College Application How To: Early Decision, Early Action or Regular Decision?

Hello from the busiest part of my year. Over the past several weeks, I have been meeting with the majority of my clients and their families, helping anxious students and stressed-out parents with admission and scholarship deadlines, applications, essays, and more. During this time, a question that has come up over and over is whether to apply Early Decision, Early Action, or Regular Decision. The choice of when to apply is simultaneously of both great concern and minimal knowledge to parents and students. If you fit that description or are trying to make this decision, then this blog’s for you!

There are two important questions:

1. What do we mean by Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision?

I’ll start with the option that most students take and work back from there:

Regular Decision:

This is the normal process to apply by published deadlines no later than April 1st of their senior year. Many admission offices provide decisions before April 1st, but the student is under no obligation to make a commitment until the national deadline of May 1st. The regular decision pool typically consists of the largest number of applicants and the majority of students accepted are accepted regular decision.

Early Decision:

This is considered a binding process by which students apply early (usually by November 1 or 15) and receive their admission decision early – typically by December 15. In return, the student, parents, and school counselor sign a pledge that, if accepted, they will attend that college. The student agrees to withdraw all other applications and not accept any other offers of admission by February 1 which is often before the student can compare other financial aid offers. Early decision pools are typically smaller than regular decision pools.

Early Action:

This is a hybrid process in which students may apply early and receive an early admission decision. The student is under no obligation to accept the offer of early admission and can wait until May 1 to make a commitment to a college or university.

2. Which one is best for you?

This time, let’s start at the top and work down:

Early Decision:

Early decision is designed in part to reward interest in a school with an easier path to admission. Because applicant pools are smaller, the application process is often not as competitive as during Regular Decision. However, this does not mean that financial aid offers will be higher since Early Decision is considered a binding commitment. Since you have already committed to attending, admission offices don’t have to compete with other schools’ scholarship offers and financial aid will sometimes reflect that. However, early decision is also designed to help admission offices lock up their enrollment numbers as early and cheaply as possible and financial need is considered the most legitimate reason to break a binding commitment, so it is important to remember that the school doesn’t hold all the power. Essentially, apply Early Decision if you have a clear first choice of schools and if admission is a larger priority than financial aid, but be prepared to argue that the commitment goes both ways if more financial aid is required.

Early Action:

If a student knows where they want to attend, I would advise Early Action at any schools where they are not applying Early Decision. It is not binding, applicant pools are still smaller than regular decision, so less competitive, and schools know they have to earn the strongest students through merit-based financial aid. It is essentially the best of both worlds, so unless a student is very concerned about admission (and should apply Early Decision), or needs time to improve test scores and/or grades (and should apply Regular Decision), Early Action is the option to take.

Regular Decision:

As above, there is only one reason to apply regular decision: if you feel that your test scores or grades are so low that you feel they must improve before you can be considered for admission. If not, then there is no incentive to apply later when applicant pools are larger and more competitive and merit-based awards have often been decided or expended. Moreover, you have less time to compare options or work with admission offices if you have greater financial need than is offered. With that in mind, think about when to apply now. If you decide to apply Regular Decision, do so because it will improve your admission chances, not simply because you waited too late.

If you have any questions about your own admission timetable, please feel free to reach out at! Next time, admission essays!