When to Apply to College: Early Decision vs. Early Action vs. Regular Decision

Once you have decided which schools you will apply, you now must decide which application deadline option is best for you: early decision vs early action vs regular decision. Here are the options and the good, the bad (and the ugly?) of each.

A student typing at their laptop.

Applying to college early decision

Things to keep in mind when you apply for college early:

  • This is a binding agreement, and if you are accepted to a college on early decision applications, you are expected to withdraw all other applications and attend this college or university.
  • Applying ED may modestly boost your chances of acceptance, but it will not drastically change your chances.

Applying ED can have 3 potential results:

  • Acceptance: Enough said.
  • Denial: Also enough said.
  • Deferral: If the school is not ready to make a decision on you as an ED candidate, your application can be deferred into the regular decision applicant pool and make a decision on your application when they do the others.

This is the option for students who know, without a doubt, that they want to attend a given school. Early decision (ED) deadlines are often around 11/1 or 11/15, much earlier than the typical deadline. But applying ED gets you a decision earlier and can eliminate the stress of the college selection process earlier.

Remember, this is a commitment

This option is not for the faint of heart. If you decide to apply early decision and the school accepts you, you agree to withdraw all other college applications and attend this institution (also known as a binding agreement).

It has often been said that applying ED can improve your odds of acceptance. The school knows without a doubt that you want to attend there and, if selected, you will enroll. This speaks loudly about your commitment to that school and that will be duly noted. However, your chances of admission won’t change dramatically because you’ve applied ED.

If your odds of admission were slim in the first place, they’ll still be slim. However, if you are a candidate sitting on a fence, the strong signal you send by applying ED may be enough to push you over the edge and get you in the door.

If you are accepted under the ED option, congrats! Send the school your admission deposit and you are essentially done. Sit back and enjoy a nice big ice cream sundae (and continue doing your schoolwork!)

Financial aid and early decision application

If the amount of financial aid you receive will be a factor in your ultimate college choice, ED becomes a potentially precarious option. But, that doesn’t necessarily have to end your hopes of applying ED. Schools can have slightly different views of the financially needy ED application. Thus, it will be very important for you to know where your ED school stands before you make the commitment. Again, here there are several possibilities:

  • Your ED school may allow you to fill out an ED financial aid application (often the CSS Profile) in order to provide you with a good estimate of the financial aid you’ll be eligible to receive. They will tell you that your ED offer of admission is binding unless, after financial aid, you cannot afford the school.
  • Some schools will tell you that if your ability to attend a school depends on the amount of financial aid you receive, ED is probably not the right option for you.

So, if money matters and you want to apply ED, it’s worth making a phone call to your ED school. See where they stand on the matter.

Applying to college early action

This is an option that lets you apply to a school early (usually November-ish), get a decision early (sometime in December), but that decision is not binding. You still have until the May 1st reply date to make your school choice.

Early Action (EA) is a great option if you want to get a response without being ready to make a commitment to a single school. More often than not, colleges prepare Early Action financial aid packages along with aid packages with the rest of the applicant pool, so you may not know how much a school costs until perhaps March or April.

Not all schools have Early Decision or Early Action, so check each individual school’s website to see what options are available to you.

So, just to sum up what Early Decision and Early Action means:

Early decision and early action venn diagram.

Applying to college regular decision

This is the regular ol’ decision process. It’s the way that most applicants apply and the deadlines will vary from institution to institution. There will be separate financial aid application deadlines and requirements of which you must be aware, but in general, the process is pretty straightforward.

Once you submit an application, you can apply for financial aid by completing the FAFSA (and perhaps the CSS Profile). You receive a letter of acceptance or denial. If a school accepts you, you also receive an award letter that details any financial aid you can receive.

You must make your final college choice by May 1.

Use College Raptor to discover personalized college matches, cost estimates, acceptance odds, and potential financial aid for schools around the US—for FREE!


4 thoughts on “When to Apply to College: Early Decision vs. Early Action vs. Regular Decision”

  1. Nivetha says:


    Do you suggest that I apply to the safeties early or reach school early?

    1. Allison Wignall says:

      Hello, Nivetha! Reach schools tend to be more expensive than safeties, so it can be a good idea to apply early to reach schools so you have more time to compare award letters, financial aid strategies, and scholarship opportunities. Hope this helps!

  2. Surekha says:

    Hi! My daughter has a 3.45 gpa and 30 on act. If she applies ed and early action what are her chances to the below list of schools:
    1. Tuft
    2. USC
    3. Pitzer
    4. Georgetown
    5. Barnard
    6. Middlebury
    8. By
    9. Emory
    10. Skidmore
    11. Babson
    12. George Washington
    14. Swathmore
    15. Northeastern

    Is this a good list for her? She wants a mid to small size school preferably. She wants something not to far from a big city
    She wants a school with a good international mix. A private school
    How is this list and what would you reccomend? If any others
    Prefferably east or west coasts or near cities with direct flights for international flights.

    1. Allison Wignall says:

      Hi, Surekha! That is an impressive list, to be sure. Luckily with College Raptor’s free match tool, you can discover your daughter’s acceptance odds to all of those schools (and more) by filling out a quick profile. Good luck!

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