To commit or not to commit: The difference between Early Action and Early Decision

December 11, 2018

As college application season trucks on through the winter, many students are hearing back from colleges- and some are even deciding to make a commitment.

When applying for college, students often have three choices of how to submit their college applications. Regular Decision, the most common way to submit an application, has students submit in early January, and hear back from colleges in the months that follow.

For students who don’t want to wait that long, however, there are two other options: Early Decision and Early Action.

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What is Early Action and Early Decision?

These students apply during the fall, often throughout the month of October, and find out their admission status long before other students. Although Early Action and Early Decision applications are due around the same time- Early Action and Early Decision applications typically have to be submitted between early and mid-November.

According to the College Board’s website, the main difference between applying to a college using an Early Decision application and an Early Action application is the finality of the decision.

“Early decision plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend the college,” the College Board website said.  “Early action plans are non-binding — students receive an early response to their application but do not have to commit to the college until the normal reply date of May 1.”

Early Decision and Early Action are not meant for every student. According to Angie Barone, an admissions counselor at Dickinson College, there are a variety of factors that contribute to whether or not Early Decision or Early Action is appropriate for a specific person.

“It depends on the student’s situation,” Barone said. “The student who is far enough along in thinking about college to be ready to apply by an early deadline might be encouraged to do so because getting their decision and financial awards early is advantageous. But, for instance, the student who saw a downturn in grades in junior year and who needs to show improvement in senior year to demonstrate that they are back on track might want to wait for a later round in order to show more of the senior year grades.”

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Committing early on: Applying Early Decision

Although many students want time to decide where they want to go to college, some already know exactly where they want to go, and want to commit as early as possible. Early Decision, which is a binding contract that requires students to attend a school if they are admitted, is how many students with this mindset apply.

“Students apply early decision because they’ve come to a clear decision about where they want to be,” said Barone. “There can also be benefits in the acceptance rates in early decision—they are often higher than in other rounds—but the decision to commit to early decision really relies on a confidence that that particular college is the student’s first choice.”

One major downside to applying Early Decision is the negative impact backing out has on a student’s chances for admission elsewhere. Backing out of an Early Decision acceptance agreement can result in negative consequences for the student, according to the U.S. News article “What Happens to Students Who Back Out of Early Decision Offers.”

“The early decision agreement is not legally binding and the school wouldn’t go after the student for tuition, but there could be other consequences,” the article said. “If, for instance, they found out a student somehow had applied to two different places early decision, or even another early action and the student had broken the early decision agreement, [Richard Nesbitt, an admissions counselor at Williams College] says they’d call the other schools and the student would risk losing both acceptances.”

For students who do not plan on backing out of the agreement, however, Early Decision can be a good option, one that students can choose for a variety of reasons: some apply so that they can commit to a sports team, while others simply like the school enough to know that it is where they want to continue their education.

Hannah Frick, a CHS senior, applied Early Decision to New York University so as to show the school how much she cared about attending.

“It’s always been a school I wanted to go to, and it has the second best film program in the world,” said Frick. “When I stepped on the campus, it felt like home. It was a very fast paced and liberal environment, and that’s the kind of person I am…I wanted NYU to know that I was extremely serious about them, and that there was no other school for me.”

Frick said that she was one of the only people among her peers to apply Early Decision to college.

“I think there were a few kids, but a majority decided to apply Early Action or Early Decision,” said Frick. “This is the school I want to go to no matter what, it’s my dream school, maybe they don’t feel that way about all the schools they are applying to.”

Students who applied Early Action and Early Decision are currently in the process of hearing back from their chosen institution.

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Not Yet Ready to Decide: Applying Early Action

For students who do not want to have to wait to learn if they are accepted into a college, but want  a little while to decide where they want to go, Early Action is an option for them.

Talia Clash, a CHS senior who was recently accepted by Susquehanna University, applied Early Action so she would know ahead of time whether or not she could attend the institution.

“I applied Early Action to Susquehanna University because I wanted to know whether or not I was accepted to the University earlier than [Regular Decision],” said Clash. “It was great to get the process behind me and be able to focus on school and other hobbies instead of stressing about writing applications and essays for college.”

For some students, there are downsides to applying Early Action. Reese Bower, a CHS senior recently accepted by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said he struggled with finishing his application so early compared to other students.

“I like holding off  and waiting until the last moment, and then it was like “okay, today is the deadline,” said Bower. “So, I had to do it all in one day.”

Although timing can be an issue for some, for many, the benefits outweigh the negatives. Bower also said that knowing where he is going to college is a major relief to him.

“Early Action is nice because it’s the second marking period and I already know where I’m going,” Bower said. “I already got my roommate, I had my room assigned. I have very little I have to do now. Everything is already planned, which is a nice feeling.”

The period of time an applicant has to decide on a college when they apply Early Action is a major benefit for some students, according to Barone.

“Students will often choose early action because they know the college is of interest to them but are not ready to commit to where they’ll enroll until the spring,” said Barone. “The later reply date also means that these students can compare offers of admission, scholarship and aid before making a final choice.”

This was the main reason Clash chose to apply Early Action rather than Early Decision to Susquehanna University.

“I chose Early Action over Early Decision because the deadlines are relatively similar, and the decision arrives around the same time as well,” said Clash. “However, Early Decision is binding whereas Early Action is not. I chose this because although I knew I wanted to attend Susquehanna University, in the rare event that something happened and I couldn’t attend for some reason, I wasn’t bound by my decision.”

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6 Responses to “To commit or not to commit: The difference between Early Action and Early Decision”

  1. Armela Ferhatovic on January 13th, 2019 6:09 pm

    I think that it is important that the differences between early action and early decision were explained. A lot of students get the two confused. I also know that a lot of students have considered applying early decision not realizing it is binding.

  2. Thomas K on January 14th, 2019 4:28 am

    The binding nature of early decision applications is definitely a heavy commitment. The freedom that early action gives is a nice bonus, and getting applications out of the way early frees up stress.

  3. Grace Colestock on January 14th, 2019 11:11 am

    I agree that the difference between the two definitely needed explained because I always thought they were pretty much the exact same thing. I think that both are very beneficial to students though, so they can get on top of things and are not rushing at the last minute to apply and figure out where they’re going to school.

  4. Zoe Spielman on January 14th, 2019 12:23 pm

    When I was applying to colleges, I avoided doing early decision and early action applications because I didn’t fully understand the difference between the two. Even though only one of the three colleges I applied to had early decision and early action options, I decided to apply regular decision because even though I would’ve known my admission status earlier, this college wasn’t one of my top colleges due to location and campus. Now that I read this article, I understand the difference between early action and early decision and wish I would’ve applied to the one college early action rather than regular decision.

  5. Evan Bates on January 14th, 2019 12:47 pm

    I really wish I had read this before I applied. I did apply by early action to Dickinson but it would have made things so much easier if I had been more informed about my choice. I think that I made the correct choice in this instance but it would have been a load off my back to know about this beforehand. Too bad for me, I guess but the cards have already been dealt.

  6. Dyamond C Jones on January 14th, 2019 9:08 pm

    I think it is very important that students are aware of the differences between Early Action and Early Decision. Many students fail to recognize the important difference and potentially run the risk of becoming contractually bonded to a university they can not afford.

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