There are three main options for college admissions applications: early action, early decision, and regular decision.
Early decision applications involve a commitment to enroll if admitted. In contrast, early action is non-binding.
Students who are admitted early action are not required to accept the offer of admission. They may accept or reject the offer of admission at the same due date as the regular admission pool, typically by May 1.
Students who apply for early decision are limited to applying to just one college. Students who apply for early action may be limited to applying to just one college, called single-choice early action or restrictive early action.
In some cases, restrictive early action colleges will allow early action applicants to apply early action to public colleges but not other private non-profit colleges. Some colleges with non-restrictive early action say that they do not share information about their early action applicants with other colleges, allowing the student to apply early action to more than one college.
Here's a full breakdown of early action vs. early decision vs. regular admission.
Early and Regular Application Deadlines
When students apply for early action or early decision, they must submit their applications by an earlier deadline. They learn the admissions decision before the regular admission deadline. This allows them to apply regular decision to other colleges if they don’t get in early.
Early action and early decision typically have application deadlines on November 1, with notification in mid-December. Regular decision typically has deadlines in January or February, with notification in March or April.
Some colleges may have different deadlines, such as early admission deadlines in mid-November or as late as mid-October and regular decision deadlines as early as December 1. Some colleges even have multiple early action and early decision deadlines.
How Many Colleges Offer Early Action and Early Decision?
About 180 colleges offer early decision and about 310 offer early action, for a total of 490 colleges offering early admission. Noteworthy colleges that offer early decision include:
- Amherst College
- Barnard College,
- Brandeis University
- Brown University
- Bryn Mawr College
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Claremont McKenna College
- Columbia University
- Cornell University
- Dartmouth College
- Duke University
- George Washington University
- Harvey Mudd College
- Johns Hopkins University
- Northwestern University
- Oberlin College
- Occidental College
- Pitzer College
- Pomona College
- Rice University
- Scripps College
- Swarthmore College
- Syracuse University
- Tufts University
- University of Pennsylvania
- Vanderbilt University
- Vassar College
- Washington University in St. Louis
- Washington and Lee University
- Wellesley College
- Wesleyan University
- Williams College.
Noteworthy colleges that offer early action instead of early decision include:
- Harvard University
- Princeton University
- Stanford University
- Yale University
- Berea College
- Georgetown University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Northeastern University
- Ohio State University
- Purdue University
- Quinnipiac University
- Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
- Simmons College
- Temple University
- Tulane University
- University of Colorado Boulder
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Kentucky
- University of Massachusetts at Amherst
- University of Massachusetts at Boston
- University of Michigan
- University of Notre Dame
- University of South Carolina
- Virginia Tech
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Lastly, the following colleges offer both early decision and early action:
- Santa Clara University
- Sarah Lawrence College, Sewanee
- University of the South
- University of Chicago
- University of Miami
- University of Virginia
- Villanova University
- Washington & Jefferson College
Advantages and Disadvantages of Early Decision vs. Early Action
There are several advantages and disadvantages to each option for early application.
With both early decision and early action, there is the potential for less stress if the student is admitted early. Getting in early provides peace of mind, knowing that you were accepted somewhere. On the other hand, the student’s stress may be magnified if their early admission application is rejected or deferred to the regular admissions pool.
The earlier application deadlines, however, provide the student with less time to write and improve their application. It may also provide less time for the student to get feedback on their application. This can be an added source of stress. On the other hand, early action applications provide students with more practice on their college admissions essays and college interviews, potentially improving their later regular decision applications.
Early admissions rates are higher than for regular admissions. Some students believe that applying early increases their odds of admission. But, the higher admissions rates may be due to a self-selecting group of higher-quality and wealthier students. Recruited athletes may also be counted in the early decision acceptance pool, skewing the statistics.
Applying early is also a form of demonstrated interest, which increases the likelihood that the student will enroll if admitted. It can signal that the college is the student’s first choice.
Early decision involves a commitment to enroll, while early action does not. Early action provides the student with more options.
Early action allows the student to shop around for a college with the best financial aid offer (lowest net price). Early decision does not. So, early decision is not suitable for low-income students, which may also include many underrepresented and first-generation college students, especially since most early decision schools do not meet the student’s full demonstrated financial need.
High-income students are twice as likely to apply early decision as low-income students, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
Net price can vary significantly among colleges. So, even if an early decision student will get the same aid offer as they would receive if they applied regular decision, the college may have a higher net price than other colleges. If a student needs to compare colleges by affordability, they should not apply early decision.
Strategies for Applying for Early Admission
Many students apply early to their dream college. If they get in and receive an affordable financial aid package, they’re done. But, dream colleges tend to be more competitive, so they are less likely to get in early.
A better strategy may be to apply early action (not early decision) to a college where the student is likely to get in early, to eliminate the need for safety schools. This can save a lot of money on application fees.
In addition to applying early action to one college, students may wish to submit their regular decision applications by the early admissions deadline, especially at early decision colleges. This may be interpreted by the college as demonstrating strong interest in the college.
Can You Back Out of an Early Decision Commitment?
Early decision colleges try to intimidate students into thinking that they can’t back out of an early decision commitment. They may require the student, parent and school counselor to sign an agreement in which the student commits to enroll in the college if admitted through the early decision application.
But, such an agreement is not legally binding. If the college tried to enforce the commitment by notifying other colleges, it would violate antitrust law. It’s a form of price-fixing and collusion.
Common reasons for backing out of an early decision commitment include an inadequate financial aid package (e.g., the net price is much higher than the estimate provided by the college’s net price calculator), family emergency, serious illness or a death in the family.
Most early decision colleges ask the student to give them the opportunity to improve the financial aid offer first, but will release the student from the obligation to attend if they cannot afford to enroll.
Mark Kantrowitz is an expert on student financial aid, scholarships, 529 plans, and student loans. He has been quoted in more than 10,000 newspaper and magazine articles about college admissions and financial aid. Mark has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reuters, USA Today, MarketWatch, Money Magazine, Forbes, Newsweek, and Time. You can find his work on Student Aid Policy here.
Mark is the author of five bestselling books about scholarships and financial aid and holds seven patents. Mark serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Student Financial Aid, the editorial advisory board of Bottom Line/Personal, and is a member of the board of trustees of the Center for Excellence in Education. He previously served as a member of the board of directors of the National Scholarship Providers Association. Mark has two Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master’s degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).