acceptance because there are no incentives on the part of the university. However, early decision is more likely to result in acceptance because universities can use them to improve their yield rate, which, in turn, boosts their ranking.

Is there a downside to applying early action?

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One potential downside of applying for early action is reduced financial aid. Students accepted via such schemes usually receive less monetary assistance than their peers, which is one of the reasons this route tends to be most popular among wealthy families.

About author

For years, the clients I worked for were banks. That gave me an insider’s view of how banks and other institutions create financial products and services. Then I entered the world of journalism. Fortunly is the result of our fantastic team’s hard work. I use the knowledge I acquired as a bank copywriter to create valuable content that will help you make the best possible financial decisions.

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