How to Choose Between Early Action and Early Decision

When applying to college, there are a range of application timelines and options to choose from, depending on the school and its selectivity. Generally it is okay to apply regular decision, which generally occurs late fall to early winter. However, if you’d like to get a leg up on other candidates, find out your application status early, and have the time and desire to do so, consider applying early action or early decision. If you’re unsure of which option you should pursue, here are a few guidelines on how to choose between early action and early decision.

1. How strongly do you feel about a specific school?

If you’re dead-set on a specific school, apply early decision if it’s offered. Early decision locks you into attending the school once you’re admitted, so you’d need to withdraw and/or decline other offers of admission. This option is desirable if you’d like to be over and done with the application process, and more importantly, if you feel strongly about one school. Keep in mind that you can only apply early decision at one school, which means you’re prioritizing it over others.   

Alternatively, apply early action if you’re interested in a school, but don’t want to make your choice right then. This would give you time to plan a campus visit, get in contact with current students or professors, and ask advice of people who know you and whom you trust. It’s also a more appropriate path to take if you have a few schools you like, but can’t decide between them.

2. Are you looking for financial assistance?

If you’re asking questions about financial aid and seeking financial assistance, whether through scholarships or FAFSA, early action might be better for you. Offers of financial assistance often are not made until the regular decision season is over, and sometimes, even later in the spring. If you have your heart set on one school, but don’t have the means to pay for it, early decision might be tempting – however, it will commit you to the school before you know all of your financial options. In that case, it may be wiser to apply early action so you can still look for and hear back from scholarship opportunities.

This advice is most relevant to students whose ACT and SAT scores, grades, and qualifications are high. If you are hoping to bring your grades up in the first semester of your senior year, you may want to wait to apply regular decision.

3. Which schools offer which option?

Not all schools offer early action or early decision. For example, your dream school might have early action as an option, while other schools you feel lukewarm about may offer early decision. In such a situation, you might see these as reasons not to apply early decision. You can apply all early action if you’d like, or apply for other schools later during regular decision. Also, some schools offer a single-choice early admission, which means you can only apply early to that school. Check with the specific school about their policies; it varies from school to school, and you don’t want to have missed out because of the fine print.

As you decide whether to apply early action or early decision, keep in mind that you may change your mind during the application process as you learn more about the school, yourself, and your wants and needs as a college student. Ask your current teachers, your school counselor, an older friend, or a family member for insight.