You have more power than you think in the college application process. 

It may feel like you’re being buffeted by the winds of fate and the whims of admissions officers, but knowing what schools are looking for and clearly defining what you want to get out of your education (especially financing it), lets you tailor the application process.

Applying early decision vs early action vs regular decision is somewhere you have agency. 

Schools set their own application deadlines and types, but you choose what works for you. 

Keep reading for:

  1. Definitions of each application deadline option
  2. Pros and Cons of the early deadline options
  3. What questions to ask yourself

Don’t overstress though. 

Firstly, not every school offers these early application deadlines.

Secondly, many US schools accept 50-70% of applicants without early decision or early action - so it can help, but it’s not absolutely necessary. 

College Application Deadline Definitions

Here are the options:

  • Regular Decision (the absolute deadline for everyone)
  • Rolling Admissions (applications accepted all year long)
  • Priority Deadline (important adjustment to the flexibility of rolling admissions)
  • Early Decision (a binding agreement - you can only apply this way for one college)
  • Early Decision II (a second chance at a binding agreement with a different school)
  • Early Action (the non-binding one - you can use it for multiple colleges)
  • Restricted Early Action (non-binding but you can only apply this way for one college)

What Is “Regular Decision”

The most basic type of application deadline.

Depending on schools, it could be November 30th, December 1st, December 15th, January 1st, January 15th, or later.  

This is a hard, final deadline. If your application is not in, you must wait until next year to apply.

What Is “Rolling Admissions”

If schools don’t follow the normal timeline and trajectory, they might accept applications year-round. 

But don’t be fooled. 

Even if colleges accept applications anytime, keep an eye out for priority deadlines… 

What Is “Priority Deadline”

Schools that take applications year-round still need to organize yearly housing, financial aid, etc., so they often have a priority deadline for those extra considerations.

This is important if you’re interested in:

  • Having your application taken more seriously, 
  • Getting guaranteed housing, and 
  • Being offered merit or financial aid.

What Is “Early Decision” 

All early application deadlines accomplish at least 3 things:

  1. Signals to a school that you are serious about attending 
  2. Gets your application seen before the rest of the regular applicant pool 
  3. Gets you a much quicker response to your application

…but early decision is the most serious commitment of the early application options. 

Applying early decision means if you’re accepted, you’re locked into attending that school.

With deadlines around mid-October to early November, early decision tells a college that they’re your first choice school. 

They’ll respond around mid-December with: 

  • An acceptance letter, 
  • A rejection letter, or 
  • A deferment (they’ll consider your application against “regular decision” applicants; you’re not held to your binding agreement anymore).

What Is “Early Decision II”

You want to toss your hat in the ring, but perhaps not right away. 

It’s the same rules as the first early decision deadline, but with a bigger applicant pool and later due date (often coincides with the final regular decision deadline). 

This application type helps if you: 

  • Missed the early decision I deadline 
  • Need more time to beef up your application
  • Weren’t accepted in the early decision I round and want to try again at a different school

What Is “Early Action” 

Early action usually has the same deadlines as early decision (apply in October or November and get school response by mid-December) but with more flexibility.

The main differences? 

  • You aren’t required to attend that school if admitted. 
  • You can apply early action to several schools. 
  • You can take your time deciding and comparing offers. 

What Is “Restricted Early Action”

A hybrid version of early action and early decision; also known as “single-choice early action.”

Like early action, you aren’t required to attend if offered a spot (and you have until national response day - May 1 - to give your answer), but you do receive an early response from the school.

Like early decision, you’re only allowed to apply to one school early, rather than many.

For example, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Notre Dame, and others offer early action, but only if you apply early to them exclusively. Competitive, sought-after schools want to know you’re serious about them and not simply taking advantage of early application benefits. 

You can still apply “regular decision” to as many schools as you’d like. 

Pros And Cons Of Early Decision vs Early Action

Lower your anxiety around the challenging college admissions process by getting ready and figuring out where you’re going to school as early as possible.

Pros And Cons Of Early Decision I

Positives  of Early Decision I
Negatives of Early Decision I
  • Stand out from the crowd. Your first-choice school will know that you’re absolutely committed. You’ll have a leg-up against the regular decision folks (It’s appealing when someone likes us, right? Colleges feel the same.)
  • Fewer school choices. Apply to as many schools as you want, but can only apply “early decision” to one. 
  • Enjoy high school. The sooner you’re done with college applications and know where you’re going, the sooner you can focus on being a high school student.
  • No changing your mind. Most schools will have you, your parents, and your counselor sign a contract of exclusivity with your application.  
  • Save money. If you’re accepted, you only paid one pesky application fee.
  • Less money choices. No comparing financial aid offers. Whatever the school gives you, that’s that. So evaluate total costs before applying. (Even if some schools stipulate that you can back out of attending if the financial burden is too much, don’t rely on it. Most other application deadlines have passed before you hear about financial aid.)
  • Increase your odds of acceptance…possibly. There’s a higher acceptance rate for students applying early decision. But many consider these applicants more academically motivated and theorize they would be accepted anyway. So take these stats with a grain of salt.
  • The higher acceptance rate may be misleading. Some colleges give preference to legacies (ie parents or grandparents attended) or recruited athletes, which changes the stats.
  • Enjoy a little flexibility. If you’re not accepted, you can still apply to other schools using regular decision deadlines.
  • Flexibility… but not much. If you’re rejected, there’s not long to submit other applications. Have other applications ready “just in case.”
  • Saying yes earlier. You commit and submit your non-refundable deposit sooner (usually Feb 1st).
  • No messing around. If your grades slip, a school may revoke acceptance and leave you scrambling.

The Pros And Cons Of Early Decision II

Pluses of Early Decision II

Minuses to Early Decision II

Same as Early Decision I, plus: 

Same as Early Decision I, except:

  • Time to improve grades. While consistent good grades are best, showing improvement is attractive to
  • More competitive. You’re competing against other early decision AND regular decision students. You won’t have exclusive first consideration.
  • Strengthen standardized test scores. Take extra time to study for the ACT & SAT. Raising your score even a few points can increase your chance of acceptance plus earn you more money in scholarships.
  • Fewer options. Again, you’re locked in if they say yes, so be sure you’re okay with the costs and committed to going. There’s no time to put together other applications if this choice doesn’t work out.
  • Bulk up your activities list. Make that application shine with additional senior activities.
  • More time to commit. No need to know your first-choice school by October or November.

Pros And Cons Of Early Action

Pros of Early Action

Cons of Early Action

  • Higher acceptance rates. Like with early decision, schools like students that like them. 
  • A rejection can be final. You’re not considered for regular decision unless they defer their decision and put you in with the regular decision pool of applicants.  
  • Lower stress. If you’re accepted, you’ll know earlier and have breathing room to enjoy high school.
  • No dropping the ball once you’re accepted. You must maintain the same GPA and academic rigor in order to keep your spot. 
  • The most flexibility. Apply early to multiple colleges if you want.
  • Busy deadline time. Early action deadlines arrive when you’re getting used to your classes, the last SAT is rolling around, and senior events are starting. Plan early to be ready.
  • More money options. You can wait until all financial aid offers arrive and compare them to make the best choice for you and your family. 
    • PLUS early action deadlines often coincide with scholarship priority deadlines.
  • Not a TON of time. Only one semester to raise your GPA and some senior year activities won’t happen early enough to be included in your application.
  • More time to make decisions. You have until National Decision Day on May 1st to commit to attending.

Pros And Cons Of Restricted Early Action

Good Stuff

Less Good Stuff

  • Same as early action above, except you can’t apply early action to more than one school

Same as early action above, plus:

  • Restricted to one early application.
  • Can favor legacy students and recruited athletes, lowering the likelihood for others.

For more insight, take a look at Stanford’s restricted early action policy or Cal Tech’s.

How Do I Choose Between Early Decision vs Early Action vs Regular Decision?

Do your research because schools on your college list might make the early decision vs early action choice for you. 

Otherwise, these questions can help. 

If the answer’s yes, it’s worth considering an early application option. If the answer’s no, regular decision might be best.

  • Does one of your top three schools offer early action or early decision? 
  • If that school said yes, would you go?
  • Have you looked at financial aid implications? Are you in a position to accept what you might (or might not) get? 
  • Are you in the top 25% in terms of test scores and grades?
  • Are your GPA, extracurriculars, and application materials strong enough yet? 
  • Have you put enough time and effort into your application to feel proud?
  • Do you match the school’s mission/vision? Do they match yours?
  • Have you demonstrated interest?
  • Again, are you 100% sure you’d go there if they said yes?

Still on the fence? Take a look at this early decision vs regular decision spreadsheet that Jeff Levy and Jeannie Kent produce yearly, examining what percentage of applicants get accepted early vs regular decision at the top 200-ish schools. 

It doesn’t mean you’re absolutely more likely to get in if you apply early decision vs early action, but it may inspire you to commit to early - or roll the dice on regular decision. 

At March Consulting, we recommend applying early ONLY if it is to YOUR benefit. 

If it doesn’t feel right, set yourself up for success with regular decision deadlines.

Want expert help making these tough decisions? Reach out to us with questions. We can provide you with a solid game plan for creating a stellar college list and the strongest possible college applications.