Does Applying Early Decision or Early Action Help?

By Alyssa Fields and Emily Brehe

As the college admissions process becomes more competitive at the nation’s top schools, applying early action (EA) or early decision (ED) has become increasingly more popular among applicants.

For the Class of 2027, Brown University reported a 10-percent increase in ED applications, while Dartmouth reported a 14-percent increase. The University of Notre Dame saw a total of 11,163 Restrictive Early Action (REA) applications, up 15 percent compared to the previous year.

In recent years, families have struggled to find ways to stand out in a vast applicant pool. As some schools shifted to test-optional admissions, application numbers skyrocketed at the nation’s most popular universities. Meanwhile, it’s becoming harder than ever to determine what makes the ideal college application.

One popular strategy for maximizing a student’s odds is to choose to apply at an earlier deadline. In this post, we explain what earlier application deadlines really mean for students and the reasoning behind the surge in early applications over the years.

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What Does It Mean To Apply Early For College?

Applying early means choosing an earlier application deadline. Sometimes, this means accepting certain conditions if accepted, which we explain more in the next section of this article. Usually, early college application deadlines fall in October or November, but this can vary depending on the college or the degree program to which you apply.

There is no standardized deadline for all universities, but November 1 is a popular EA or ED deadline among the top 150. However, it’s important to do your due diligence and keep close track of deadlines for each of the schools on your college list.

The greatest benefit of applying early, aside from a smaller applicant pool, is receiving your admission early. The time between the application deadline and the acceptance letter is usually about a month. Rather than having to wait until March or later like you would with a regular decision, you’ll typically know if you got in before the end of the year.

The ability to spend your last semester of high school stress-free is appealing to a large number of students. But keep in mind that decision dates can vary, and there’s always the possibility that a school defers your application to regular decision. (A deferral means that the college will make a decision at a later date. If you apply early, this usually means their decision will arrive when regular decisions are sent in the spring.)

There is no preferential treatment given to early applicants. However, the number of applications received for early action and early decision is typically smaller. With less applications to comb over, admissions counselors may have more time to review your application. However, the level of merit tends to be especially high for early applicants. These are students who have planned ahead, so it’s likely that they’ve spent the extra time and given special attention to detail when working on their applications.

Early Action vs. Early Decision

It’s important to know the definitions of early action, early decision, and restrictive early action. There are critical differences.

  • Applying early action is non-binding. Accepted students will have the opportunity to weigh their options before making a final decision.
  • Applying early decision is binding. Accepted students have already agreed to attend the college before acceptance.
  • Applying restrictive early action (also called single-choice early action) is non-binding, but it requires students to sign an agreement stating that they will only apply early to one college.

Yes, we know that it’s strange. Colleges ask students to agree to attend or limit other options without having a clear picture of cost and financial aid. Primarily, they want to know that you’re serious about attending. But depending on your financial situation and how much you love a specific college, you may consider making this decision.

Here are some other noteworthy aspects of the two options:

When to Consider Early Action

Early action allows students to receive other acceptance letters, assess varying financial aid offers, and take more time to determine which school is their perfect match. This choice is beneficial if you are prepared to apply early.

Restrictive early action is similar to early action in that it’s non-binding. However, the main difference is that restrictive early action requires you to agree to apply early to only one college. If you go against this agreement and decide to submit early applications to multiple universities, a university may retract your acceptance. Ideally, you’d choose this option if you have a top choice in mind and are adequately prepared for submitting your application at the earlier deadline.

These deadlines’ non-binding formats allow students to take last-minute campus visits, discuss important decisions with family, and determine what is best for their financial future. Think of it this way—you are just acting early. You are not deciding early.

When to Consider Early Decision

Early decision is a binding  If you receive an early decision acceptance letter, you are required to enroll and withdraw applications to other schools. This tends to be outlined in a contract that is signed by the student, their parents, and a school guidance counselor. In other words, you are deciding early.

Additionally, Common App® grants you one early decision application, so it’s important to be confident about your decision. If a school discovers you have submitted more than one early decision application to a variety of schools after admitting you, they can retract their offer.

The only way to withdraw your application after an early decision acceptance is if their financial aid offer is unsatisfactory or not what you expected, but each agreement is different. Read over it carefully! Many times you will not know your official financial aid offer until after your acceptance letter arrives.

Early decision is recommended most often for families who can easily afford the cost of attending the college in question, have a top choice in mind, and feel adequately prepared for admission.

While the risks of an early decision application may seem high, it also allows you to show a school your dedication and loyalty. If you feel you are a great candidate for your dream school, then an early decision may be the right choice for you. But only choose this route if there’s an obvious top choice, regardless of cost.

Is It Better to Apply Early or Regular Decision?

Well, it depends. Some students have extracurriculars and tough courses during the fall of senior year, so it’s not easy for them to commit to an early application deadline. There are many complex pieces of a college application, such as the essays. It’s better to give yourself time to perfect each piece rather than submit a half-baked application.

On the other hand, planning ahead can be beneficial. Many former KD students who have chosen to apply early confess that it is a relief to know where you will be attending school earlier. Regular decisions can arrive as late as April of senior year, while early decisions usually hit the inbox in December. Aside from the abundant stress relief, deciding earlier allows students early access to orientation dates, housing options, and financial aid resources.

Does Applying Early Increase Your Chances of Acceptance?

While the data doesn’t show an obvious benefit to applying early in general, there may be implied benefits. If you are not qualified for a specific university, applying early likely will not increase your chances of being accepted. For strong candidates applying to reach schools, choosing an early deadline may make your application slightly more attractive.

To summarize, applying early on its own is not a secret entrance to the nation’s top schools. But if you have great grades, high test scores, and participate in extracurriculars, applying early and showing your interest could be what pushes your application into the accepted pile.

Is Applying Early Becoming More Popular?

Since 2018, many schools have seen an increase in the number of early applications. Dartmouth announced a 45-percent increase in early applications over the past three years. Duke, Northwestern, and Notre Dame all witnessed over a 50-percent increase in the amount of early action applications received. Ivy League schools have seen more than a 25-percent increase in early action applications, with Harvard seeing the largest increase at 48.2 percent.

While universities continue to see a climb in their EA/ED applications, acceptance rates for early action and decision applicants have not significantly increased. In fact, many colleges have reported that early acceptance rates have dropped in recent years.

Below are a few of the early admission rates for the Class of 2027 at popular colleges:

  • Harvard University, Restrictive Early Action: 7.6%
  • Yale University, Restrictive Early Action: 10%
  • Brown University, Early Decision: 12.9%
  • Dartmouth College, Early Decision: 19%
  • Duke University, Early Decision: 16.5%
  • Vanderbilt University, Early Decision: 15.7%
  • Rice University, Early Decision: 15.2%

Overall, most colleges in the top 50 have higher acceptance rates for their EA/ED application rounds than their overall admissions rates, which suggests that applying early could lead to better outcomes for qualified students. However, these statistics only examine the early applicant pool and do not take into account regular decision applications, which tends to be the most popular deadline.

Colleges have also reported record-low early admittance rates for the Class of 2027. In other words, we’ve seen a drop in early admission rates that correlates with the recent growth in popularity.

Since 2018, many schools have decided to stop releasing early admissions data. This list includes Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M, UCLA, among others.

Should I Choose to Apply Early?

The college admissions process is stressful. Ultimately, the decision to apply early is up to you. Trust yourself and do your research. We urge all students to consider applying early. If you need extra help, here is a breakdown of all the pros and cons of applying early.

Pros

  • The applicant pool is much smaller when you apply early.
  • Several colleges have higher admission rates during their early application cycle.
  • Students admitted earlier have earlier access to scheduling and housing resources.
  • Applying early means you receive acceptance letters early too. Early-admitted students can enjoy their final semester of high school without the anxiety of waiting for acceptance letters.

Cons

  • The applicant pool, though smaller, is very competitive.
  • Accepting an early decision enrollment offer prevents you from comparing financial aid packages.
  • Applying early requires a greater long-term commitment and requires good time management.
  • Some students who are accepted early struggle to maintain their GPA in their final semester. If your final GPA drops significantly, a college can rescind their offer even after you’ve enrolled.
  • Accepting an early decision offer and withdrawing all other applications can close the door on other opportunities.

Should I Apply Early For Competitive Degree Programs Or Scholarships?

It’s important to also note that schools sometimes offer earlier application deadlines for competitive degree programs, honors colleges, and scholarship programs. These are sometimes referred to as “priority” deadlines. For example, Texas A&M’s undergraduate engineering program offered an October 15th deadline for the 2023-2024 application cycle, which was over a month before the Dec. 1st regular admission deadline.

Your unique goals may require you to apply earlier than regular decision. Remember to research your desired degree program and scholarship opportunities at each college on your list. If you can’t find the answers online, contact the college’s admissions offices.

Need help with the college application process?

The college admissions landscape has changed drastically over the past few years, and it can be hard to keep up. Our college counseling team is here to help guide your family. We also offer the Apply Now! Boot Camp to give students a head start on their applications and essays. To learn more about our programs, schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.

Alyssa Fields is a marketing assistant at KD College Prep. Emily Brehe-Gunter is the digital marketing director.

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“My time and experiences at KD College Prep have efficiently guided and prepared me for my future educational career as a college student. Not only did KD help me with college entrance exams but also provided numerous informational seminars that helped me with the various steps required for college admissions. At KD I enjoyed learning from amazing teachers, who cared for each of their students individually and were ready to help wherever it was needed. Being a student at KD has also helped me figure out which learning techniques work best for me. The opportunity to engage in different learning methods such as small group interactive learning, larger group discussions, or individual practice are all ways that helped me come up with a learning... Read more...
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Tanisha P. – Class of 2020

My feedback can only be positive, given how much you helped me get ahead with my application process. I really appreciated how much work both of you put into helping me write the best essay possible, especially reviewing my essays twice to polish them completely. In addition, I have noticed that writing my resume has released a lot of stress off my shoulder when it comes to making sure I have all the things necessary to apply to schools.
My feedback can only be positive, given how much you helped me get ahead with my application process. I really appreciated how much work both of you put into... Read more...

Claudia A. – Class of 2020

“My favorite things about KD were the mirroring it had to actual test questions, the availability, and the relationships you built with all the teachers and advisors who made the process of learning easier. I think that after you started going to a good amount of classes and the workshops, you knew every teacher, and they were always available to answer any questions that you had...Everyone was just so welcoming and made learning more engaging for the students, especially with the workshops. All of had their own unique style of teaching which never made a class boring.”
“My favorite things about KD were the mirroring it had to actual test questions, the availability, and the relationships you built with all the teachers and advisors who made the process of... Read more...

Rishab P. – Class of 2021

“I want to thank both of you so very much for making this dream come true. When I first came to KD, I wanted to get a score of 1520 or above... So many people told me it would be impossible to reach my desired score. After months of using KD's methods my scores definitely improved but hovered around 1350—still not near the score I needed but closer. After finally working with both of you during one on ones, my scores started to see heavy improvement and while I didn't get a score of 1520 or above as a single score, I got it as a superscore... Read more...
“I want to thank both of you so very much for making this dream come true. When I first came to KD, I wanted to get a score of 1520 or... Read more...

David P. – Class of 2022

“It takes a village to raise a child—this is so true. KD College Prep staff have been nothing but uplifting to my child and to us parents through their eager attitudes to assist, in-depth guidance and unparalleled wisdom. I am in awe at the consistent level of professionalism yet genuine concern for each and every person that walks through their doors. Thank you KD staff for being great mentors for our children!”
“It takes a village to raise a child—this is so true. KD College Prep staff have been nothing but uplifting to my child and to us parents through their eager attitudes to assist, in-depth guidance and unparalleled wisdom. I am in... Read more...

Gloria D. – Daughter, Class of 2021

“I attended KD for the last 3 years, and I was blessed with the opportunity to take the SAT® test one last time last month. I got a 1430 on the test. I wanted to take the time to say I have finished college applications, and I would love to thank all the teachers and aides at KD for giving me the score that I got on the test. Without the extra practice, I wouldn't have been able to get through to the score I got. These past 3 years went by so fast, and it is so fun to look back at where I started and how much I have come out with flying colors. Thank you so much!”
“I attended KD for the last 3 years, and I was blessed with the opportunity to take the SAT® test one last time last month. I got a 1430 on the test. I wanted to take the time to say I... Read more...

Kareena A. – Class of 2021

“I just wanted to say thank you to KD for all the help and support you’ve given over the past couple years! I was able to get the scores I wanted for the PSAT, SAT®, and ACT® tests. The resources were very helpful, and the individualized assistance I received from teachers were what really supported my learning. Special thanks to Ms. Barwick and Mr. Hoffman!”
“I just wanted to say thank you to KD for all the help and support you’ve given over the past couple years! I was able to get the scores I wanted for the PSAT, SAT®, and ACT® tests. The resources were... Read more...

Advika R. – Class of 2022

“I shifted toward taking practice tests and going to workshops because I felt those were the best ways to apply the concepts (I was) learning in class. I started applying the tips and tricks that the teachers were showing me in class. In conjunction, those two things helped me raise my score a lot because I was not a math kid before KD or high school. The repetition and being able to practice in a non-stressful environment and simulating that testing experience is something that was very beneficial for me... “The college counseling team was super patient and honest about the work I was submitting. I know for a lot of kids, it’s hard to articulate who you are through 250-300 words. It was definitely... Read more...
“I shifted toward taking practice tests and going to workshops because I felt those were the best ways to apply the concepts (I was) learning in class. I started applying the tips and tricks that the teachers were showing me in... Read more...

Blaine W. – Class of 2021

“Both of my sons have been guided by KD College Prep counselor Steve Peifer on their journey to finding the right college for them, and we could not have had a better experience and outcome. My oldest son is now a rising junior at the University of Miami, and my youngest son is an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt University. Steve’s help in navigating the complicated college landscape and finding the BEST FIT for my two sons is what has made this resource invaluable. “What made the biggest difference for my two sons was the depth and breadth of knowledge Steve has of the many universities and colleges in the U.S. First, by getting to know my kids on a one-on-one basis, he was able to... Read more...
“Both of my sons have been guided by KD College Prep counselor Steve Peifer on their journey to finding the right college for them, and we could not have had a better experience and outcome. My oldest son is now a... Read more...

Julio M. – Parent

“My daughter loved the program—the program materials and the teachers both online and in person. She participated in a year of online and a year of in person. It was incredible enrichment and helped her keep her skills sharp over the summer. She liked being challenged academically, and she loved taking classes with high school students who were focused on their college goals. These students were also excellent role models! The lessons were especially important during the pandemic when it wasn’t a typical middle school experience.”
“My daughter loved the program—the program materials and the teachers both online and in person. She participated in a year of online and a year of in person. It was incredible enrichment and helped her keep her skills sharp over the... Read more...

Beth L. – Advanced Start™ Parent

test prep testimonial vyom
“I wanted to say thank you to all of the teachers and directors at KD for helping me get a great score on the SAT® test. I started with a 1250 on the first KD test I took, and I got a 1530 on the December 5th SAT test. KD played a huge role in this, and I just wanted to say thanks to everyone there for helping me achieve this.”
“I wanted to say thank you to all of the teachers and directors at KD for helping me get a great score on the SAT® test. I started with a 1250 on the first KD test I took, and I got... Read more...

Vyom S. – Class of 2022

"Our twin 16-year-old boys used KD College Prep to study/practice for the PSAT test, and we believe the classes and coaching were invaluable. Very professional and concise. Worth every penny!"
"Our twin 16-year-old boys used KD College Prep to study/practice for the PSAT test, and we believe the classes and coaching were invaluable. Very professional and concise. Worth every penny!"

Jerry – Sons, Class of 2022

mithra testimonial
“I'm writing to thank the KD team for all the help and guidance over the last couple of years! All the resources provided were very useful to me and helped me achieve the scores I was aiming for on the PSAT, SAT®, and ACT® tests (1520, 1580, and 34). I really appreciate everyone's willingness to be flexible and accommodate my requests!”
“I'm writing to thank the KD team for all the help and guidance over the last couple of years! All the resources provided were very useful to me and helped me achieve the scores I was aiming for on the PSAT,... Read more...

Mithra A. – Class of 2022

"The resources that KD offers have greatly prepared me for the college admissions process. Without KD, I would not have been this prepared and confident... I am a rising senior, and I ended up receiving a 1570 on my SAT® test (third time) and a 35 on my ACT® test (first time). I remember the first ever practice test I took for the SAT test was a 1230 (about 1.5 yrs ago) and the first ever practice test I took for the ACT test was a 31 or 32 (about 6 months ago)."
"The resources that KD offers have greatly prepared me for the college admissions process. Without KD, I would not have been this prepared and confident... I am a rising senior, and I ended up receiving a 1570 on my SAT® test... Read more...

Elise P. – Class of 2022

“I want to thank KD College Prep for helping both of my kids over the last years reach successful outcomes on their SAT® and ACT® scores, which helped them get into great colleges. I found the college prep class for parents very informative and helpful during the process as well.  My son (Jacob) graduated in 2018 and got a 32 on the ACT test. got accepted into Texas A&M but chose Baylor for Health Sciences.  My daughter (Morgan) graduated in 2020 and got a 1450 on the SAT test and a 32 on the ACT test. got into an Ivy League school (Cornell) for Engineering.  Both my kids say that they apply the test taking skills they learned at KD Prep to... Read more...
“I want to thank KD College Prep for helping both of my kids over the last years reach successful outcomes on their SAT® and ACT® scores, which helped them get into great colleges. I found the college prep class for parents... Read more...

Jon D. – Parent

“Coming into this whole process, I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and your help was invaluable—your encouraging words, strategic advice, and wholesome stories and jokes really got me through a stressful time! I'm still on the waitlist at Harvard and other schools, but I've really started to immerse into the Emory culture, especially their debate team. Not having to pay for college and still attend a private institution is really a dream come true, and it wouldn't be possible if it were not for you.”
“Coming into this whole process, I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and your help was invaluable—your encouraging words, strategic advice, and wholesome stories and jokes really got me through a stressful time! I'm still on the waitlist at Harvard... Read more...

Shreyas R. – Class of 2020

“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a good school will help me find my path. Also, Steve's knowledge about what colleges were wanting to see in potential admissions candidates was a huge help... “There was not one specific beneficial moment or turning point in my time working with Steve, there were many. He encouraged me during the entire application process and brought to my attention many colleges I wouldn't have considered or heard about without his help.”
“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a... Read more...

Jake W. – Class of 2020

"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."
"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."

Zarni, Daughter – Class of 2021

"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."
"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."

Claire I. – Class of 2020

"It's been super helpful, and I've noticed my scores go up both on my SAT®/ACT® scores as well as test scores in school... Overall, I believe this to be the best college prep that money can buy."
"It's been super helpful, and I've noticed my scores go up both on my SAT®/ACT® scores as well as test scores in school... Overall, I believe this to be the best college prep that money can buy."

Gopi C. – Class of 2021

"KD helped me come up with a game plan for the colleges I wanted to attend, as well as any backups, and how to manage my time during this stressful period. They helped to ease the stress and made sure that I would be successful in whichever college I picked, and I am eternally grateful for all their help and hard work!"
"KD helped me come up with a game plan for the colleges I wanted to attend, as well as any backups, and how to manage my time during this stressful period. They helped to ease the stress and made... Read more...

Omar S. – Class of 2020

"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by far the most concerned about. I didn’t know how exactly I should go about choosing which places to apply to and if I were to be accepted, if they would fit me. The team did a wonderful job considering my likes and dislikes and helped me compile a list of colleges that suited my tastes and would further my academic career. "After this integral first step, my focus turned towards time management and writing quality essays that would stand out to colleges. I got... Read more...
"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by... Read more...

Nina H. – Class of 2020

"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."
"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."

Morgan D. – Class of 2020

"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."
"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."

Tiffany – Son, Class of 2021

"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students wanting an edge on their national test scores!"
"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students... Read more...

Daniel J. – Class of 2020

"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."
"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."

Sam H. – Class of 2020

"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the help from amazing teachers and staff. I am so grateful for KD!"
"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the... Read more...

Matt K. – Class of 2020

"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."
"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."

Thomas D. – Class of 2019

"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."
"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."

Piper F. – Class of 2020

"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."
"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."

Kathy – Son attends Mizzou

test prep testimonial grace
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure out a personal plan that would work for her and were always available for our questions and helping her reach her goals. Every employee from the managers to the students working at their locations are top notch.”
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure... Read more...

Tracy – Daughter, Class of 2020

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

Prema – Daughter attends Rice