Early Decision and Early Action

Early Decision and Early Action plans allow a student to apply to a school early (usually by November) and receive an admission decision well before the spring notification date. Depending on the plan, students know as early as December whether they have been accepted at their first-choice college.

Some students who apply under these plans have a better chance of acceptance than they would through the regular admission process. ED and EA are beneficial for colleges because they know these applicants want to attend the college and are likely to commit early in the process. The ED and EA rules vary by college and students should understand their rights and obligations.

Early Decision

Early Decision plans are binding. The student agrees to attend the college if accepted, provided that the college offers an adequate financial aid package. Although the student can apply to only one college ED, they may simultaneously apply to other colleges through Early Action or the Regular Decision process. If a student signs an agreement to attend an ED college and accept its aid package, all other applications must be withdrawn. Hence, the opportunity to compare the aid packages from other colleges is foregone.

A student not accepted in the ED round will be either (i) turned down, if the college deems the student not competitive in their Regular Decision process, or (ii) deferred for consideration in the Regular Decision round in the spring.

Many colleges offer two rounds of ED. Typically, applications for the first round are due in November (with decisions sent out in December) and applications for the second round are due in January (with decisions sent out in February). The general rules outlined above for ED applications apply to each of these rounds.

Early Action

Early Action plans are similar to ED plans but are usually non-binding. If accepted, the student can choose to commit to the college immediately or wait until the national May 1st deadline to inform the college if they will be attending. One or more EA acceptances are good to have in hand while waiting for regular-round decisions.

Some colleges have open and non-binding EA plans that allow students to apply early to other colleges. The following are some of the colleges that offer such plans: Cal Tech, Clark, Harvard, MIT, Tulane, University of Chicago, University of North Carolina, University of New Hampshire, University of Vermont, University of Virginia, and Wheaton (which also has Early Decision).

Some schools, like Boston College, have non-binding EA and allow students to apply EA to other colleges, but not ED.

Other colleges (such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale) have single-choice EA plans that allow students to apply EA to just that school, but candidates may not apply early (either EA or ED) to any other college. The student can still apply to other colleges under regular decision plans and is not required to give an answer to the early-application college until the regular decision deadline.

It can be confusing to navigate the intricacies of each school’s early application policy, so a student should read websites and application materials closely to determine the exact allowances and obligations of whatever school she or he is considering applying to early!

Why (and Why Not) to Apply Early

Although there are many upsides to applying to a school early through ED or EA, a student should only apply early if she or he has extensively researched (and visited, if possible) the college and is certain that it is a school she or he would be proud and happy to attend.

You should not apply early because (a) the school is simply “good enough,” (b) you want to get the process over with, or (c) you are worried about your ability to sustain your grades over the course of your senior year. Although the Regular Decision process can feel arduous at times, it can be worth it to find the college that offers you the best combination of academics, affordability, and compatibility —and that wants you in their community!