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Early Action vs Early Decision - What Does This Mean for High School Students?

With the high stress and competitiveness of modern college admissions, finding ways to strategically boost odds of acceptance is increasingly critical. Looking towards the timeline and admission options for college applications is one of the most important considerations to make when constructing an application plan. 

This strategy discussion is centered around early round applications — as the name suggests, students submit applications in advance of the general deadlines in January, and receive an admissions decision earlier. These admissions plans are not just appealing because of the expedited results; colleges typically have increased early acceptance rates that can offer students a substantial advantage over their peers applying in the Regular Decision pool.

There are two general early admissions plans: Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA). Though EA and ED share a timeline, there are significant differences between the two plans.

Early Decision is a binding commitment, meaning that students admitted are obligated to attend the school, and must withdraw all other applications. ED typically holds the highest acceptance rate advantage. Early Action only consists of an expedited timeline, and acceptance is non-binding — students can choose whether or not to attend based on their other acceptances. 

There are no limits on the number of Early Action applications students can submit, but students are limited to a single ED choice. One may, however, submit Early Action applications alongside one’s ED choice.

According to the Common App’s vice president of data analytics, “the number of early-action and early-decision applications combined is nearly equal to those submitted for regular decision.” Using early admissions options as a strategy technique is growing in popularity — let’s break down how to use it to your advantage, and important tips to keep in mind!

1. Level of commitment to a school

I like to split the motivation to apply Early Action versus Early Decision between the factors of strategy and interest.

After discussing the overall strategy behind EA and ED, the topic I focus on first with students contemplating an Early Decision plan is the question of interest in a school. The idea of increasing odds of acceptance at a top school is alluring, but it’s not the most important consideration — a student should be truly in love with their ED school in order for it to be a worthwhile approach. With the obligation to attend attached to Early Decision plans, students must be prepared to withdraw all other applications if they are admitted. 

With that in mind, it’s essential that one has no misgivings about attending their ED choice. If students are not fully confident they’d thrive at their ED school and have no regrets about “what could have been” had they applied to more schools, an Early Decision plan may not be the right choice for them.  

2. Strategic Early Decision and Early Action combinations

Although students can only apply ED to a single school, this does not preclude them from submitting EA applications. (But remember, if accepted ED, students are required to withdraw their applications from all other colleges.) Due to the general strategic advantage of early admission plans, submitting a handful of EA applications alongside an ED choice can help students increase their chances at multiple schools at once. 

Many students make the decision to apply to an array of schools offering Early Action, including  highly selective schools such as University of Southern California, flagship state schools such as UNC — Chapel Hill, and many popular safety schools. With this strategy, students heighten their chances at multiple schools of interest, and can have a set of choices lined up before RD results are released.

Do keep in mind that this strategy can have negative ramifications for students’ workloads. With schools often requiring multiple supplemental essays, completing more than one or two applications by the beginning of December can become a race to the finish. This difficulty, of course, is heightened when applying early to competitive schools, where having an impeccable application is crucial. 

Early admission plans additionally have a rather frustrating timeline — while students do receive faster admissions decisions, these often come after or just before Regular Decision applications are due. The general early round decision dates fall in mid-December, approximately two weeks before most Regular Decision applications are due. Other early round decisions are not released until February or March. So, even if an early acceptance means that a student need not submit any additional applications, they’ll likely have already written numerous essays that will never be submitted. 

3. Early-round admissions advantages

Though both ED and EA applications often increase chances of acceptance at a given school, this does not mean that it is universally advantageous to apply early. Essentially, even though a higher percentage of applicants are admitted, this does not mean that colleges hold lower standards for students during early decision and early action evaluation. 

In short, if you’re highly qualified for a school, applying for early admission will increase your odds because you are being compared with a smaller pool of competitive applicants. 

If you’re applying Early Decision, you’ll also be advantaged because of the binding commitment you’ve made to attend. Colleges’ yield rates — the percentage of admitted students who enroll — affect schools’ reputation and rankings, so colleges are incentivized to prioritize applicants who are guaranteed to attend if they are accepted. (Note the implications for Early Action, which typically has a smaller increase in odds of admission.)

Finally, though you can generally assume that acceptance rates will be higher for ED and EA rounds, keep in mind that there is high variability. For example, Carnegie Mellon’s ED acceptance rate in 2023 was 13%, barely higher than its RD rate of 11%. On the other hand, applying ED to some highly competitive schools can massively increase your chances — Brown’s ED acceptance rate in 2023 was 15%, over three times higher than its RD rate of 4%. So, when forming an early application strategy, it’s worth checking how much of an advantage would actually be gained. 

4. Grades and early applications

Of course, as early-round applications will be submitted and evaluated before the first semester of school ends, this means that colleges will have no data on a student’s academic performance in senior year. On the other hand, Regular Decision applicants will have their first semester transcript evaluated. 

Many students experience an upward trajectory in grades throughout high school as they adjust to the new academic environment, so one’s 9th through 11th grade GPA may climb once senior year grades are taken into consideration. 

For students who have consistently improved their grades over the years, applying EA or ED may not be the best choice. Again, colleges hold applicants to the same standards in both early and regular decision rounds. This means that, even though early round acceptance rates are typically higher, some students may have a better chance applying Regular Decision if higher senior year grades boost their GPA and show a higher level of academic performance. 

Note, however, those who are deferred as an early-round applicant will have the ability to provide academic and extracurricular updates to schools before their application is reviewed in the RD round. 

5. Early Decision’s financial obligation

A significant divergence between Early Action and Early Decision plans is the financial considerations implied by each plan. While EA places no commitment on students, ED comes with a binding commitment that extends to acceptance of your financial aid award (or lack thereof).

Beyond the question of your personal interest and dedication to attending your ED college choice, the subject of finances can be even more pressing. When a student applies Early Decision, the student, their parents, and their school counselor need to sign off on the binding commitment to attend after ED acceptance. This binding commitment can raise concerns for those in need of financial aid. Although individual schools and FAFSA can provide predicted net price of attendance based on reported financial information, these numbers are only estimates; it is possible that you’ll ultimately be given a lower aid award than expected. Of course, this is a tricky situation for those whose ability to attend is contingent on sufficient financial aid — they’ll now be obligated to a tuition cost that they are unable to afford. The College Board itself admits that “for students who absolutely need financial aid, applying early [decision] may be a risky option.” 

Additionally, even if one does receive a sufficient financial aid award, the binding commitment of ED eliminates your ability to compare financial aid and scholarship awards between schools. (For example, imagine a student’s second choice school offered them a full ride!). Even with an acceptance to ones’ top-choice school, restricting the ability to weigh the pros and cons of attending different colleges makes students and families unable to take other considerations into account when making a decision on where to attend. 

Note that The New York Times reports that Early Decision is not necessarily binding if you’re unable to attend due to insufficient financial aid. However, this is not consequence-free; schools may be resistant to this choice, and though you may not be personally affected, there is a history of colleges deprioritizing future applicants from schools where a student has previously broken an Early Decision agreement. Schools are typically very opaque on this subject, meaning that it’s hard to predict the feasibility of taking this route. 

6. Middle-Ground: Restrictive Early Action 

For high-achieving students who want a higher strategic advantage than Early Action but are wary of the commitment of Early Decision, a select few schools offer the option of Restrictive or Single-Choice Early Action (REA). 

Used only by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, CalTech, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, REA is a non-binding early admissions plan that places limitations on students’ other early round applications. 

The general restrictions are: 

  1. Students can apply to only one school under REA.

  2. Students cannot apply Early Decision to any school. 

  3. Students cannot apply Early Action to any other private institution, unless under a non-binding priority deadline for scholarship consideration. 

Note that this still allows REA students to apply Early Action to state schools. 

Similarly to the general EA and ED trends, there is typically a higher rate of admission within the REA round. As these schools are some of the most selective in the country, those hoping to attend should strongly consider submitting an application through Restrictive Early Action. 

If you’d like to participate in a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!

Alexej is a graduate of Princeton University, where he studied Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Humanities & Sciences. Alexej works in college admissions consulting, and is passionate about pursuing research at the intersection of humanities, linguistics, and psychology. He enjoys creative writing, hiking, and playing the piano.



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