Early Action? Restricted Early Action? Early Decision? Are you wondering what the difference is and what exactly these terms mean? Then read on! 

Two important ideas before we get too deep:

The biggest difference between Early Decision(or ED for short) and Early Action (or EA) is the idea of BINDING commitment. Early Decision is BINDING: a firm commitment to attend where you apply. If you get in you have to go (with one exception explained below).  Early Action, Restricted Early Action or Single Choice Early Action is NOT a firm commitment. These programs * may * restrict WHERE else you can apply early. However, you won’t have to decide where you go until May. You do get to find out, however, whether you got in EARLY, i.e. before most colleges will tell you their admissions decisions, and in some cases, even before all your applications are due.

Every school has FINE PRINT on these policies. ED at one school is not the same as ED at another. Always be careful to research the particulars of wherever you plan to apply early.

The decision for early programs is one of three: accepted, deferred, or denied. I.e. if you don’t get in, sometimes you’ll be rolled into the regular admissions pool and have a small chance of still being accepted. This is different from regular decision, in which you’re accepted, rejected, or waitlisted. Different schools have different deferral rates. Some defer 70% of applicants, while others may only defer 5%.


Early Decision is the most straightforward of these policies. Essentially, you apply early, typically by early November, to your dream school—one you would say yes to no matter what. Admissions decisions are usually mailed by December 15th. Early Decision is binding, so if you get in, you have to go. This is why it is so important to know that you have no doubts about the school you choose.

If you apply Early Decision, whether you can also apply to Early Action programs at the same time depends on the policy of the school where you’re applying ED AND the school where you want to apply EA. You cannot apply ED AND “Single Choice Early Action” (SCEA) or “Restrictive Early Action” (REA) at the same time. You can only apply to one school at a time in any of these three categories. That’s due to the restrictions placed on you by schools with SCEA/REA policies. These schools, as of summer 2018, include Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and Stanford. We’ll explain more about these special types of EA in the next section.

However, many ED schools permit you to apply to regular EA at private universities. If applying ED, always read the fine print. Some ED programs will not permit you to apply to any early action programs from any private schools. Early Action at PUBLIC universities and universities with rolling admissions** are still fair game in most cases. But again, always check the rules at the ED school you’re applying to. 

After being admitted to an ED school, you must immediately send a deposit and withdraw all applications to other schools. You cannot “wait” to see where else you got in.


There are two types of Early Decision: Single Round and ED I/ II.  Single round schools only offer one shot at ED, again with an early November deadline. These schools, as of 2018, include Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Other schools offer ED in two rounds. In addition to the traditional timing of ED (apply by early November, find out in December), these schools offer a second round of Early Decision admissions. These usually have a deadline in December or January. These programs are something of a second chance at the less competitive admit rates of ED if you don’t get into your first choice school, as well as a chance for students who need more time for testing or to gather application essays or other materials. So if you applied in the first round and didn’t get in, you can come back in December or early January (depending on the individual program’s deadline(s)) and apply again.

Schools that offer a second round of Early Decision applications include University of Chicago, American University, BU, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Colby, NYU, Pomona College, Smith College, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Wesleyan. Once again, the Early Decision admission is BINDING. If you apply ED, whichever round it is, and you get in, you must go.


There is one exception to ED’s binding terms: ability to pay.

If your financial aid package is not sufficient for you to afford your dream college, you can notify the school. In some cases, they may adjust your aid packages. But if it’s still not enough, you do have the option of dropping the school for financial reasons and continuing with your regular decision applications.

This is one drawback to ED: you can’t shop around in terms of financial aid or compare packages. If you apply EA or Regular Decision, you can leverage your financial aid packages against each other, telling other universities what you got from other schools to see if they’ll match your other offers. In some cases, this enables students to make decisions that are better for themselves or their families financially. With ED you get what you get and negotiation is more of a challenge.


**Rolling admissions is a process whereby colleges evaluate applications as they receive them rather than waiting until a specific deadline. This process allows them to notify you of their decision right away and keep going until they fill their admissions quota. Though you will have to withdraw these other applications if you get accepted Early Decision.

One downside to applying Early Decision is that they give you your admission and financial aid packet at the same time. This means you cannot review their aid offer or compare to other schools you got into or negotiate for more. The only way to get out of an Early Decision admission is if the financial aid they offer you does not realistically meet your needs. Many students will avoid applying Early Decision in the case that they might lessen the chance of a generous financial aid offer or cannot afford to pay tuition with what they have been offered.


Early Action is a more complicated term than Early Decision. There are many different “Versions” of EA: Restricted Early Action (REA)/ Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), Regular Private School Early Action, and Regular Public Early Action. Different schools have different interpretations of what Early Action, Single Choice Early Action, or even Restrictive Early Action mean, and the policies can be slightly different at each school, making the process even more confusing.

In general, you apply Early Action anywhere from November 1st to the 15th and will hear back in December, January, or February. Usually, the last test scores EA schools accept is the October ACT or SAT, but some will still accept scores from November (or even December). The biggest difference from Early Decision is that you are not bound to the college you get admitted to. Being accepted still gives you the opportunity to consider other schools and compare financial aid packages. You’ll have until May 1st to decide.

Another awesome perk of Early Action is that you can focus your energy on a few of your top picks. Then you can decide whether to fill out more last minute apps after knowing whether you have a guarantee of admission somewhere. Often, if you can get into a decent school before January 1st, you can ditch the backup school applications. This will save you both money and time.


With Restricted Early Action/ Single Choice Early Action schools (yes these two terms mean sort of the same thing), you can only apply to one school “early” that is in this category or ED. Boston College, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Notre Dame, and Yale currently have Single Choice or Restrictive Early Action policies. Essentially, this admissions plan was created by schools that saw the major flaw of ED as failing students who need to shop around for financial aid. So that school restricts you in a way that ensures it’s truly your top choice, without requiring you to commit until May 1st.

Most REA/SCEA schools will not allow you to apply Early Action at other private schools (i.e. which don’t receive state funding). However, you should always double check your individual school’s policies. Most REA/SCEA schools DO allow you to apply to any Early Action at a public university or to any school with rolling admissions. You can usually also apply to foreign universities or another Early Action school if you are required to apply early action in order to qualify for a scholarship. 

Some of these schools may allow you to apply ED II or late deadline EA program AFTER they defer or reject you. Yale, for example, will allow a deferred applicant to apply to another school’s Early Decision II program. For that kind of nitty gritty, you really must check individual schools’ policies.


Regular Private Early Action schools include The California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, Notre Dame, Tulane, MIT, Georgetown, Babson, Northeastern, and Villanova. Early action at private schools is more relaxed than SCEA/REA: you can apply to other Early Action programs as well. However, you cannot break other school’s policies. For example, if I apply to Early Action at MIT, I can’t also apply SCEA early at Stanford, because I would be breaking Stanford’s rules. Typically, regular EA confers less of an admissions probability advantage than SCEA or ED. Statistics vary school to school, so stay informed. Also, regular early action notification times are often later than those of SCEA or REA. Some regular EA schools release decisions in January or even February, rather than December. Again this varies school to school.

Regular Public Early Action schools are the most flexible and most widely permitted. Some public universities with EA plans include University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Virginia, Michigan, and Georgia Institute of Technology. You are typically still allowed to apply to these schools even if you apply to the Restricted Early Action or even Early Decision program at another school. However, most public universities do not release admissions as early as the private schools do. This means applying early won’t help you avoid filling out more applications. Still, knowing early can calm your nerves and applying early doesn’t usually hurt your chance of admissions. 


So the big question: Should I apply early? The answer is it depends on what school you are thinking of. Many students believe that applying early will decrease the number of people they have to compete against to be accepted, but each school has different admittance rates for early applications and regular.

In general, at elite institutions, early decision and early admit rates are higher than regular admissions rates. This makes ED or EA a smart choice if you really want a shot at one of those schools. However, some elite schools, particularly those with non-restrictive early action such as MIT, have unconvincing early admit rates. You should also research the institution’s admissions office’s advice on the matter as well as admissions statistics.

Here’s a quick checklist for if you are considering applying early:

Figure out your top choice(s) for college. You can read here about how to choose the right college for you.

Research the policies on Early Decision or Early Action and their admissions rates. Do you see a strong correlation with early applications and admissions? If so, by how much? What is the official policy from the school? Does the admissions office explicitly say it prefers early applicants?

Devise a plan for applying to colleges based on this information.