What's the Difference Between Early Action and Early Decision?

Applying early can be a key strategic decision in the college admissions process. Many students can be confused by the various kinds of early application.

What’s the difference between Early Decision and Early Action? What about Restrictive Early Action? To take advantage of the various early options, you need to understand what they all are.

Should I Apply to College Early?

First it’s important to realize that applying early isn't for everyone. Students whose grades are lacking in 9th and/or the first part of 10th grade may need the set of grades from first semester senior year to a help raise their GPA and demonstrate that they have truly turned a corner academically.

This will greatly improve their chances for acceptance at a college and applying early might actually handicap them. Students who need more time to narrow down their list of colleges might want to wait for the regular deadline, though the advantage of applying early are such that you should always try to have a good college list in time to apply early.

Early Action

Early Action applications allow students to apply early to a college (usually it's a November deadline), and if you’re admitted there is no obligation to attend the school. You are allowed to apply to more than one school with Early Action (though there are high schools that only allow their students to apply to one Early Action school). Restrictive Early Action, which has been coming into fashion recently, generally does not allow you to apply Early Action or Early Decision to other private schools, but does allow you to apply Early Action to state schools. Make sure you read the information closely as different schools may have slightly different Restrictive Early Action policies.

The main advantage to Early Action is that the student gets to know in December whether they’ve been admitted. This is similar to the advantage of rolling admissions, in which a school will actually inform you of its decision usually any time from September on. Many state universities only offer Early Action and regular admissions or rolling admissions and regular admissions.

Early Decision

Early Decision applications allow a student to apply early (also usually with a November deadline) with the promise to attend the school if accepted (so long as the financial aid package is viable for the family). A student may only apply to one school with Early Decision. In addition, some schools offer a second round of Early Decision (called Early Decision II) at the regular application deadline, allowing students to apply “early” to a second school (the advantages of applying “early,” even if it’s with the same deadline as a regular application, are discussed below).

Early Decision provides another more potent advantage than Early Action does. With the promise to attend if accepted, the student is assisting a college in meeting its goals for both the size and composition of the freshman class. Most people are under the impression that the director of admissions’ primary goal is to get the “best” students possible for the college, and that’s certainly an important aspect of the job. But what constitutes “best” often relates not just to scores, but to the overall composition of the class.

Top schools, in particular, value diversity: racial, cultural, geographic, gender, and religious diversity, as well as diversity of interests and activities. Early decision is a good way for a college to build a class that will have students who come from a wide ranges of backgrounds and bring a wide range of interests to the school.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s the job of the admissions office to make sure they fill the class; colleges don’t want too few (or too many) students. The former can lead to a revenue shortfall; the latter can mean the resources and facilities of the school will be over-strained. Early Decision is a potent tool, because students promise to attend, to make sure that each student cohort is filled with close to the appropriate number of students and with a diverse group of students.

Because Early Decision applicants make it easier for colleges to build the freshman class they want, Early Decision applicants generally have an admissions edge over other applicants, meaning they are more likely to be let in. Therefore students should try to identify a school they are a reasonable candidate for and try to apply to Early Decision to take advantage of that admissions edge. Restrictive Early Action is similarly advantageous for students who have their hearts set on (and are reasonable applicants for) schools that have that option instead of Early Decision.

Ultimately, students need to understand all their application options, the advantages, and the disadvantages. Applying early has several advantages for a well-prepared student; just make sure you are aware of the distinctions between the different early applications, and the rules relating to each kind.