All About Early Decision and Early Action

Early Decision (or ED) is an early admissions process where students make a binding commitment to attend the college if accepted. This commitment includes signing an Early Decision agreement form (which your guidance counselor and parents also must sign). This is different from Early Action (or EA), which is a non-binding process that allows students to apply to college early and also receive their decision early.

Applying Early Decision to College

When considering potential applicants, colleges tend to be more generous with Early Decision admissions. In fact, a Washington Post research report “found that admission rates for students who apply through binding ‘early decision’ are often at least two times higher than total admission rates.” This is because colleges want to meet their enrollment target (or the number of students they need to fill their class). Early Decision is a great way to add predictability to this process.

For the student, Early Decision represents a great opportunity to demonstrate their interest in a school and possibly receive the “bump” that goes along with that. However, this means that you must be 100% certain that the college you are considering for Early Decision is a place you would be very excited to attend. You can only apply to a single school Early Decision.
Students and parents should also know that simply applying Early Decision doesn’t guarantee anything. It is not going to turn a “reach” college into a sure thing. Instead, it will make your application a bit more competitive if the college is a “slight reach” or a target where your grades and test scores are not too far off from the college’s averages. When in doubt, you can always talk to your guidance counselor or college coach about your best move.
Because Early Decision and Early Action have earlier application deadlines, students will also have to submit their test scores earlier. You will need to keep this in mind if you are a senior planning on taking the SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests in the fall. Typically, colleges will accept test scores from the October or November tests, but you may have to “rush” your test scores for them to be considered. It is always best to check with the college in question if you have any doubts.
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When is Early Decision Not a Great Option?

If you are a student who wants to weigh their options (particularly in regards to merit scholarships) then Early Decision is probably not a great fit for you. However, Early Action (which we will discuss in a bit) may be a good route instead.

Early Decision and Financial Aid

What if your financial aid package is not enough? Luckily, the Net Price Calculator is a great tool that will predict potential need-based financial aid packages. You can find the Net Price Calculator on the financial aid webpage of any college or university in the United States. The Net Price Calculator is a necessary step if you are planning on applying Early Decision anywhere and if you know you will need financial aid.

Breaking Early Decision Contract/Agreement

While Early Decision is a binding process, if something serious comes up, such as a huge change in your family situation, a big discrepancy between the Net Price Calculator and your actual financial aid, or other significant barriers, then you can request to be released from your Early Decision agreement. This is not something to be taken lightly and should only be requested in extraordinary circumstances. Early Decision is a binding agreement, so you should be certain in your choice of school and your financial situation before applying.

Early Decision 1 vs. Early Decision 2

Early Decision I and Early Decision II are the same exact binding process. The only difference is in regard to the application deadline and decision notification date. While Early Decision I tends to have a deadline in November and a notification date in December, Early Decision II has a January deadline and a February notification date.

Early Decision vs. Early Action

Early Action can serve as a great complement to your Early Decision application. While you can submit only one Early Decision application, you can submit multiple Early Action applications. It’s a smart move to try both.
The biggest difference between Early Decision and Early Action is that Early Decision is a binding process, while Early Action is not. This means that if you are accepted to an Early Decision school, you are committing to attend that school. Students can also only apply to one Early Decision school, while they can apply to multiple Early Action schools. However, if you are admitted to your Early Decision college, you must withdraw all of your other applications. Because it is not a binding process, Early Action applicants do not benefit from an additional “bump.” Instead, the benefit of applying Early Action is receiving a decision more quickly and not having to wait for March to receive all admissions decisions.
For colleges, the benefit of Early Action is to get more students to apply earlier in the process. This will allow the colleges to get a sense of the applicant pool as far as size and quality. This also allows colleges to begin their marketing efforts to get admitted students to enroll. 
Also, note that some colleges offer a “restricted” or “single choice” Early Action which has restrictions on it (for instance, some colleges may restrict you from applying to other colleges Early Decision). It is always best to check on the individual college’s website to see if there are any restrictions.

How to Apply Early Decision or Early Action

For a savvy student, Early Decision and Early Action represents a great opportunity in the admissions process. Every student’s admissions process is different and you need to do what is best for you and your goals. But if Early Decision and Early Action sound right for you, here’s what you should do next.
  • Identify which Early Application options each of the colleges on your list offers (Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action, Restricted Early Action, or none).

  • For all of the colleges that offer an Early Application option, note their application deadline date.

  • Assess whether Early Decision makes sense for you—are any of the colleges a top choice for you? Are you comfortable with a potential financial aid package (as estimated through the Net Price Calculator)? Is the college a reasonable (i.e., slight) reach where your test scores are not too far from the college’s averages?

  • Talk to your parents and/or guidance counselor about your Early Decision contenders before making a decision. Your parents and guidance counselor will also need to sign an Early Decision Agreement.

  • If you are not considering Early Decision, you can still consider colleges on your list that offer Restricted or Single Choice Early Action.

  • Whether you decide to apply Early Decision or not, you should consider submitting Early Action applications at colleges on your list that offer that option. Remember, you can submit unrestricted Early Action applications to any college in conjunction with an Early Decision application.

  • Make sure that you have the necessary test scores for each college (and if you are taking fall tests, double-check to see if you need to “rush” them).

  • Don’t forget to submit your FAFSA and other financial aid documents (you may need to submit them earlier).

[ KEEP READING: Top 6 Tips to Win Scholarships ]

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Will is a veteran of the college admissions process who has read thousands of applications and successfully counseled hundreds of students through the admissions process. Story2 teaches students applying to college how to write powerful personal statements, supplemental essays, and scholarship essays. Previously, Will was the Associate Director of College Counseling at an independent school in Connecticut and a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College. Will is a graduate of Wake Forest University and the University of Pennsylvania.