Early Action vs. Early Decision vs. Regular Decision

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A male student at home working on his laptop.

Early Action vs. Early Decision vs. Regular Decision

When it comes time to decide to apply to the colleges and universities of your choice, there are a lot of important decisions that you as a high school student needs to make. One crucial decision has to do with applying early action vs early decision vs regular decision to the schools of your choice. but what are the key differences between early action and early decision and how does a student know the answer to “Should I apply early decision?”

That is especially true if you are a student interested in attending some of the most prestigious and competitive schools in the world, such as the school in the Ivy League.

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At AdmissionSIght, we pride ourselves on helping high school students from all over the United States – and all over the world for that matter – get into some of the most prestigious and competitive schools in the country.

While schools such as Harvard, University of Chicago, Yale and Stanford are of course known for their incredibly low acceptance rates, there are some ways in which a student can substantially improve their chances of getting in.

Of course, we are talking about Early action and early decision applications. But what is the difference between early action and early decision? And how can a student know when they are making the right choice in regards to this important aspect of the college application process?

You have come to the right place to find out. Let’s start breaking down the answers to those questions and much more together.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

Early Action and Early Decision are both ways in which students can express their desire and intent to attend one school over all other schools that they apply to.

While they share that aspect in common, it is important to know the difference between Early Action and Early Decision so that you can plan your approach to the application process effectively.

So to highlight the differences, let’s first go over what each option actually is.

What is Early Action?

When it comes to answering this question, Early Action is a nonbinding option that allows students to apply early and potentially gain admissions to one or more students quite a bit earlier than students who are applying regularly.

If a student decides to apply as an early action application, they will typically have to submit their entire applications and related materials sometime around the middle of November.

This of course includes the student’s high school transcripts, letters of recommendation from their high school faculty and counselor and their personal statement/essays.

From there, schools that allow students to apply via early action will typically send students their decisions in the months of December, January or February and then give students that were admitted until the 1st of May to formally reply to their offers.

Ideally, this discrepancy in time also gives students the time they need to compare and all of the financial aid offers that they have received from the schools that they have been accepted to.

When it comes to early action, the fact that it is nonbinding is the status quo. That means that students can apply to multiple colleges via early action.

With that being said, it is important to know that some of the most competitive schools in the United States – such as Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton – offer restrictive early action. This means that students are only allowed to pursue early action to one school, while applying to all of the other schools they want to apply to via regular decision.

When it comes to early action vs early decision Ivy League, it is important to mention that while Princeton typically has offered early action, the school cancelled the option for the class of 2025. As a result, all students that applied to Princeton in 2021 applied via regular decision.

What is Early Decision

Now that you know what early action is, we will break down what early decision is so that you fully understand the difference between early action and early decision.

Unlike early action, early decision is always a binding agreement. That means that a student can only apply to one school under this admission plan. Typically, early decision benefits students that are at the very top of their classes and have already made a decisive choice regarding which school they would prefer to attend over all others.

We would say that students should only apply via early decision if they know for certain that if they get into a school, they will go to that school over all other options.

Moreover, it is important for students to know that the vast majority of schools that offer the early decision option tend to be private and highly competitive.

When it comes to the process of applying early decision, students will have to turn in their full application documents around the same time as they do with early action.

However, they will hear back earlier than many early action schools. When it comes to when early action decisions come out, schools are known to respond to students by December if they are accepted.

If a student gets into the school that they applied to via early decision, they are required to accept the spot and enroll as well as withdraw their other applications from other schools.

The only time in which a student will be able to reject an early decision admission is if the school that they applied to via early decision is unable to meet their specific financial needs.

If a student is rejected, they may end up getting deferred to the pool of regular applicants. If that happens, they can still be considered for admission under a nonbinding plan. However, it is important to know that the majority of early decision rejections are final.

Early Decision vs. Regular Decision

The final application option that students have when they are applying to schools in the United States is to apply via regular decision. Truth be told, the vast majority of students apply via regular decision, even if they are applying to schools that they are very interested in attending.

The strength of applying to schools via regular decision is that you can apply to as many schools as you want to in this way. You also get quite a lot more time applying to schools via regular decision than you do compared to early action and early decision.

Regular decision application deadlines typically fall in early January and offers will typically be sent out in late March or early April. From there, students have until May 1 to either accept or decline their offers.

So there you have it, those are the primary differences between early action vs early decision vs regular decision.

What you need to know for the Ivy Leagues

When it comes to the Ivy League schools, it is crucial to keep in mind that the eight schools within the Ivy League have different approaches to the early action, early decision and regular decision options.

When it comes to Early action, the schools that offer this designation are:

When it comes to Early decision, the schools that offer this designation are:

  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • Yale University

As previously mentioned, Princeton cancelled early decision for the students that were applying in 2021, but there is a strong likelihood that the school will start offering early decision applicants in the near future.

When it comes to why students decide to apply to school via early action or early decision, the numbers speak for themselves. Students that apply early action or early decision historically have a much better chance to get into the school that they apply to.

For example, in 2021, every school in the Ivy League ending the 2021 application cycle with an acceptance rate well below 10.0 percent. On the other hand, the acceptance rate data for the schools that we have regarding early action or early decision are quite a bit higher. Take a look, below:

Regular decision acceptance rates in the Ivy League:

Early action vs early decision Ivy league acceptance rates:

Take a look at the major boost that students receive when they apply to the Ivy League schools via early action or early decision.

In some cases, they more than double and even triple!

  • Brown University – 16.0 percent
  • Columbia University – 15.1 percent
  • Cornell University – 24.0 percent
  • Dartmouth College – 22.2 percent
  • Harvard University – 7.4 percent
  • University of Pennsylvania – 14.9 percent
  • Princeton University –  N/A for 2021
  • Yale University – 10.5 percent

Should you apply early decision?

When it comes to making your decision about applying to a university via early decision, there are a lot of different factors that you need to take into account. After all, you now know that applying to a school as an early decision student will bind you to that school if you do end up getting in.

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That is why we have broken down a number of valuable questions that any student that is interested in applying to a school via early decision should absolutely keep in mind before and during the time in which they are filling out their college application.

Here are the top questions that you should ask yourself if you are wondering whether you should apply early decision. Let’s get it started.

Do you have a clear top choice for the university that you want to attend?

This is the first question that you should be asking yourself if you are thinking about applying to a school via early decision.

If you do have a school that you would be happy to attend over all the other options that you are thinking about applying to, and if that school does indeed offer an early decision application, then you would certainly be wise to take advantage of that opportunity.

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After all, you now know that students who apply to even the most competitive schools – such as the eight Ivy League schools – gain a real competitive advantage over students who applied to the school just through regular decision application.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to this question is whether you would rather go to a school that is your dream school with less financial aid or go to a different, but still fantastic option, with more financial aid offered. For some students, the amount of financial aid they receive from a specific school plays a large role in where they end up attending.

Are you a highly competitive applicant?

Early admissions processes at all schools, and early decision in particular, work especially well for students who are amongst the most competitive applicants of their year.

Students who want to take full advantage of their decision to apply to his top school via early decision will want to make sure that they have very high grade point averages, a high school curriculum that’s filled with advanced courses such as honors, AP and IB classes, strong letters of recommendation from their high school’s faculty and counselor, personal and well written personal statements, and of course (if required) strong standardized test scores.

If a student is curious about how well their application profile may stack up against other students applying to a specific school, the answers to those questions are very easy to find online and on AdmissionSight’s website.

Have you given yourself enough time to complete the application?

This is why high school students should make a point to begin their college application process as early as possible in their senior year of high school. As you don’t know, schools that accept early action and early decision student applications require that students submit those applications far earlier than regular decision applications.

At home, a young woman is filling out a form.

For that reason, you are going to have to make sure that you give yourself the necessary time in order to not only fill out your application, but also make sure that it is as strong as it possibly can be.

Remember, if you decide to apply to a school like Harvard, Yale, or Columbia via an early admission option, your application will be pitted against the most competitive and impressive high school students of your year.

You will want to be sure that your application to the top school on your list will represent you well and give you the best possible opportunity to actually get into the school.

How much financial aid does your target school typically offer?

If you are lucky enough to not have to worry about any potential financial restrictions, then you don’t really have to consider this aspect of the college application process.

However, it is far more likely that you are one of the many millions of high school students who are hoping to get some sort of financial aid package from the school that you end up attending for your undergraduate education.

A female student smiling while handshaking another woman.

If you are thinking about applying to a school that has a restrictive early decision application option, you should absolutely do some research into how much financial aid they typically offer students who need it.

Though early admission schools do their best to provide a financial aid package that is best suited for a specific student’s financial situation at home, there is no doubt that some schools with larger endowments are able to offer more competitive financial aid packages.

Students need to keep in mind that they will not have the opportunity to compare aid packages when they apply via early decision, so doing research ahead of time on a water table financial aid package from a specific school is very important.

Get more advice on college admissions

For high school students to have dreams of attending a talk college or university, the entire application process can absolutely be filled with its fair share of exciting moments and stressful ones.

There is no doubt that deciding on which school you want to apply to via early decision can be highly stressful. That is why so many students these days turned to the valuable guidance that university admissions consultants can offer.

At AdmissionSight, we are incredibly proud of the tools and guidance we offer all of the students that we work with each year. We are also proud of the fact that 75 percent of the students that we work with have ended up getting into either an Ivy League school or a top 10 school elsewhere in the United States.

If you’re curious how we can help you make these decisions and approve your chances of getting into the schools that are at the top of your list, contact us today to set up a free consultation.


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