Early Decision vs. Early Action: What’s the Difference?

Carolina Jacobs

Feb 2, 2022

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Early Decision vs. Early Action are two paths a high school student can take during their college selection process that potentially improve their chances of getting into their desired universities. While they sound similar, they have inherently different functions, so it’s important to know those functions and how they will impact your college search.

Main Difference Between ED and EA

Early Decision (ED) is when a high school student commits to a college early in their selection process before the college has made a formal offer. All accepted ED applicants are required to attend the college they committed to.

Early Action (EA) is when a student applies to a college or handful of colleges early in the process, but doesn’t make a full commitment. EA simply allows the student to hear back from universities more quickly, giving them more time to make their final decision.

The results of each decision vary from college to college. ED students usually evaluate themselves well are great fits for the college both academically and financially, which explains the higher acceptance rates for ED applicants. EA doesn’t influence acceptance rates as much, but if the student has a well-rounded portfolio, it can help them stand out from the other early applicants and improve their chances.

Here is the usual chain of events for each process.

Early Decision Steps

  1. The student applies to their top choice early in their senior year or sooner.
  2. The college accepts or denies the application during the winter, usually in December.
  3. If the student is accepted and offered sufficient financial aid, they agree to attend the college.
  4. The student must withdraw all other applications once accepted by their top choice.
  5. The student must also send their first deposit well before the traditional May 1 deadline.

Early Action Steps

  1. The student applies to their top choices early in their senior year.
  2. Colleges send their responses later in the winter, usually in February.
  3. The student can weigh their options. They’re not required to commit to their first choice.
  4. The student can apply to other colleges with the standard admission process in the meantime. 
  5. The student must give their EA colleges a decision before the May 1 deadline.

As you can see, both functions put the student ahead of the pack. Colleges usually make their application decisions in the spring with the standard application process, but ED and EA students hear from their top choices in the winter. The key distinction between the two methods is that ED is a binding agreement that focuses on a singular school, while EA is a non-binding agreement that can apply to a handful of schools. 

Which Method is Right for You?

Both routes are helpful for high school students who already have their top choices in mind, along with a sufficient academic background. If you’re considering ED or EA, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Have I done enough research on my top choice(s)?
  • Does my top choice(s) fit my academic, social and geographical preferences?
  • Does my academic background meet or exceed each college’s standards?
  • Do I truly love my top choices, or am I applying early for another reason (to avoid paperwork, follow my friends, get away from my parents, etc.)?
  • Have I had a strong fall semester in my senior year?

If you have a dream school and meet the qualifications, you should feel confident in moving forward with an early decision. If you have already narrowed down your list to a few schools with good programs for your desired major, by all means, take early action. In any case, take your time and explore all your options first.

Early Decision vs. Early Action: Pros and Cons

Early decision and early action give students several advantages in the application process:

  • Reduces the time between submission and the college’s decision
  • Saves time and energy spent on submitting other applications
  • If accepted, the student has more time to prepare to move to college.
  • If denied, the student has ample time to apply to other colleges.

However, with each benefit comes a little bit of baggage. Here are the disadvantages to early decision and early action:

  • The student might feel more pressure to make a final decision, which rushes their thought process.
  • Students have less time to compare financial aid offers from other colleges, so if their top choice doesn’t offer sufficient aid, they might find themselves in a financial bind.
  • If denied, the student has little or no time to submit other ED and EA applications.
  • Students who get accepted into their top choices early in their senior year may develop a more severe case of “senioritis,” which hurts their portfolio and can cause a college to rescind its offer in extreme cases.
  • Early applicants have to take the October SATs to get their results on time. The winter time slot isn’t an option.

So, while applying early makes the college selection process go by more quickly and gives you more time to prepare for college, it also puts more pressure on students to make a decision and, if unsuccessful, can put the rest of their search in jeopardy. 

Your Decision Should Take Time

While ED and EA might increase your chances of getting accepted into your top choices, you must take your time and weigh all of your options. You don’t want to get backed into a corner and stuck with poor financial aid. Perform a thoughtful self-evaluation and talk things over with your parents and counselor so you can make the best decision for your future.

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