Early Decision/Early Action/Restrictive Early Action: What They Mean and Strategies for Using Them

By: Ashley Cole


For each year of your academic life, you may have mixed emotions about returning to school in the fall. You may feel excitement, indifference, or absolute dread. If this is your senior year, it’s possible that you are feeling more emotional than ever before because not only are you returning to school, but you may have some college application deadlines looming. Well, seniors, the fall is the time to make some tough decisions. I don’t say this to scare you, but the decisions you make will impact the rest of your life.


When I applied to college, we used paper applications. We hand wrote our essays, and we only applied to a handful of colleges. If you made an error, you had to start a new paper application. There was one plan and one plan only: apply by the single published deadline, and hope for the best. So much has changed since I, and your parents, applied to colleges. I received very little guidance from my college counselor, and to this day, I’m still not sure my letters of recommendation were ever sent. Since then, everything has changed. Today, nearly every aspect of the college admissions process can be tracked, calculated, predicted and confirmed.


In your high school career, you’ve most likely had at least one person ask if you plan to apply early to colleges. Your head may be spinning with terms like “early decision,” “early action,” and “restrictive early action.” You may be feeling confused about what benefits may come with each application option, so let me assist you in navigating these terms, your options, and why they may benefit you.


As a counselor, I’ve found ways to find strategies for each student to maximize their potential in gaining acceptance to their dream institution. So let’s talk about the early options for applications and what all of this means for you as an applicant.


Early Decision (ED): This is a binding agreement between you, a parent or guardian, your college counselor, and the school you’re applying to. You sign an ED agreement stating that if you are accepted to the institution, you will attend in the fall. This is a huge commitment, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Typically, the deadlines for early decision are between November 1 and 15, and students are usually notified of their decision before their winter break (mid- to late December). If you are accepted to this institution, you must withdraw all applications to any other universities that you applied to during this time, regardless of whether you applied early action or regular decision. You cannot leave applications at universities “just to see if you are accepted.” I spent over a decade in selective college admissions, and in the worst case scenarios, if you are caught doing this, I’ve seen both the early decision institution and the other institution rescind their offers for unethical behavior and breaking the agreement. 


This sounds intense, and it is! If you are thinking about applying early decision, this should be an institution that has stolen your heart. You should apply ED if you can’t see yourself anywhere else, and you know that your ED school is the best match for you and your goals. This isn’t a decision to take lightly. The worst approach is to think, “I’ll apply ED somewhere; I just don’t know where.” This is truly the opposite of what ED admission plans are intended for. But, if you found yourself on a campus that made your heart flutter, one that stood out among all the others you saw and left a lasting impression, this could be a great ED option for you. Another upside? In many cases, ED admission rates are much higher than regular decision rates. For example, you may find that your dream school accepts 11% of students through regular decision but has a 59% acceptance rate for ED applicants. This is a huge difference! Universities love a “guaranteed student,” a one-for-one admission option rather than having to admit eight students through regular decision in the hopes of yielding one for their incoming class. 


Early Action: EA is an option for many universities, where you can also apply in November, but the application is not binding. While you may not find that the difference in acceptance is as significant as those schools that have early decision pools, there could be key advantages here, including stronger scholarship and merit offers, a longer window to make your admission decisions, and the relief of having decisions in hand sometime between December and February. You can keep applying to universities, and you don’t have to withdraw any applications should you be accepted through early action plans. 


Restrictive Early Action: REA is a bit newer to the admission process, with many highly rejective universities offering this option. Essentially, if you choose to apply REA, you are not allowed to apply ED or EA to any other institution. You can continue to apply through regular decision programs, and you have until May 1 to choose from your REA or regular decision (RD) schools. REA is a way for a student to tell a college that they are your top choice without the binding decision that comes with ED. In many cases, this will not actually improve your chances of being accepted, and the acceptance differences could be as little as 2-3%. This will all depend on the REA institution that you choose. REA is also used for athletes, legacies, and other priority students, which may give the rest of the applicant pool a skewed sense of having better chances of being accepted. 


The exceptions to the rules of ED and REA are public and international universities with priority deadlines. You are entitled to apply to state or public institutions that offer greater acceptance rates and scholarship awards if you apply early. 


Finally, another thing to consider is if your application is as strong as it is going to be by November, meaning you are pleased with your grades, test score (if applicable), and overall profile. If holding off on sending your application gives you time to improve grades, test scores, or other application components, it may be wise to wait for the regular decision round. 


Our team is happy to help you navigate through all of these admission plans and find the right path for you. We at Great Expectations want you to succeed in the application process, and this starts with strong, polished applications and thoughtful decisions regarding the right admissions plan for you.