Early Decision vs. Early Action: What’s the Scoop?

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Is Early Decision Right For You? 

Narrowing the choice to attend one particular school may be an ideal path for some students. By applying early decision, or, in college admissions-speak, “ED,” students can receive a response that ends the college admissions process before the winter holiday break.

Early decision is a binding agreement that commits the student, if accepted, to enroll – that’s why a student may only submit one ED application. 

The choice to “go ED” is one that is based on having a solid first choice school in your application strategy, since an ED application may boost your chances of admission. You can see this for yourself by comparing the rate of selectivity for early and regular decisions, as well as by checking the overall percentage of the incoming class who are admitted through the early decision process. 

Looking at this information may help you prioritize the schools on your list. In doing so, consider if you have an edge that makes you a strong ED applicant. Are you an athlete or a member of an underrepresented minority group? Do you have a particular talent, or do you have ties to the school through legacy or donation? 


ED I vs. ED II

ED I and ED II, offered by a number of schools, differ in their deadlines. ED I deadlines traditionally fall in November, while ED II applications are usually due in January. Basically, ED II is a second round to the binding admissions program. Students may apply to ED II programs if their ED I plan falls short of a first-round acceptance. With both ED I and ED II applications, however, candidates must withdraw applications to other schools if admitted through the binding ED agreement. Check the information about the early decision program on the websites of the schools on your application list. 


How About Early Action Applications?

For many students, Early Decision programs won’t be the answer. Instead, they will require a more flexible college process strategy. 

Early action programs (that is, EA) allow students to submit early applications by the fall deadlines as outlined by individual school policy, but unlike ED, EA is a non-binding agreement. Students may even apply to multiple EA schools on top of submitting one ED application (see exceptions below), but the ED agreement always takes precedence. If a student’s ED application is successful, they must withdraw any EA applications. 

Remember to check the school websites for particulars, because EA deadlines may also be used as deadlines for merit aid or other qualifying programs. 


What are REA or SCEA programs?

Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) are closely related restrictive forms of the non-binding early application programs. As they are non-binding, students may apply elsewhere through the regular admissions process. 

Under REA and SCEA programs, very specific restrictions are attached to early applications. For example, Yale has a SCEA policy that specifies that, if applying to Yale SCEA, a student may not apply EA or ED to another school.* Yale will notify SCEA students in mid-December of its decision, which will be one of three outcomes: admission, denial, or deferral to the regular applicant pool. All students then have until May 1 to notify Yale of their decision. Stanford’s REA program is very similar, and some people use REA and SCEA interchangeably. What’s most important is to carefully read all the details of the REA or SCEA policies of the schools that interest you – following instructions is essential to the college application process.


Overall, early applications can alleviate stress by shortening the college search and decision process and by creating an early outcome. Shortened deadlines, however, require careful planning, so be sure to plan your application strategy in the late summer or very early fall. 


*With just a few exceptions: international universities, public institutions, non-binding rolling admission programs, EA II programs, or ED II programs if the notification is after January 1. Rolling admissions, most often offered by larger public universities will accept, evaluate, and decide on applications as they are received.