The average applicant is fully-aware of Early Decision as a “card to play” in the admissions game. In that arrangement, each party makes a concession—you, the applicant give up your free-agency status, and the college, in many cases, grants a borderline candidate slightly better odds at receiving an acceptance letter.

Early Action, the lesser-explored early-round option, is a not as a straightforward of a transaction; it is less of quid pro quo than Early Decision. The applicant doesn’t give up anything and neither does the school. It is a maneuver where each side gains a slight advantage, which means it is certainly worth exploring. In fact, while a more subtle move than ED, applying Early Action may just be the perfect strategy to employ with an eye toward gaining an admissions edge at the school of your dreams.

What is the Early Action timeline?

Most EA deadlines are November 1st or November 15th, so you will need to get your application materials in order very quickly and feel pretty comfortable with where you stand academically (late bloomers may still need senior year to prove themselves in the classroom). A decision will typically arrive by mid-December or January rather than the early-April notification of the regular decision cycle. The potential solace of enjoying the holiday break with an acceptance under your belt can be pretty enticing. Heck, your whole senior year can be a lot less stressful when one of your top-choice schools has already offered you a place on campus next fall.

Restrictive or non-restrictive?

Early Action comes in two varieties, restrictive and non-restrictive, and knowing which category your prospective institutions fall under is an essential first step. One type of restrictive EA plan is called “Single-Choice Early Action” which means that you can only apply early to that one school in the early rounds in addition to any other public colleges/universities. Universities with this policy include Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. Schools like Georgetown and Boston College allow students to apply EA to other colleges but prevent them from submitting a binding Early Decision application anywhere else.

Non-Restrictive Early Action means that you are free to apply to as many schools as you like, just as during the normal cycle. The vast majority of colleges operate with this policy but it is always important to check out the fine print before submitting your application.

What’s in it for the college?

With ED, this answer is obvious—the institution gets to chalk up a surefire member of their freshman class and can worry a tiny bit less about their yield rate come springtime. With EA, an admitted applicant is under no obligation to attend. However, data shows that those admitted via non-binding EA are often more committed to the university and are ultimately more likely to enroll than someone admitted in the regular round (who is likely applying to a dozen other schools). Thus, EA does not provide the institution with anything near the level of benefit gained through ED, but it does offer them a minor edge in the quest to fill their freshman class with qualified, likely-to-enroll applicants.

What’s in it for the applicant?

It is a well-known fact that applying Early Decision often provides students with a huge boost to their admissions chances. Even after accounting for athletes and legacies who are frequent beneficiaries of early-round policies, there is still a massive differential at many schools between the ED acceptance rate and that of the Regular Decision cycle. For example, at American University 85% are admitted ED vs. 27% RD, at Middlebury it is 48% (ED) vs. 14% (RD), and at Washington and Lee it is 46% (ED) vs. 19% (RD).

The Early Action rates are not universally higher as with ED rates, however, they typically are more favorable than during the regular round. At some uber-selective schools, a fairly large advantage can be gained. UNC Chapel Hill admits 32% of EA applicants compared to just 12% via regular decision. At Notre Dame and Caltech, the EA admit rate is double that of RD. At other institutions, such as Babson, MIT, and UVA, the edge is negligible. Other large research institutions such as the University of Miami and Ohio State University sport significantly higher acceptance rates in the non-binding early round than in the spring.

If increased admissions odds aren’t enough to entice you to consider Early Action, there is also the potential to get a financial leg-up on your competition. While schools do not have different official financial aid policies for EA vs. RD, there is the simple reality that more money is stacked in schools’ coffers in the fall than will remain by the time the regular April deadline rolls around. Therefore, scholarship offers can sometimes be more generous to EA applicants than those applying as part of the normal cycle. Further, unlike with Early Decision, EA applications have the advantage of being able to apply to any other school they please if the offer of aid is less-than-satisfactory. This, of course, means that schools have more of an incentive to make aggressive offers to desirable applicants.

College Transitions’ Quick Take 

Our basic advice, when it comes to Early Action, is that there is very little downside and a fair amount to potentially be gained. You don’t need to make an irrevocable commitment, as in the case of Early Decision, and you might end up improving your admissions chances and walking away with more merit money. If not, you’re free to move on and continue shopping for the school of your dreams, having at least already gained the experience of going through the full application process.

To view the most recent Early Action admission statistics and how rates compare to Early Decision and Regular Decision at 100+ of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, click here.

Michael Trivette

A former admissions professional and adjunct faculty member, Michael knows firsthand what students need in order to be successful on a college campus. His experience in college admissions, enrollment management, intercollegiate athletics, student support services, student life and other areas, allows him to help students transition smoothly into the best good-fit colleges.