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How to Decide Between Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision

Creating a college list is a challenging task, but the added stress of selecting the right application option for each college–Early Decision (ED), Restrictive Early Action (REA) or Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), Early Action (EA), and Regular Decision–to match your needs and goals, makes the process even more overwhelming. Early Decision and the various forms of Early Action allow students to apply to a college before the regular application deadline, thereby providing a quicker turnaround for admissions decisions. In this article, we provide comprehensive information on the pros and cons of the various application options in terms of acceptance rate, commitment, flexibility, financial aid, and timing, enabling you to make a well-informed and strategic decision.

Early Decision

Early Decision is a binding commitment between the student and the college, requiring the signature of the student’s guardian at the time of application submission. If accepted through Early Decision, the student is obligated to attend that college and withdraw any other college applications. As a result, Early Decision often results in a much higher acceptance rate as colleges favor students who are willing and ready to commit. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania accepted 15% of ED applicants in 2021 compared to just 4% in Regular Decision, while Duke University accepted 25% and 6% of ED and Regular Decision applicants, respectively. Cornell saw a difference of 21% and 7% between ED and Regular Decision acceptance rates. The same holds true for liberal arts colleges, such as Williams College, ranked #1 by US News and World Report in 2022, which accepted 33% of ED applicants in 2021 compared to 7% in Regular Decision.

Early Decision has another benefit of providing students with an early college decision, reducing stress during the application process. Most Early Decision colleges have a November 1st deadline, while some offer a second round with deadlines on November 1st (ED1) and early January (ED2). Colleges with November 1st deadlines typically announce admissions decisions by mid-December, while those offering ED2 release decisions by mid-February. If a student is not accepted through ED, they may be deferred to the Regular Decision cycle, or they may be rejected and unable to apply again through Regular Decision.

Early Decision also has a major drawback in that it restricts a student's options. If accepted, the student must attend the college and withdraw all other applications. Early Decision also limits the student’s ability to compare financial aid options from other colleges, making it less suitable for students with significant financial aid needs. To summarize, while Early Decision offers a higher acceptance rate, it is only appropriate if you are confident the college is your top choice and you do not need to compare financial aid. In addition, you should also steer clear of Early Decision if you will be relying on your fall semester grades to improve your GPA. Applying Early Decision alone will not increase your chances of acceptance if your academic records are insufficient.

Early Action

Early Action is a non-binding option that allows students who are accepted to still apply to other colleges and compare their options before making a final commitment. This makes it ideal for students who are interested in a specific college but want to consider other options. Early Action does not offer a higher acceptance rate compared to Early Decision. For example, MIT accepted 4.8% of its Early Action applicants and 4% of its Regular Decision applicants (MIT does not offer Early Decision).

Early Action is commonly offered by many public universities, with the University of California system being a notable exception. It usually has a November 1st deadline and results are typically released by mid-December for private institutions and mid-January for public institutions. This early notification can provide students with some relief from the stress of the college application process.

Restrictive Early Action or Single Choice Early Action

Restrictive Early Action (REA) and Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) are variations of the Early Action option. Both options are non-binding, which means that a student who is accepted can still apply to other colleges. They offer the same benefits as Early Action in that they are non-committal and allow students to compare acceptances and financial aid offers from other colleges before making a final decision.

One distinct disadvantage, however, is that under these two options, a student must forgo the chance to apply early at other schools. Only a handful of colleges, usually one of the most selective private institutions in the U.S. (Stanford, Harvard, Yale, etc.), offer this type of Early Action. Applicants choosing this option demonstrate to the college in a noncommittal way that this college is their number one choice. For this reason, REA or SCEA does offer a slightly higher acceptance rate. For example, Harvard accepted 7.9% of the applicants in REA for class of 2026 and 4% during the Regular Decision round. Keep in mind that applying Restrictive Early Action or Single Choice Early Action alone does not guarantee acceptance, and a strong academic and extracurricular profile is necessary for consideration at the most selective colleges. If your fall grades are important to strengthen your profile, consider using Regular Decision instead.

In conclusion, the best college application option for a student will vary based on their specific goals and needs. It's important to consider factors such as acceptance rate, commitment level, flexibility, financial aid, and timing when deciding which option to choose. By weighing the pros and cons of each option, students can make an informed decision that aligns with their individual priorities.


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