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Last updated March 8, 2023

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Early Action vs Early Decision: What is the Difference?

Key Takeaway

Early Decision, Regular Decision, Early Action, Restrictive Early Action—all the terminology can get confusing. In this post, we break down the differences and give you some advice about which options to choose and when.

Early decision, early application, regular decision. When you start thinking about your school list, these three terms will crop up right away. They represent the most common options you have for submitting an application to any school. (The fourth and least common being “Restrictive Early Action,” which is only offered at a couple of schools.)

Regular Decision (RD) is the default, hence the word “regular.” RD applications are due in December, January, or February at the latest—with most of them being due in January. You receive decisions in March, April, or May. Typically, however, regular decision deadlines will come out in April.

Early Action and Early Decision are both due, you guessed it, early. You submit early (in November), you get results back early (in December or January).

What’s the difference between Early Action and Early Decision applications?

The Early Decision application is binding, and you can only submit it to one school. That means that if you’re accepted to the school to which you submitted an ED application, you are contractually obligated to attend. In exchange for obligating yourself to attend, you (usually) get a big boost on your odds of being admitted.

You can remember that ED is binding because of the word “decision,” which is decisive and final.

Early Action, on the other hand, is a non-binding application option where you submit early and hear back early. That’s the main point. Early Action does not always increase your chances of being admitted. When it does, the boost is not as high as Early Decision. Some schools, like Tulane or University of Maryland, do have higher admit rates at Early Action than Regular Decision.

Not every school offers the option of submitting an Early Action or Early Decision application, but most offer one of them.

So, to reiterate:

  • Early Decision (ED) = a binding application, can only submit to one school, boost to your chances, results back early.
  • Early Action (EA) = non-binding, can submit to many schools, may offer some or no boost to chances, results back early.
  • Regular Decision (RD) = the regular way to apply to school.

What are the advantages of applying EA?

Let’s say you’re applying to 15 schools. One of them might be an Early Decision option, but how many of them should be Early Action?

Remember, depending on the school, there may or may not be a boost to your admissions odds to submit an Early Action application. The main reason to do it is to get your results back early. This can have two possible benefits.

The first is that, if you get accepted to the school you want to attend early, you can stop applying to colleges right there. If your EA results come back mid-December, this might save you the need to spend the next precious two weeks of your winter break on college applications. It might also save you hundreds of dollars in application fees.

The second benefit to applying early is that you get back some early intel about how your application fared. If you get accepted a few places you want to attend, this might mean you can relax about the rest of your results. But if you submit 5 Early Action applications and get donuts on all of them… Well, maybe that’s a sign you need to apply to a few more safety schools.

A great way to use your Early Action apps is to apply to safety schools. Why? You should get back some positive results early, which will be a big psychological win (trust us on this), and it will also help you understand if you built you list right. Again, if you lose on the safeties, you might need to go back to the application drawing board and apply to less risky schools.

How many EAs should I apply to?

You don’t need to apply to a bunch of EA schools.

The biggest drawback to your EAs is that you lose out on a lot of time to continue tweaking your applications. Most RD deadlines are January 1st. EA deadlines are typically Nov. 1st. That means that you lose two whole months to refine your essays and applications.

Some eager students decide to go whole-hog on EAs. They start working August 1st and submit 8 or 9 schools early under the wire on November 1st. Then, over the next two months, they kick themselves as they dramatically improve their essays through further drafts. Even if you’re ambitious and a hard worker, you’re going to want the extra time to workshop your application. Trust us. Don’t overcommit to EAs.

What are the advantages of applying ED?

You can only apply to one school Early Decision. You need to strategize how you use your ED, because the Early Decision admission rate for most schools is significantly higher than the RD and EA rates. We’ve written a longer post about how to strategize your Early Decision application. But on the most basic level, you should try to submit an ED application—likely to a school that is a target-reach.


After you’ve built your school list, you should start thinking about how to break it down into Regular Decision, Early Decision, and Early Action applications.

Most of your schools should probably be submitted RD, but most students should also plan to submit a few non-binding Early Action applications.


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