Applying to College Early? Early Action vs. Early Decision

Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

College acceptance rates have been decreasing over the years, and the competition for spots is fierce. Many (but not all) colleges offer accelerated application processes. For example, early action (EA), restrictive early action (REA), and early decision (ED). We’ll use those acronyms from here out. In EA/REA/ED, deadlines are in the fall (usually November), and applicants usually hear back from schools in December or January. Does applying to college early sound good to you? Let’s discuss the nuances of each option.

Why apply early at all?

Acceptance rates tend to be higher in early admissions. Applying early to some schools may provide an advantage, and the higher acceptance rate may mean that you have a higher chance of getting accepted than if you applied in the regular admission cycle. However, the higher acceptance rate may also be due to an early applicant pool composed of stronger applicants.

Applying to college EA/REA/ED means that you have a very strong likelihood of attending the college if accepted. This school should be your first choice (unless your first choice does not offer this option). You should research the college extensively so that you know that it is the right fit for you and so you can make your applicant strong by tailoring it specifically to that school. You should be a strong contender for the school, and the school should also fit your preferences.

What is early decision (ED)?

ED is binding, meaning you can only apply early to one college. Therefore, these schools only want students to apply early decision if applicants strongly prefer them; these students will be highly likely to accept offers to attend.

If you are accepted, you must attend that school. You must retract any applications pending for regular decision.

Schools with Early Decision:
  • Babson
  • Northeastern
  • Southern Methodist University
  • Texas Christian University
  • Trinity University
  • University of Miami

Students should only apply to a college ED if they will absolutely attend it if they are accepted. Since early decision is so binding, early action may seem more attractive to many students.

What is early action (EA)?

Applicants can apply to multiple schools EA (as long as none of the colleges have REA or ED). You can apply to other schools at regular deadlines.

Unlike ED, EA is not binding. This means if you are accepted to an EA school, you have the option to decline the offer. EA applicants will usually receive an admission decision (accepted, deferred, rejected) in December or January. If you are accepted, you can still wait to see what other schools accept you, and make your final college decision by May 1st.

Schools with Early Action:
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Chapman
  • Colorado State University
  • Lewis and Clark
  • Loyola Marymount University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Purdue University
  • Santa Clara University
  • Tulane University
  • University of:
    • Arkansas
    • Chicago
    • Colorado at Boulder
    • Georgia
    • Massachusetts at Amherst
    • Michigan at Ann Arbor
    • New Hampshire
    • North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    • Virginia

What is restrictive early action (REA)?

Restrictive early action is the same as early action, except you can only apply early to one college (instead of multiple colleges). You are restricted to applying to other colleges EA or ED, but you are able to apply to other colleges for regular admission. Because REA only lets you apply to one school early, you should really like this school and be a strong contender. These schools only want students to apply early to them so schools can see which applicants have a strong preference for them and will be highly likely to accept offers to attend.

REA is non-binding, so if you are admitted you are not obligated to enroll. You can still apply to other colleges through the regular admissions process, and you do not have to make a final decision to the REA until the spring.

Schools with Restrictive Early Action:
  • Boston College
  • Georgetown
  • Harvard
  • Stanford
  • Princeton
  • Yale

What are the risks of applying to college early?

Applying to a binding ED is riskier than applying early action. If you are accepted to a school ED, you are obligated to attend, even if you realize that you may want to attend a different college.

Due to the earlier deadline, early applicants have less time to complete the application– meaning less time to edit and proofread essays, as well as build relationships with teachers, coaches, and counselors for letters of recommendation. Early applicants also risk having improved grades or extracurricular accomplishments from senior fall omitted from early applications.

For ED, you are required to immediately accept the offer. Therefore, you may miss out on financial aid opportunities that you may have received if you waited until the usual May 1st national college response date.


Questions? Let us know!