What's the difference between early decision and early action?

By: Charles W. Bryant

If you want to attend Harvard, you won't be able to commit early.
If you want to attend Harvard, you won't be able to commit early.
Joe Sohm/Getty Images

After a summer of broken yearbook promises to keep in touch (KIT) with your classmates, you begin your high school senior year with the inevitable decision looming -- where to apply for college admission. You're 17 or 18 years old and faced with a decision that will likely shape not only your professional life, but your personal life as well. College is the time when teenagers become young men and women, eager to dive into the workforce and evolve into contributing members of society. Or they go back to school to earn multiple degrees over the course of the next decade. Or they just travel around Europe with a worn Hacky Sack and a wrinkled Fodor's guide.

Which college you attend and what you study has a good chance of determining what industry you'll work in and even where you'll live to work in that industry. All of these decisions will determine your social circle, which will likely include your closest friends, boyfriends, girlfriends and eventually a partner for life. For this reason, the decision of which college to attend means much more to your future than a simple degree. So when it comes time to decide where you'll attend school, give due consideration to the region, the employment sector you wish to pursue and the major programs that interest you and how they rate.


The application process varies slightly depending on which college you're interested in, but you can beat the rush at many institutions by taking advantage of early decision or early action programs. But which one is right for you? We'll take a look at the difference between the two scenarios on the next page.



Early Decision vs. Early Action

Raise your hand if you acted early.
Raise your hand if you acted early.
Manchan/Getty Images

If you're the kind of student that has done the research early and you know what you're interested in studying, then you might be a good candidate for an early decision or early action program. It varies depending on the institution, but most programs allow applications as early as November and notifications are sent in December or January. The rules for each program will vary from place to place, so check with your guidance counselor or the university you're interested in for the specifics. The one thing they have in common in most cases is this: Early decision programs are binding; early action plans are not.

Early decision programs allow a university to extend early admissions and financial aid packages to students committed to attending the school. You can only apply to one school as an early decider, so it should be your first choice school. You can apply to other schools as a regular applicant. But those applications must be rescinded if your early decision school admits you. Most colleges require some kind of nonrefundable deposit to ensure this.


Early action plans are similar, but they do not require a binding commitment from the student. Upon acceptance you can choose to make the commitment right away, or you can wait until the spring. You can also apply to other schools as an early action applicant. Some schools offer a variant of the early action plan called single-choice early action. This is when you agree to not apply to other schools early, while maintaining the right to apply during the standard admissions time frame. Under the single-choice plan you can still inform the early action school of your decision in the spring.

Critics point out that it may hurt students who depend on financial aid by committing too early before all of their aid options are explored. Harvard University discontinued its early application programs in 2006, claiming that it tended to "advantage the advantaged" [source: Starkey]. This had led other universities to examine their own programs. Right now there are still more than 400 schools that offer one or both of these plans, so check with the schools you're interested in to find out if they are a participating university.


Lots More Information

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  • "Early Decision and Early Action." Collegeboard.com. 2010. http://www.collegeboard.com/student/apply/the-application/104.html
  • "Early decision or early action: what's the difference?" Examiner.com. March 18, 2010. http://www.examiner.com/x-766-College-Admissions-Examiner~y2009m3d18-Early-decision-or-early-action-whats-the-difference
  • Keegan, Matthew C. "Early Decision Versus Early Action Admissions." Saycampuslife.com. Oct. 6, 2009.http://www.saycampuslife.com/2009/10/06/early-decision-versus-early-action-admissions/
  • Van Buskirk, Peter. "The Difference Between Early Decision and Early Action." Witf.org. Nov. 2, 2009.http://www.witf.org/education/life-after-12th-grade/2358-the-difference-between-early-decision-and-early-action