College-related decisions can often be confusing. Choosing the best college application strategy can make a huge difference. One super-important aspect of this decision is understanding the differences between Early Action (EA) vs. Early Decision (ED) admissions. In this guide, we’ll break down the basics, explore the pros and cons, and offer practical advice to help you make informed choices.


  • Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) are both alternative application options offered by many colleges and universities in the United States.
  • EA allows students to apply early and receive an early response from the college without being bound to enroll if accepted.
  • ED, on the other hand, is a binding agreement where students commit to attending the college if accepted, withdrawing all other applications upon acceptance.

Early Action and Early Decision are early admissions options that some universities offer to let students apply early, before the regular decision deadlines.

What is Early Action?

Early Action (EA) is an alternative admissions process offered by many colleges and universities in the United States. With Early Action, students can submit their applications earlier than Regular Decision (RD) or the college’s regular application deadline. 

Unlike Early Decision, Early Action is non-binding, meaning students are not obligated to enroll if accepted. This provides students with the advantage of knowing their admission status earlier in the application cycle, allowing them more time to explore other colleges and compare financial aid offers before making a final decision. 

Additionally, Early Action can be particularly beneficial for students who want to demonstrate their interest in a college without the commitment associated with Early Decision. 

What is Early Decision?

Early Decision (ED) is another early admissions option available at many colleges and universities. With Early Decision, students commit to attending a specific college if accepted and agree to withdraw all other college applications upon acceptance. 

This binding agreement demonstrates a high level of interest and commitment to the college. Early Decision deadlines are typically earlier than regular admission deadlines, and students receive an early decision notification. While Early Decision may increase the likelihood of acceptance at many schools, it restricts students from applying to multiple colleges early in the admissions process. 

Despite the binding nature of Early Decision, it remains a popular choice for students who have a clear top-choice college and are confident in their decision to attend if accepted. 

Though primarily for undergraduate students, some colleges offer EA and ED for graduate admissions as well. 

Many schools also require a deposit for early applications. This often only acts as security in case a student backs out of ED, and is typically refunded after the EA/ED phase ends.

These early admissions options are especially great if you have a “dream college” in mind, since they let you demonstrate your eagerness to commit to that school. This may increase your likelihood of acceptance at some colleges with competitive admissions, placing you in a more favorable position than regular decision would. 

To illustrate this with an example, let’s look at Vanderbilt University’s admission statistics for their batch of 2026:

Early Decision Admit Rate: 17.6% 
Regular Decision Admit Rate: 4.7% 

While it may not be the same for all universities, the significant difference in admit rates between early action/decision vs. regular decision at Vanderbilt highlights the increased probability of acceptance that you could leverage with early admissions options. 

What is Early Action / Decision II? 

Some schools conduct a second round of early deadlines, called Early Action II (EA II) and Early Decision II (ED II). This is great for those who weren’t ready for the first round, or whose first rounds at other schools didn’t go too well. EA II and ED II give you another chance at an early application. 

For schools that conduct EA or ED I and II, in most cases, the same rules apply as for the first round, just with a later deadline. 

EA and ED are both early admissions options that let you apply before the regular application dates. Let’s take a closer look at how they differ and what these differences could mean for you.

Early Action vs. Early Decision vs. Regular Decision

CriteriaEarly Action (EA)Early Decision (ED)Regular Decision
Application DeadlineTypically in November or DecemberTypically in November or December, usually earlier than EDTypically in January
Agreement TermsNon-bindingBindingNon-binding; students have until May 1 to decide
Notification DateTypically Mid-DecemberTypically Mid-DecemberTypically late March to early April
Financial Aid ComparisonAllows comparing financial aid offers between collegesLimits the ability to compare financial aid packagesAllows comparing financial aid offers across colleges
Acceptance RatesGenerally higher acceptance rates compared to Regular DecisionMay have slightly higher acceptance rates due to a stronger applicant poolVaries, typically lower acceptance rates compared to Early Action/Decision
FlexibilityOffers flexibility to apply to multiple schoolsRequires commitment to one schoolAllows applying to multiple schools
Withdrawal of ApplicationsNo withdrawal of applications is required if admittedRequires withdrawal of applications to other schools if admittedNo withdrawal of applications is required if admitted

Application Deadlines

The application deadlines for Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) typically fall between November and December. This allows you to submit your materials earlier than the regular deadline, giving you a head start in the admissions process. While EA deadlines are sometimes later than those for ED, both offer the opportunity to apply ahead of the regular deadline, giving you an advantage in the competitive college admissions process. Note that these deadlines may vary with each school. 

Recommended Read: College Decision Dates: What You Need to Know 

Agreement Terms

One of the most significant distinctions between early admissions programs lies in their agreement terms. Early Decision (ED) applications require a binding agreement, meaning students commit to attending a specific college if accepted and must withdraw all other applications upon acceptance. In contrast, Early Action (EA) applications are non-binding, granting students the freedom to explore multiple college options without the obligation to enroll if accepted. This difference in agreement terms shapes the level of commitment required from applicants and impacts their flexibility in the admissions process.

Notification Dates

Notification of admission status for early admissions programs typically occurs in mid-December, giving you an early indication of your acceptance. This early notification timeline applies to both Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) applicants, allowing them to plan ahead and make informed decisions about their college choices. In contrast, Regular Decision applicants receive notification of admission status later, between late March and early April.

Financial Aid Comparison

Early admissions programs offer different opportunities for comparing financial aid packages. While Early Action (EA) allows applicants to compare financial aid offers between colleges before making a final decision, Early Decision (ED) limits this ability due to the binding nature of the agreement. ED applicants must commit to attending a specific college if accepted, potentially impacting their ability to negotiate financial aid packages. However, both Early Action and Regular Decision applicants retain the flexibility to compare financial aid offers across multiple colleges before committing to enrollment.

Acceptance Rates

The acceptance rates for early admissions programs vary depending on the college and the strength of the applicant pool. Generally, both Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) applicants benefit from higher acceptance rates compared to Regular Decision applicants. This is usually due to the smaller applicant pool and the level of commitment demonstrated by early applicants. However, while ED applicants may experience slightly higher acceptance rates than EA applicants due to their binding commitment, both options offer advantages in terms of acceptance rates compared to Regular Decision at most schools that offer these options.


The flexibility in the admissions process differs between these early options. Early Action (EA) offers applicants the flexibility to apply to multiple colleges simultaneously, as it is non-binding and does not require a commitment upon acceptance. In contrast, Early Decision (ED) restricts applicants to applying to only one college due to the binding agreement, limiting their flexibility in exploring other options. However, both EA and ED provide students with the advantage of receiving an early decision, allowing them to plan ahead and make informed decisions about their college choices.

Withdrawal of Applications

The requirement to withdraw applications varies between early admissions programs. Early Decision (ED) applicants must withdraw all other college applications upon acceptance, as the agreement is binding and commits them to attending a specific college. In contrast, Early Action (EA) applicants don’t need to withdraw applications if admitted, as the agreement is non-binding. Similarly, Regular Decision applicants have the option to retain their applications at multiple colleges until they receive notification of admission status, providing them with flexibility in their decision-making process.

Related: The Only College Application Checklist You Need 

To sum up, the major difference between Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) is that EA allows you to also apply to other schools, while ED is considered binding and requires you to withdraw from other schools. 

early action vs. early decision

Unsure if Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) options are for you? They may be worth considering if you:

Have a Clear Top-Choice School

If a student has a clear first-choice college and is certain about attending if admitted, Early Decision could be a suitable option as it shows dedication to that institution.

Have Strong Academic Records

Students with solid academic performance and extracurricular involvement may benefit from applying early to demonstrate their commitment and interest in a particular college. 

Seek Higher Acceptance Rates

As illustrated before, early applicants often have higher acceptance rates compared to Regular Decision applicants, making EA and ED attractive for students aiming to increase their chances of admission.

Want to Receive Decisions Early

For students eager to receive admissions decisions sooner, both EA and ED provide the opportunity to know their application outcomes ahead of the regular decision timeline.

Are Ready to Commit

Students who are prepared to commit to attending a specific college if accepted, as required by Early Decision, should opt for this route to show their dedication and secure a spot at their top-choice school.

Have Strong Financial Aid Plans

Understanding the financial implications of each choice is crucial. Early Decision may limit the ability to compare financial aid offers, while Early Action allows for more flexibility in comparing offers before making a final decision.

Restrictive Early Action (REA) is a non-binding early application process that falls between Early Decision and Early Action. Under REA, students can apply early to a single-choice institution and receive their admissions decision earlier than the regular decision process. Unlike other early action policies, REA places limitations on where a student can apply in the early round of admissions. Typically, no college will allow its REA applicants to submit an Early Decision I application to another college. 

Notable schools like Harvard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Notre Dame offer REA programs, each with specific guidelines and policies regarding the application process and restrictions on applying to other early programs. 

For example, a student can apply REA to Notre Dame, but that same applicant cannot apply Early Decision to Rice University.

Harvard University’s REA is an attractive choice for students whose records and accomplishments have been consistently strong over time.

A few colleges offer single-choice early action, which is an REA policy with even more limiting rules. With this form of EA, students can apply to one school, and any public university simultaneously. For instance, at Yale University, an Early Action applicant cannot also apply to Liberty University through its Non-Restrictive Early Action policy since Liberty is a private institution. However, the student can apply EA to the University of California, Berkeley, a public institution.

Here’s a quick analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of both early admissions options:

Advantages of Early Action

  • Provides an early decision without a binding commitment.
  • Allows students to compare financial aid offers from multiple colleges.

Drawbacks of Early Action

  • May not offer as much of a competitive advantage as ED.
  • Does not demonstrate as strong a commitment to the college.

Advantages of Early Decision

  • Demonstrates a high level of interest and commitment to the college.
  • Typically increases the likelihood of acceptance.

Drawbacks of Early Decision

  • The binding agreement may limit your flexibility in exploring other options.
  • Financial aid offers cannot be compared across multiple colleges before committing.

Early admissions policies vary depending on the colleges to which you’re applying, but typically, there are two possibilities if you’re not accepted:


A “deferral” is when your application is neither accepted nor denied during the early admissions rounds. Instead, the college or university postpones making a final decision on your application and moves it into the regular decision pool. Being deferred means that your application will be re-evaluated along with the regular decision applicants, and you’ll receive a final decision later in the admissions cycle. 

If deferred, there’s usually no need to submit a new application unless otherwise specified by the college.


Typically, if your application is rejected during the early action phase, you can’t apply to the same college through regular decision within the same application cycle.

Some schools, like Stanford University and Vanderbilt University, have a “no deferrals” policy for their early admissions options. This means that if your EA or ED application gets rejected, you’ll be denied admission, even through regular decision.

While undoubtedly a harsh word, rejection isn’t the end of the world, and could actually open up new opportunities that may prove better in the long run. 

With EA, you have the flexibility to compare financial aid packages and make more informed decisions about your college choices. But if the financial aid package from your ED school doesn’t cover all your expenses, you might want to back out of the agreement. What then?

If the financial aid package offered by your ED college is not sufficient, you may request a review of your financial aid application. However, be aware that ED agreements are binding, and withdrawing from the agreement may have consequences.

While the ED contract is binding, it is not a legal one and you are not forced to attend the college or university if you really don’t want to. If you have a genuine reason for backing out, such as not being able to afford the tuition, then you may withdraw with no repercussions. However, if you want to withdraw to apply elsewhere, or because you changed your mind, then there could be certain repercussions. 

In some cases, the school may keep the deposit you submitted while applying for ED. In other cases, they may publish a list of students who opted out of ED, which could affect your reputation if you plan on applying to other schools. 

Before making any decisions, chat with your ED college’s admissions office. They can fill you in on the process and what it means for you.

If opting for Early Action, it’s unlikely for your college to make you sign an additional form, since EA is non-binding. However, Early Decision requires you to fill out an additional form, with the detailed terms and conditions of the agreement. These forms also usually require the signature of a parent/guardian, and sometimes, your school counselor. 

Here are some examples of Early Decision agreements at various colleges and universities:

Babson College 

Emory University

University of Chicago 

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)

Lafayette College

Wesleyan University

University of Denver

Reviewing the terms of these EA agreements will give you a better understanding of how these policies typically work, and what to expect before applying EA or ED. 

Early admissions options are a great way to stand out from the pool of applicants at top colleges. But they could also prove restrictive. That’s why it’s important to explore these options carefully. Review each college’s policies regarding multiple application types. Ensure clear communication with all colleges regarding your application intentions. Take the time to reflect on your individual circumstances and priorities before making your final decision. 

Can you apply EA and ED simultaneously?

Some colleges do offer both EA and ED options. However, most colleges DO NOT allow students to apply EA and ED simultaneously, due to the binding nature of ED agreements. Some colleges may allow students to apply EA to other institutions while applying ED to one specific college.

Do you need your high school counselor to sign EA or ED agreements?

While a high school counselor’s involvement may be beneficial, it’s not always required for EA or ED applications. It’s best to check with each college for specific requirements.