Early Action vs Early Decision: The Ultimate Guide to College Deadlines

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College applications – preparing your essays, recommendation letters, and resumes so that you convince prestigious colleges that you’re their dream student.

It’s a stressful time in your already stressful senior year, and you need to submit everything by the deadline. But which deadline?

  • These days, more and more colleges and universities have multiple deadlines available for students: early action or early decision, priority deadline, regular decision, and rolling action.

With so many choices, you should consider which deadline you want to meet for each college.

Types of Deadlines 

Usually, universities or colleges will offer one of the following early deadlines and regular decision.

Make sure to review each university’s application policy to make sure your applications get in on time, and that your early application or applications go to the right colleges.

Regular Decision

This is the typical deadline for most colleges. Usually, the deadline is early January, and you hear back from schools by March or April.

You then have by May to respond to any acceptance letters you receive.

Early Decision

The early decision deadline usually occurs in early November.

That means your application must be submitted by that time, and standardized tests usually must also be submitted or reported by a certain deadline as well.

  • Private institutions tend to offer early decision, though there are a few public universities with an early decision option.
  • Some schools also have a second early decision deadline (Early Decision II) for those who need more time completing standardized test requirements or hadn’t yet committed to that school yet.
  • These deadlines are due in January and you hear back in February.

With this application type, you receive your acceptance or rejection letter during December, a few weeks before the standard regular decision application deadline.

However, you must attend that university if you’re accepted. That’s why it’s an early decision: you’ve already picked your school of choice, and now you just need admission.

  • If you apply early decision to a university, you cannot apply early decision or early action to any other university or college.
  • Make sure that you’re sure about attending this school before applying early decision.
  • If you have any doubts about your loyalty to this university, wait for regular decision time.

For those who have been dreaming about receiving an acceptance letter from their first-choice college, early decision might be a great choice for you.

Early decision puts your name in the hat before most other applicants, and it proves your commitment to the university.

However, keep in mind that you can’t examine and compare any financial aid packages offered with those of other colleges.

If you need financial aid to attend college, early decisions can be a detriment, since you’ve waived your ability to shop around.

Early Action

Early Action’s timetable is similar to Early Decision – your application usually needs to be submitted in November.

  • However, watch out for each school’s deadline. Some schools, such as Georgia Tech and UNC-Chapel Hill, set their Early Action deadline to mid-October.
  • Make sure you’ve added each anticipated deadline to your calendar at the beginning of your senior year.

However, this application type does not require you to choose that university upon acceptance.

You can still review financial aid packages and weigh your options until May 1, the standard deadline to let a school know whether you’re attending that fall.

This can give you more time to look into each college and make sure you’re making the right choice.

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Restrictive Early Action

Make sure to check whether the universities you’re applying to have regular Early Action or Restrictive Early Action.

Restrictive Early Action functions the same way as early action in that you submit your application before the early deadline, hear back around December, and don’t have to commit to that college if accepted.

The only difference is that, if you choose Early Action for that school, you cannot submit early action applications to other schools.

  • Like Early Decision, you choose which school you want to submit your early application to, and must choose regular decision for any other school you apply to.

Read each school’s application policy, as some make exceptions to these general rules. Standford University, for instance, has a restrictive Early Action.

However, if you read the guidelines, Standford disallows you from applying Early Action to other private colleges and universities.

  • You may still apply Early Action to public schools, foreign schools, and any school with non-binding early action that offers potential scholarships to those who apply early.

Each school has a different application process.

While you’re still researching your options and making a list of colleges to apply to, read all application policies and use them to decide which deadline you’ll meet.

Priority Deadline

Some schools offer priority deadlines. Students who apply by this deadline are given priority above those who apply after.

  • It also increases the chance of receiving a scholarship or other types of financial aid. 

Other than that, Priority Deadline is very similar to Early Action.

You don’t need to attend the college if you’re accepted, and you have until May to make your decision.

Rolling Admission

This is the last special kind of application deadline. However, for these schools, there is technically no deadline.

Instead, you should apply during a large window of time – these windows usually open during the early fall and can sometimes last until the summertime before the next school year. 

With Rolling Admission, you can submit your application as early or as late as you want.

  • Rather than hearing back on a specified date, the admissions office reviews your application and returns their response as they receive admissions.
  • That means that you can hear back before even Early Action or Early Decision, and you can also apply later than Regular Decision.

However, with this kind of admission, seats can fill up. Rolling applications are first come, first serve.

If you send your application too late, it is possible that they have run out of spots for undergraduates, so make sure to send your application as early as possible.

Which Deadline is Best?

Which deadline you choose depends on your feelings about the school, your current academic standing, and your general schedule.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to each choice, so consider the various pros and cons before sending in an application.

Benefits to Applying Early

Early Decision, (Restrictive) Early Action, and Priority Deadline all have similar deadline schedules.

By submitting your application by the early deadline, you get to hear back before most others.

In most cases, you’ll get your acceptance letter back in December, a couple weeks before Regular Decision deadlines.

In other words, you still have time to prepare and submit applications if you’re rejected from your dream schools. 

  • If you and your family are big on winter holidays, early deadlines also force you to apply before the holiday season begins.

Compare to Regular Decision, which usually occurs in the first weeks of January.

  • If your family celebrates winter holidays and New Year’s, it may be difficult to finish your applications as strongly as you’d like.

With Early Action, Early Decision, and Priority Deadline, you get that out of the way during October and November.

  • In fact, you’ll hear back from colleges around the holiday season; you can celebrate with your family in case of acceptance or receive consolation in case of rejection.

For all three types, you also have the benefit of competing with fewer applicants.

Raising Your Chances of Acceptance

By the time admissions officers reach your application during one of the early rounds, they haven’t reviewed nearly as many applications as those who apply during Regular Decision.

Your application and essay have more room to stand out from the rest.

  • While only Priority Deadline guarantees a better chance of admittance, higher acceptance rates are associated with Early Action and Early Decision.
  • Whether this is due to it being Early Action/Early Decision or because the applications submitted earlier tend to be stronger is unclear, but to best improve your chances, you may want to consider applying early.

For example, the following data from Business Insider compares acceptance rates for Ivy League universities in the early and regular decision rounds:

School

Regular Acceptance RateEarly Action/Early Decision Acceptance Rate

Harvard University

5.2%

14.5%

Yale University

6.27%

17.1%

Princeton University

6.46%

15.4%

Brown University

9.01%

21.9%

University of Pennsylvania9.41%

22.0%

Dartmouth College10.52%

27.8%

Cornell University13.96%

25.6%

Note: Columbia University is excluded from this list because it does not release data for early action/early decision acceptance rates.

For Early Action and Priority Deadline, an early acceptance also gives you more time to review and compare financial aid packages between the universities.

You also have more time to spend applying to scholarships and grants to secure your budget for college. 

  • Early Decision and Restrictive Early Action also proves your interest in that university.

For ED, you have made a promise to attend that school if accepted, and for REA, you’ve prioritized your application to that school above all others.

While it may not directly affect acceptance rates, your early application can indicate a real desire to join that university’s student body.

Drawbacks to Applying Early

However, while benefits to early applications definitely exist, there can be drawbacks.

  • Specifically for Early Decision, you have to attend that college upon acceptance, which means you must also accept any financial aid package they offer.
  • You can’t compare offers from different colleges. Those who rely on financial aid for their higher education may want to reconsider submitting their application during Early Decision.

While Regular Decision deadlines occur during the beginning of the new year and can get lost in all the holiday celebrations, EA, ED, and PD must be submitted during October and November.

This is most likely the busiest time of the fall semester for students.

Seniors must keep up with studying, doing extracurriculars, applying to honor societies, and still taking standardized tests during this period.

Adding the stress of college applications can cause your performance across the board to suffer.

If your grades really suffer, colleges may even rescind their offer. 

  • You also have less time to workshop your essay and put final touches to your application.
  • Spending another few weeks perfecting your college essays could be the difference between acceptance and rejection.
  • You can’t submit senior year fall semester grades for any early applications, either. The last grades they can see are from your junior year.
  • If you had a rough freshman year, or your grades aren’t as high as you’d like, you can’t use your senior year grades as proof that you’re finishing strong.

If you aren’t confident in your strong record, consider waiting for Regular Decision.

Your fall semester grades can reflect better on your overall performance as a high school student.

  • Finally, you must have everything prepared. Mainly, your standardized tests must be completed and ready to report.

If you’ve been waiting for October or November to take the SAT, Subject SAT or ACT for the first time, you can’t submit your application early.

Similarly, if you’re retaking a standardized test in hopes of increasing your score, you may want to apply during Regular Decision and maximize your time to prepare.

Conclusion: Early Action vs Early Decision 

All in all, whether you choose Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision depends on you.

If you’ve been a go-getter since freshman year, gotten top scores on your ACT and Subject SAT over the summer, and wrote your college essay during junior year, you’re probably ready to apply early.

  • If you’re looking at Early Decision or Restrictive Early Action, make sure the school you decide on is the one you’re most interested in.
  • On the other hand, if you need to take your time on your essay, or you had a slower start to your high school career, consider submitting your application during Regular Decision.

Remember, applying during Regular Decision doesn’t penalize your application whatsoever, and having more time to submit strong grades, a killer essay, and top standardized test scores matter much more than placing your application in front of admissions officers early. 

Whichever you choose, make sure to review your application and confirm that it showcases your talents and achievements.

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