Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) plans are designed for students who have carefully narrowed down a list of colleges and understand the advantages (and potential risks) of applying early. Here are the primary differences to be aware of between both rounds:
Early Decision (ED) is the earliest round in which a student can apply. Applications are due in November, with students receiving admissions decisions typically by mid-December. Students who apply ED are entering into a binding agreement. Therefore, students apply ED only to one school and, upon acceptance, must accept the offer of admission, withhold any future applications and withdraw any Regular Decision (RD) applications that have already been submitted. The only exception to the binding agreement is granted for students who receive a financial aid package that is considered unsatisfactory, as determined by the financial aid office.
Students whose applications are deferred are pushed into the Regular Decision applicant pool and notified of a decision in the spring – typically March or April. Those whose applications are rejected can move forward with applying to additional colleges.
Early Action (EA) provides a bit more flexibility for students. Students apply using the same deadlines as above for ED – a November deadline with the results coming in December – but students are not obligated to enroll if admitted in December. Students can apply to multiple EA schools (plus one ED school, if desired) and compare offers from each. The exception applies to those universities with Restrictive EA (REA) or Single Choice EA (SCEA). In REA, students cannot apply to any ED programs. In SCEA, students cannot apply to any ED schools and cannot apply to any other EA schools, unless they are public institutions.
The rules can be confusing and each university offers a different option. Some universities only offer ED and RD; others might offer EA, ED, Early Decision II (ED2) and RD; while still others only have one deadline, like the University of California system or University of Southern California.
Both Early Decision and Early Action might be suitable for students who have found a top choice school that is an appropriate match. For students with weaker marks in grades 9 – 11, however, applying early is not a good option – and instead, these students should perform well in senior year and apply in RD, once their grades have improved.
Stephen is the co-founder and COO of AcceptU. He received a BA from Cornell University, an MA from Columbia University Teachers College, and a Ph.D. from Rice University. Prior to founding AcceptU, Stephen was an Assistant Dean of admissions at Cornell for four years and an Associate Dean of graduate admissions at Princeton University for six years. Stephen is an IECA Associate Member.