With early decision and early action letters from colleges arriving in applicants’ mailboxes or on the way, this is a good time to review the basics of what early decision and early action programs mean.

An Overview of the Basics

  • Early decision plans are binding. Students who have applied early decision to one college and been accepted there may not apply to other colleges. (Note that students who opt to apply early decision may apply to only one school.) If students have not been accepted early decision or have been placed on a waiting list for admission, however, they are free to apply to other colleges through the regular admissions process.
  • Early action plans are nonbinding. Students who have been accepted via early action still have until May 1st to accept or turn down the offer. (That’s the standard reply date that colleges customarily require to claim a place in their incoming classes.) And bear in mind that students can apply to more than one college via early action – or can apply early action to only some of the colleges on their list.

In-Depth Information on How the Programs Operate

Here is more detailed info on how the two plans work.

Early Decision Applicants . . .

  • Apply early (usually in November) to only one college.
  • Receive an admission decision from the college in advance of the usual notification date, usually in December.
  • Commit to attend the college if they are accepted and have been offered a financial aid package that their family considers adequate.

Early Action Applicants . . .

  • Also apply early (usually in November), but may apply to more than one college.
  • Can expect to get an admission decision (either yes or no) in January or February.
  • Do not have to commit to attending early action colleges until May 1st (the customary date to accept or turn down all college offers of admission).
  • Are free to apply to as many colleges as they wish, under those schools’ early action or regular admission schedules.
  • Give the college a decision no later than May 1, the national response date. Of course, applicants are free to accept offers of admission earlier if they want to, at any time after they receive them.

Some Cautions and Caveats

Even though the guidelines above spell out how both programs work, it is a good idea to read and understand each college’s requirements, which can vary in important ways.

And please remember that applying either early decision or early action can impact on other parts of the admissions process. For example, students who are applying either early decision or early action generally have to take both SAT and SAT Subject Tests in October or earlier, so their scores can be reviewed by college admissions committees before they decide whom to admit. And students will have to plan to get letters of recommendation early.

And then there is the fact that even though a student is free to accept multiple offers of admission (through either Early Action or the regular admission process), it costs money to accept them. Colleges generally charge an enrollment fee (which is later applied toward tuition), a housing deposit (if applicable) and an orientation fee. In general, those fees are not refundable. So chances are you will only want to pay them once, to the school you will attend.

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