What are early action and early decision, and how do you decide between them? Find out how to make the best decision that increases your chances of admission.

Early Action vs. Early Decision:
How to Choose


  • Early action and early decision allow you to apply earlier than regular admission.
  • Applicants receive admissions decisions quickly, usually starting in mid-December.
  • Applicants can usually apply for multiple schools using early action.
  • Early decision applies to only one school and is a binding agreement.

Early action and early decision allow students to apply to their first-choice schools earlier than regular applicants and to receive admissions decisions before regularly admitted students. While the timeline varies, most colleges and universities set November deadlines and send out results as early as mid-December. This guide provides details about the differences between early action and early decision so that you can pick the option that best suits your needs.

What Is Early Action?

Early action is a non-binding process that allows you to apply, and potentially gain admission, to one or more schools earlier than regular applicants. As an early action applicant, you usually have until November 1 or 15 to submit admissions materials. Early action schools send out decisions in January or February and allow prospective students until May 1 (the national response date) to formally reply to their offers.

Non-binding early action represents the norm, enabling you to apply to multiple colleges and universities through this process. However, competitive higher education institutions (including Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton) increasingly operate restrictive/single-choice early action. Under this model, you may pursue early action with only one school, but can seek regular admission at other universities.

What Is Early Decision?

Unlike early action, early decision is a binding agreement, and you can apply to only one school using this process. Early decision normally benefits top-performing students who know their first-choice college, and since it's a binding agreement, the institution requires signatures from you, your family, and a school counselor.

Through this accelerated admissions process, you receive notice in December and must enroll if you get accepted. Once accepted, the school offers a financial aid package tailored to your family's financial situation.

Admitted students send in a nonrefundable deposit well before May 1. The early decision process may also result in denial, which usually means that students do not qualify for regular admission at the school. However, you may receive a deferment notice, allowing you to pursue regular admission with that school.

The Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision

  • Early action does not require you to commit to the college. You may apply early or pursue regular admissions with other schools.
  • Early decision binds you to one institution, but sends the strongest message to the admission committee that the school is your top choice.
  • Early action enables you to compare financial aid packages among several colleges and universities before accepting or declining the offer by May 1.
  • Early decision applicants receive answers as early as December and must attend the school if accepted with enough financial support.
  • Most higher education institutions offer either early action or early decision, effectively making the choice of accelerated admission for you.

Benefits of Early Action and Early Decision

By applying early, you alleviate the stress that comes with compounding regular admissions deadlines. Early action gives you more time to decide whether or not you want to attend that school. Lastly, both early decision and action signals to the school that you are serious about enrolling there, which may boost your chances of acceptance.

Should I Apply Early?

Early admission processes, particularly the restrictive early decision, work best for students who have reached definitive conclusions about their top school(s) and who feel they are competitive applicants.

To determine if you are a competitive applicant, check the school website; most schools give you an idea of what a competitive applicant profile is. For example, if you have a low GPA, average test scores, and no extracurriculars, it may not be wise to apply for early decision to a competitive school. However, if you discover that you exceed the college's admission profile for GPA, class rank, and standardized test performance, then early admission is a good way forward.

In addition to academic offerings, campus culture, and geographic location, you should consider a school's average or projected financial aid package before applying. While early admission schools do their best to provide a financial aid package best suited to your family's financial situation, some schools have larger endowments and are able to offer more competitive packages.

Early action and decision are generally not good options if you are a senior in high school who needs to strengthen your academic record. Once accepted under early decision, you may back out for a good reason, like inadequate funding or a family emergency. However, colleges do share admission information with one another, so students who do not take early action/decision seriously can hurt their chances with multiple institutions.