3 Key Differences between Early Decision and Early Action

Eva Mckinzie
Published on
May 27, 2021

Early Decision, Early Action, Regular Decision.  There are many terms such as these within the college application process. The process is stressful as is, and it doesn’t help if you don’t understand the meanings of these terms.

You may have previously thought that everyone applies and gets their decisions at the same time, but this is not the case. There are actually multiple decision plans, and each one has different characteristics.

Learning exactly how Early Decision differs from Early Action (and how both of these differ from Regular Decision) is a crucial beginning step towards tackling the complex process of college admissions.

1) Early Decision is binding while Early Action is non-binding

Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) are both decision plans in which the applicants submit their applications early (usually around the beginning of November, which is different from the usual Regular Decision deadline at the beginning of January), but the levels of commitment required are very different.

For ED, if you are admitted to the school, you MUST attend. Hence, you are tied to that institution; this means you are committing to be in the upcoming fall freshman class. That being said, it is extremely crucial to make sure that prior to submitting your Early Decision application to an institution, you know that if you were to be admitted, you would be 100% ready to commit there right away.

For Early Action, the level of commitment is significantly lower than that of Early Decision. In fact, there is essentially no commitment needed for EA. If the applicant is accepted, they are not binded to that university as they would be with ED. Rather, they have until May 1st to decide whether or not they wish to attend this school.

Early Action is usually just when you apply to a school early and therefore hear back early. EA is a good idea for those that want to shave down their list of what colleges they would actually like to attend.

The differences between commitment levels can be illustrated by comparing the decision plans of two schools. An example is an applicant that applied to the University of Michigan through their Early Action plan, versus someone that applied to Vanderbilt University through their Early Decision plan. Let’s say that both of these people were accepted to the schools they applied to.

The person that was accepted to Michigan would NOT have to commit right away. Instead, they can apply to as many more schools as they desire to, and don’t have to accept or decline Michigan’s offer of admission until May 1st.

However, the situation with the student that applied to Vanderbilt is different. Since they applied Early Decision, they are now tied to Vanderbilt, and must commit right away.

2) You can only apply to one institution through Early Decision, but you can apply to multiple schools through Early Action

Early Decision and Early Action greatly differ by how many schools you can apply to. For ED, you can apply to only ONE institution.

Due to this, it’s so important to apply to your top choice school; it should be the school that you would choose to attend over any of your other options. It is prohibited to apply to multiple schools through ED.

For Early Action, there is not a limit on how many schools you can apply to. Since EA is not a binding agreement, it is completely acceptable to apply to multiple schools that offer this type of admissions plan. It may be good to apply to multiple schools as it will allow you to compare multiple financial aid packages.

Visualizing the situation with another example: Let’s say that a student’s first choice institution is Cornell University, and they are also very interested in the University of Notre Dame, the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, and Dartmouth College.

Cornell and Dartmouth both offer Early Decision plans, but this student cannot apply to both ED. Since Cornell is the student’s first choice, it makes sense for them to apply there ED.

Notre Dame and North Carolina offer Early Action plans, so this student can apply to both of these schools through their EA plans.

Dartmouth offers ED but not EA, and since it’s prohibited to apply to multiple schools ED, this student must wait until Regular Decision to apply to this institution.

EA usually helps the student to narrow down their choices and look at what schools would be a good fit for them if they are not 100% sure of where they want to go but already have a good idea.

You can always easily figure out whether or not a school offers ED or EA by looking on their website!

3) Early Decision does not allow you to be flexible with financial aid while Early Action does

Early Decision does offer you the advantages of applying early to your top institution, but there is a drawback due to the financial aspect. Since ED is binding, you are expected to commit right away when accepted.

This means that you aren’t able to compare the costs of attendance at multiple institutions. You will essentially be expected to comply with the cost that your ED school gives you (negotiations can sometimes be made, but it can be difficult).

This factor is one that may discourage people from applying to a school ED, but there are ways to predict what you’re getting yourself into. Most schools have financial aid calculators available online, so you can enter in all the necessary information and get a prediction on what your cost of attendance may be.

Although these calculators cannot give you an exact/fully accurate cost (as many factors go into your cost of attendance), they can provide you with at least some insight as to what your family could be expected to pay if you were to be accepted. It’s important to be sure that the institution you want to apply to ED is one that will be affordable for your family.

Early Action offers the advantage of not having to commit financially when applying. When you receive your acceptance, you will also be told how much that school expects you to pay. You will have until May 1st to decide whether or not you want to attend a particular school, so this gives the opportunity to compare costs of attendance at multiple institutions.

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