Discover everything you need to know about the different college application options so you can make the right choice for you
If you’re a college-bound high school senior, now’s the time to be getting serious about your college applications. You should be looking at upcoming college application deadlines and requirements to create a plan for the next few months.
One thing you’re probably noticing as you get organized—most colleges have several application options and deadlines to choose from. Should you apply early decision or regular decision? What about early decision vs. early action?
It’s hard to know which application options are best for you, especially if you’re not certain of the differences between them. You’re nervous about making a mistake and committing yourself to the wrong school. Or vice versa—you’re worried about getting denied through regular decision when you might have been accepted with early decision.
Well, I’m here to offer you some peace of mind. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about your early decision, early action, and regular decision options—so you can decide exactly what’s best for you!
What is early decision?
If you submit an early decision college application, you are making a promise to the school that you’ll attend if they accept you. This is different from getting accepted through regular decision—where you can actually turn down the admission offer if you have a better option available.
Most early decision deadlines are set in early or mid-November—just a couple of months away! And students who apply early decision will learn if they’ve been accepted, deferred, or rejected in December.
If your early decision application is accepted, you must withdraw all other applications you’ve submitted to other schools. Congratulations, you’ll be attending your dream college next fall!
If your early decision application gets deferred, that means it’ll be reviewed once again with the pool of regular decision applicants—so you have one more chance of being admitted. You can hold onto hope a bit longer.
And if your early decision application is rejected, you can’t apply again to the same college through regular decision. You’ll have to turn your attention to one of the other schools on your list.
Early decision advantages
So why would you want to apply early decision? One reason is you might get a small admissions advantage. At many competitive colleges, acceptance rates for early decision are a bit higher than for regular decision.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 20% of its early decision applicants in 2019, but only 7% of its regular decision applicants.
Another great thing about applying early decision is you get to know your admission outcome super early—before winter break even. If you’re eager to finalize your college plans, getting a ”yes” or “no” from your top college within just a few months can be a game-changer.
Early decision drawbacks
Applying early decision isn’t for everyone, and there are a few reasons why. First, your applications are due early, which means you have less time to work on your college essays, activities lists, and letters of recommendation.
Second, early decision acceptances are binding, so you won’t get a chance to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools. You’ve already agreed to commit to your early decision school, so it needs to be your absolute, 100% top choice.
Is early decision really binding?
What if you get accepted through early decision but change your mind? Well, the only official way students can turn down an early decision acceptance is if the college doesn’t enough financial aid for them to afford the tuition.
That being said, applying early decision doesn’t commit you to a legal contract, so you don’t have to fear a college taking any legal action against you. But it won’t look good for you to back out of an early decision acceptance, so make sure you’re absolutely committed before you apply.
Early decision vs. early action
While similar in name, early decision and early action application options are different in one important way—early action is not binding.
If you apply early action, you still receive an early admissions decision—usually in December or January. And at some schools, you can even get priority consideration for top merit scholarships.
But the cool thing about early action is you can compare admission and financial aid offers from different colleges before making your final commitment. There’s nothing wrong with turning down an early action acceptance.
Which is better—early action or early decision?
Early decision is perfect if you have an absolute favorite college. After all, you demonstrate your total commitment and may get an admissions advantage.
On the other hand, early action is better if you have one or more top college contenders, but you want to keep your options open or wait to compare financial aid offers.
Many colleges offer both early decision and early action options, so you have to choose which is right for you.
For example, applicants to Florida Southern University can choose between early decision and early action options. The application deadlines are the same, but you have to sign an agreement form to confirm your commitment if you apply early decision.
On the other hand, if you apply early action at FSU, you can still weigh your options and consider other schools before making your final commitment.
Early decision vs. regular decision
You might have a favorite college but still choose to apply regular decision for two main reasons—time and money.
Early decision applications are due in November, but most regular decision deadlines land between January and March. That gives you several more months to fine-tune your application requirements. After all, you don’t want to submit a sloppy or unedited college essay.
If you can’t put together the best possible version of your college application before the early decision deadline, it’s better to wait and submit a regular decision application instead.
Some colleges have started helping out with this problem, though. The University of Miami has two early decision options, and the Early Decision II deadline is January 1st. So you can take more time with your application, but still demonstrate you’re fully committed to the school.
The other reason why some students choose to apply regular decision is that they’re concerned about financial aid. Early decision admission doesn’t allow you to compare financial aid offers, so you want to make sure you can afford tuition before you apply.
Not sure if you’ll be able to afford your favorite college? You can use the college’s net price calculator to estimate how much you should have to pay after you’re awarded need-based or merit aid. It’ll help you know if the out-of-pocket cost is realistic for you and your family.
Final thoughts about early decision, early action, and regular decision applications
Every college applicant’s situation is unique. Applying early decision might be right for your best friend but totally wrong for you—or vice versa. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone gets to college by following their own special path.
Now you have all the information you need to determine whether applying early decision, early action, or regular decision is the best choice for you. Trust the process. I promise you can do it!
I’d love to hear from you! Are you planning to submit an early decision application? And to where?
Dr. Tucker established her own consulting business after a long, successful career working in higher education. Besides being an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), she is also trained as a Life and Career Coach through the Institute for Life Coach Training. She toured hundreds of colleges, networked with admissions reps from across the country, and spoken at national conferences about student success and college retention. Read more about her here.