Understanding Early Decision, Early Action, and Rolling Admissions: A Comprehensive Guide

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A student smiling at the camera in a building.

Understanding Early Decision, Early Action, and Rolling Admissions: A Comprehensive Guide

As you prepare for college, understanding the differences between Early Decision, Early Action, and rolling admissions can significantly impact your application strategy. These terms represent key pathways to securing a spot at your dream school, yet many students find them confusing.

To pick the right path, you need to understand how each admission process functions and how it fits into your college plans. We’re here to break down these options, guiding you to choose the one that best matches your goals and timeline.

Early Decision

Early Decision (ED) is a college application process where students apply to their first-choice school ahead of the regular admission deadlines.

a female student thinking/studying

The purpose of ED is to allow students to demonstrate their interest and commitment to a particular college or university. It signals to the institution that it is the applicant’s top choice, and if accepted, the student agrees to enroll and withdraw applications from other schools.

The binding nature of Early Decision agreements is a critical aspect that applicants must understand. When you apply ED, you sign a contract agreeing to attend the college if admitted. This means you can only apply to one ED college at a time, and if accepted, you are committed to attending. It’s a significant decision that requires careful consideration of your college preferences and readiness to commit.

Pros and cons of Early Decision

The pros and cons for applicants in the ED process vary. On the pro side, applying ED can increase your chances of acceptance, as colleges tend to favor students who demonstrate early interest and commitment. It also allows you to receive an admission decision earlier, reducing the stress and uncertainty of the waiting period.

However, the cons include the binding commitment, which limits your ability to compare financial aid offers from different schools. This can be a drawback for students who need to consider financial aspects before making a decision.

Furthermore, because you must commit to the ED college if accepted, there is less flexibility to change your mind later.

Tips for applying Early Decision

Navigating the Early Decision process requires careful planning and consideration. Here are some tips to help you through:

  • Research thoroughly. Make sure the ED school is your absolute first choice. Consider factors like academic programs, campus culture, location, and financial aid policies.
  • Understand financial implications. Since ED is binding, understand the financial aid process of the college. Use their net price calculator to estimate your costs.
  • Prepare your application early. ED deadlines are typically in November, so start your application during the summer to give yourself plenty of time.
  • Seek guidance. Discuss your ED decision with your family and a guidance counselor to ensure it’s the right choice for you.
  • Have a backup plan. Prepare applications for non-ED schools while waiting for your ED decision, as you will need to pursue other options if not accepted.

Colleges that offer Early Decision programs

Here are 10 colleges offering Early Decision programs:

  • Dartmouth College: An Ivy League institution known for its strong emphasis on undergraduate education and research opportunities.
  • University of Pennsylvania: A prestigious Ivy League university that combines top-notch academics with a rich history in Philadelphia.
  • Duke University: Renowned for its rigorous academics, cutting-edge research, and strong community spirit in Durham, North Carolina.
  • Northwestern University: Offers a unique blend of arts and science education, located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois.
  • Vanderbilt University: Known for its highly selective admissions, beautiful campus, and strong emphasis on undergraduate education in Nashville, Tennessee.
  • Cornell University: An Ivy League university with a distinctive combination of private and public colleges in Ithaca, New York.
  • Brown University: Distinguished by its student-driven curriculum and commitment to undergraduate teaching in Providence, Rhode Island.
  • Columbia University: An Ivy League institution in New York City, known for its rigorous scholarship and global perspective.
  • Emory University: Offers a strong liberal arts education along with extensive health and science programs in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Johns Hopkins University: Renowned for its research opportunities and medical programs, located in Baltimore, Maryland.

Early Action

Early Action (EA) is a college application option allowing students to submit their applications early and receive a decision well in advance of the regular admission timeline.

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Unlike Early Decision, Early Action is not binding, meaning students are not obligated to commit to a college upon acceptance. The purpose of EA is to give applicants the freedom to apply to multiple institutions early, receive decisions sooner, and still have until the national response date, typically May 1st, to make their final choice.

EA provides students with the flexibility to compare financial aid packages and consider different colleges without the pressure of a binding commitment. This option is particularly appealing for those who want the benefits of early application—such as receiving an Early Decision and more time to plan for college—without the constraints of committing to one school immediately.

Pros and cons of Early Action

There are pros and cons to consider with Early Action. On the plus side, EA applicants often benefit from knowing their admission status early, which can reduce stress and provide more time for planning. Applying early can also demonstrate interest to colleges, potentially giving applicants an edge in the admission process.

On the downside, because EA deadlines are earlier than regular admission, students must prepare their applications sooner, which can be challenging.

Additionally, while EA offers the chance to compare offers, it may not significantly improve chances of admission as much as Early Decision, since it lacks the binding commitment that shows unequivocal interest to one’s top-choice school.

Tips for applying Early Action

Navigating the Early Action process effectively can enhance your college application experience. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Start early. Begin your college research and application preparation during the summer before your senior year to meet EA deadlines.
  • Stay organized. Keep track of different colleges’ EA deadlines and requirements to ensure timely and complete applications.
  • Prioritize applications. Focus on your top-choice schools offering EA to maximize the benefits of receiving an Early Decision.
  • Understand policies. Be aware of each college’s specific EA policies, as some may have restrictions on applying to other early programs.
  • Seek feedback. Have your essays and applications reviewed by teachers or counselors to strengthen your submissions.

Colleges that offer Early Action programs

Examples of colleges with EA programs include:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): A global leader in science and technology education and research, offering non-binding EA.
  • University of Chicago: Known for its rigorous academics and vibrant campus life, it provides an EA option for applicants.
  • Georgetown University: A prestigious institution in Washington, D.C., offering EA to students across a wide range of disciplines.
  • Yale University: Offers a Single-Choice Early Action program, allowing applicants to demonstrate their first-choice commitment without the binding agreement.
  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech): Renowned for its small size and focus on science and engineering, it offers an EA admission option.
  • University of Michigan: Offers an EA option, attracting students with its broad range of programs and strong athletic spirit.
  • Boston College: A Jesuit institution known for its dedication to undergraduate education and community service, offering EA.
  • University of Notre Dame: Offers EA for students interested in its strong tradition of academic excellence and community involvement.
  • Princeton University: Provides a Single-Choice Early Action program, emphasizing its commitment to undergraduate teaching and research.
  • Stanford University: Known for its entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, it offers a Restrictive Early Action program, allowing students to apply early without the binding commitment.

Rolling Admissions

Rolling admissions is a flexible college application process where institutions evaluate applications as they arrive, rather than after a set deadline. This means that colleges with rolling admissions continue to accept and review applications until all spots in the incoming class are filled.

Psychology Majors at Johns Hopkins

A key characteristic of this approach is the absence of a hard deadline, offering applicants the opportunity to apply at various points in the application cycle. This process can start as early as the fall and continue through the spring or until the class is full.

Rolling admissions vs early admissions

Unlike ED and EA, which have specific deadlines and decision dates, rolling admissions offer ongoing decisions, providing applicants with a broader window to submit their applications. This means that while ED and EA applicants receive their admissions decisions on a fixed date, those applying through rolling admissions can hear back anytime, typically within a few weeks of submission.

Moreover, rolling admissions do not require the binding commitment of ED or the early submission of EA, granting students greater flexibility in their application timeline and decision-making process.

Pros and cons of rolling admissions

The rolling admissions process presents both advantages and disadvantages for applicants. One of the main pros is the flexibility in application timing, allowing students to apply when they feel their application is strongest. This can be particularly beneficial for those who improve their academic or extracurricular profile late in their high school career.

Additionally, the quicker turnaround time for decisions means applicants can find out sooner if they have been accepted, aiding in planning and reducing uncertainty.

On the downside, since colleges admit students on a first-come, first-served basis, spaces may become more limited as the application cycle progresses, potentially reducing chances for later applicants.

Furthermore, the open-ended nature of rolling admissions may lead to procrastination, with some students delaying their application submission, which could disadvantage them if spaces fill up quickly.

Tips for applying to schools with rolling admissions

Applying under rolling admissions requires a strategic approach to maximize your chances of acceptance. Here are some tips to guide you:

  • Apply early. Even though rolling admissions allow for a wider application window, submitting your application early can improve your chances as slots fill up.
  • Stay informed. Research each college’s process and deadlines to ensure you’re not applying too late in the cycle when fewer spots may be available.
  • Keep track. Organize application requirements and deadlines for each school on your list to ensure timely submission of materials.
  • Focus on quality. Don’t rush your application. Ensure it reflects your best effort, showcasing your strengths and achievements.
  • Follow up. After submitting your application, check in with the admissions office to confirm receipt and inquire about any next steps or missing documents.

Colleges that offer rolling admissions

Examples of colleges with rolling admissions policies include:

  • Pennsylvania State University (Penn State): A public research university known for its wide range of programs and strong community.
  • University of Pittsburgh: Offers a diverse array of programs and is known for its research contributions, especially in the health sciences.
  • Michigan State University: A large public institution with a broad spectrum of academic offerings and a global research presence.
  • Arizona State University (ASU): Recognized for its innovation in higher education, ASU offers extensive degree programs across multiple campuses.
  • Indiana University Bloomington: Known for its beautiful campus and strong programs in business, music, and the arts.

Students talking to their professor.

  • University of Alabama: Offers a traditional college experience with strong programs in business, communication, and engineering.
  • Rollins College: A private college in Florida known for its picturesque campus and personalized education.
  • Purdue University: Renowned for its engineering programs, Purdue offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate degrees.
  • Rutgers University: New Jersey’s state university, offering a comprehensive range of programs and a strong research focus.
  • University of Minnesota: Offers a diverse range of programs and is known for its research, especially in health sciences and engineering.

What are the key differences between Early Decision, Early Action, and rolling admissions?

Early Decision requires students to commit to attending a specific college if accepted, making it a binding agreement. In contrast, Early Action allows applicants to apply early to multiple colleges without the obligation to commit upon acceptance, providing non-binding flexibility.

Rolling admissions, on the other hand, offer a flexible application timeline, with colleges evaluating applications as they arrive until all spots are filled.

One key difference lies in the level of commitment required from applicants. Early Decision applicants must commit to attending the college if accepted, whereas Early Action and rolling admissions offer greater flexibility without the binding commitment.

Another difference is in the application timeline and decision notification process. Early Decision and Early Action have specific application deadlines and decision dates, while rolling admissions offer ongoing decisions, typically with no fixed deadline.

What should I choose between Early Decision, Early Action, and rolling admissions?

If you have a clear top-choice college and are ready to commit, Early Decision might be the right option for you, as it demonstrates strong interest and can potentially improve admission chances. However, if you prefer to keep your options open and apply to multiple colleges early, Early Action offers the flexibility to do so without the binding commitment.

Alternatively, if you need more time to decide or improve your application, rolling admissions provide a flexible timeline for submission, though it’s advisable to apply earlier for better chances. Consider your priorities, preferences, and readiness to commit when choosing between these application options.

Ultimately, the best choice for you will depend on your individual circumstances and goals in the college admissions process.

What are the common myths about rolling admissions?

Rolling admissions are often surrounded by misconceptions that can influence students’ application strategies. One common myth is that applying later in the rolling admissions cycle significantly decreases your chances of acceptance. However, while it’s advisable to apply earlier to secure a spot, colleges continue to review applications until all spots are filled.

Another misconception is that rolling admissions are less competitive than Early Action or Early Decision. In reality, the level of competition can vary depending on the college and the strength of the applicant pool.

Additionally, there’s a misconception that rolling admissions colleges have lower academic standards. However, colleges with rolling admissions maintain the same academic rigor as those with other admission processes. They evaluate applicants holistically, considering factors beyond academic performance.

What impact does applying early have on my admission chances?

Early Decision applicants typically have a higher acceptance rate compared to Regular Decision applicants, as colleges seek to fill a significant portion of their class with committed students. Early Action can also enhance admission chances by demonstrating interest and dedication to the college.

However, while applying early can increase the likelihood of acceptance, it’s essential to consider whether it aligns with your readiness to commit to a particular institution.

Taking an exam

Moreover, applying early allows colleges to manage their yield and shape their incoming class more effectively. They can assess their applicant pool earlier and make strategic decisions to achieve their enrollment goals.

It’s crucial to note, though, that while applying early may increase the chances of acceptance, it doesn’t guarantee admission. Applicants must still meet the college’s academic and extracurricular standards to be considered competitive candidates.

How do I handle multiple admissions offers when applying early?

When facing multiple admissions offers from early application processes like Early Decision and Early Action, it’s essential to carefully weigh your options. Start by comparing factors such as financial aid packages, academic programs, campus culture, and location to determine which college aligns best with your goals and preferences.

Once you’ve evaluated your options, make a list ranking your preferences and identifying your top-choice college. If you’ve been accepted to multiple schools through EA or RD, remember that you’re not obligated to commit immediately. Take the time to review each offer and gather additional information if needed.

If you’ve been accepted ED, it’s crucial to honor the binding agreement and withdraw your applications from other colleges. However, if your financial situation has changed significantly, you may be able to request to be released from the ED agreement.


Understanding the nuances of Early Action, Early Decision, and rolling admissions is pivotal in the college application process. By discerning these differences and sidestepping common pitfalls, applicants can enhance their chances of success.

Remember, thorough research, timely preparation, and commitment to your goals are essential. So, approach your college aspirations with confidence and determination.


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