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Early Action vs. Early Decision: Know the Differences

This blog is part of a series on everything you need to know about “applying early”. If you missed part one, you can find it here

In that post, I dug deep into applying early decision (ED), sketching out the differences between an ED and a Regular Decision (RD) application and pulling back the curtains on the admissions calculus that makes Early Decision a win-win for students and universities alike. 

In this post, I’m going to look a little more closely at the other options students have to apply early, aside from Early Decision. As I mentioned last time, although Early Decision is the most commonly deployed early application programme, it is still just one of an often confusing and occasionally overlapping array of plans and schemes. 

So if you’ve ever wondered to yourself, “What is the difference between single choice and restrictive early action?” or “How do I know if I can apply Early Action or Early Decision to my top choice university?”, then keep reading, because this is the blog post for you!

Early Application Plans: from A-Z

The easiest way to think about all of these different plans and keep them straight in your head is to recognise that they exist in a continuum: on one end of the scale is Early Decision and the other is Regular Decision. Here, I’m going to untangle for you all the similarities and differences between

Early Action

Perhaps the second most well known option for applying early, Early Action (EA) is offered by a long list of universities – you can see a list here.

As you may recall from the last blog in this series (here again, if you missed it), the main ways that admissions plans differ from one another are: the due date of the application, the date that you receive your result, and the degree of restriction placed on you under the plan. 

Based on these parameters, Early Action sits almost exactly halfway between ED and RD. Here’s the breakdown for Early Action:

Application Due Date
EA, just like ED, is due early. For most universities, this means 1 November, but some deadlines fall a bit later, at the end of either the first or second week of November. 

Application Result Date
Again, EA is just like ED in this regard. Results of EA applications come out in mid December. 

Application Restrictions
Here’s where EA and ED differ. Whereas ED applications require students to make a binding commitment to attend the university if accepted under the scheme, EA applications come with no such restrictions. Just like regular decision applicants, students who apply EA are free to accept or reject their offers of admission, and can even wait all the way until 1 May, the national reply by date for college admissions, before informing the university whether they will enroll.

Single Choice and Restrictive Early Action

Out of all the early application plans, these are among the most confusing. First of all, despite the two different names, these plans are virtually identical, so you can treat them as mostly synonymous from here on out. 

Second of all, the fine print on the terms and conditions for these plans differs a bit from university to university, so double check with the admissions office at the university to which you are applying to make sure that you don’t run afoul of any rules you were unaware or unsure of.

Application Due Date
Just like regular EA and ED, Single Choice and Restrictive early action (SCEA / REA) applications usually come due on 1 November. 

Application Result Date
Again, no differences here. Applications you submit SCEA or REA will receive a response by mid December. 

Application Restrictions
Here’s where things get a bit funky. On the one hand, SCEA and REA applications do not come with any obligation to attend the university if accepted under the plan, just like their plain old EA counterpart. Similarly, you can also wait until 1 May to reply to an SCEA or REA offer of admission.

However, both of these plans place varying degrees of restrictions on you with regards to the number of other applications you can submit, and the admissions plans you can submit those applications under, as implied by the phrases “Single Choice” and “Restrictive”. For the most part, a student applying to a university SCEA or REA agrees not to apply early to any other universities. Some universities make an exception for other non-binding early plans, or specifically for applications to public universities. However, all will prevent you from applying to any other universities SCEA, REA, or ED.

Early Decision II (ED II) and Early Action II (EA II)

The trendy new kids on the block, these two admissions plans only started getting offered by universities recently. They resemble their namesakes in almost every regard, except for one crucial one.

Application Due Date
Calling ED II and EA II “early” applications is a bit of a misnomer. The main feature of these admissions plans is their later deadlines – in most cases coinciding exactly with the university’s regular decision deadline. Normally this falls in late December or early January, after the results of EA, SCEA, REA, and ED applications have come out.

Application Result Date
Here, these plans do earn the “early” moniker. Although submitting at the same time as most RD applicants, students applying EA or ED II can expect to receive their results much earlier – usually 4-8 weeks after submission.

Application Restrictions
ED II and EA II mirror their namesakes in terms of the restrictions they put on applicants. ED II applications are binding, and therefore you can only apply to one university under this plan. EA II applications are non-binding, and you can apply to as many universities as you like under this plan
.

Priority

EA in all but name, some universities offer what they call a “priority” application deadline. This still often falls either on or near the 1st of November and confers the advantage of a similarly early notification of the result of the application. The key distinction here is that some universities advertising priority application rounds might offer students applying by this deadline with added perks, such as preferential access to honours programmes, financial aid, and more. Applying priority to a university does not require making any commitment to attend, just as is the case with EA, SCEA, and REA.

Rolling

Rolling applications are in many ways their own thing, behaving in a very different way from any of the other application plans discussed so far. However, there are some key similarities, hence the inclusion of rolling admissions here.

Application Due Date
Unlike any of the other admissions plans mentioned above, which have fixed, singular submission deadlines, rolling admissions plans will have an opening date, but no predetermined closing date. Students applying under this scheme can choose to submit their applications any time from the opening date forward. That opening date, in most instances, aligns pretty closely with all the other programmes mentioned here – roughly 1 November.

Application Result Date
Like EA II applications, rolling applications do not come with a fixed reply date. They do, however, tend to come faster than RD applications – often after no more than 8 weeks.

Application Restrictions
Just like all the early action plans, applying to a university under its rolling admissions plan requires no commitment and places no restriction on you from applying to any other university.

Where rolling plans are really unique is in their admissions methodology. Under any other programme, all applications are considered together. However, rolling admissions works on a first come, first served basis. Applications are evaluated and decided on as they arrive. The result, students who apply earlier have a much better chance of acceptance than students who apply later, who have to compete for whatever places remain.

Which Plan is Best?

At this point, you may be wondering: “So now I know the difference between EA and ED and ED II and SCEA and all the rest, but which one will give me the best shot of getting into my dream school?”

Fear not! The truth is, all early application plans confer an admissions advantage. As the data below shows, even non-binding early action has a noticeably higher acceptance rate compared to regular decision.

This is a table showing the admit rates of early decision and regular decision for Class 2023.

Why is this the case? Last time I clarified that universities accept more students ED because that allows them to drive their yield up and their acceptance rate down without changing the number of applications, thus affording them an opportunity to climb the rankings, and by extension, an economic advantage. 

Although EA plans are not binding, they do tend to have higher yield rates than RD. Just because EA applicants can wait until May and ultimately say no, many choose not to, deciding instead to commit well before the deadline. This holds true in particular for SCEA/REA applicants, who have to forgo applying early to other universities in order to submit these applications. Hence the willingness of universities to reward such applicants with an increased chance of admission. 

ED II works on the same principle as ED, but with an added bonus: it allows universities to steal students from one another. For example, if a student applied ED to UPenn but was deferred, then applied ED II to NYU and was accepted, then that student wouldn’t have the opportunity to wait and see if they got into Penn in the regular decision round – they would have to withdraw their application at Penn and enroll in NYU instead – no ifs, ands, or buts. Thus, ED II acceptance rates tend to closely trail those of ED. 

Ultimately, all early application plans share one key feature: by applying under them, you communicate enthusiasm for and commitment to the university, things that universities are always keen to reward. For low commitment plans, like EA or EA II, the benefit might only add up to a 2 or 3% higher acceptance rate. But for high commitment plans, like SCEA, ED, or ED II, the chances of admission can increase by a whopping 15% or more.

Showing the difference in characteristics between early decision, early action and regular decision

Which Plan Can I Apply Under?

Having finally covered the full scope of the early application landscape, I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, “alright, I reckon early action is the right choice for me. Let me call up all my unis and let them know I’ll be applying EA.” 

Not so fast. 

Unfortunately, it’s not up to you whether you apply EA or ED at a given university. Instead, the university decides what admissions plans it wants to offer, and then you have to choose between these. And not every university will offer every plan. 

Furthermore, you are also bound by the restrictions inherent to each admissions option. Remember, ED and ED II applications are binding. You can only apply to one university ED and one ED II. Similarly, applying to a university SC/REA prevents you from applying anywhere else under the same plan or ED. 

Let’s use a hypothetical student’s imaginary school list to illustrate.

Say a bright, enterprising student with good grades, test scores, and accomplishments wants to apply to the following universities:

  • University of Chicago
  • Stanford University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • NYU
  • Boston University
  • University of Michigan
  • Purdue University
  • University of Illinois
  • Penn State

 

Here are the application schemes that each of these universities offer:

  • University of Chicago
    • ED, EA, ED II, RD
  • Stanford University
    • REA, RD
  • University of Pennsylvania
    • ED, RD
  • NYU
    • ED, ED II
  • Boston University
    • ED, RD
  • University of Michigan
    • EA, RD
  • Purdue
    • EA, RD
  • University of Illinois
    • EA, RD
  • Penn State
    • Rolling (starting 15 November)

 

How many of these universities can the student apply to early?

If our student was simply looking to maximise the number of universities they apply to early, thereby also maximising their overall chances of admission, they could put together an application plan that looks like this:

  • ED
    • University of Pennsylvania
  • EA
    • University of Chicago
    • University of Michigan
    • University of Illinois
    • Purdue
  • ED II
    • NYU
  • Rolling
    • Penn State
  • Regular Decision
    • Stanford
    • Boston University 

 

In other words, it’s possible for this student to apply to a whopping 7 out of 9 universities early! 

However, here’s where the problem arises: what if this student’s top choice is Stanford? 

Sure, this student COULD apply early to 7 universities, but SHOULD they? This is the question that I will tackle in the next, and final, post on applying early.

Conclusion

Ready to start assembling your school list? Confident that you know exactly what schools you want to apply to early? Or maybe you’re still a bit worried at the back of your mind about what happens if you get accepted Early Decision, but really, truly can’t attend for whatever reason. Or perhaps you’re conflicted about whether applying early is really worth the extra effort. 

If this sounds like you, then stick around. 

Next time I will resolve breaking down who should and who shouldn’t apply early, and how you can tell which group you fit into. 

If you need help right now though, reach out to us! We at IvyPrep are always happy to provide personalised, informative recommendations