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Early decision vs. early action vs. regular decision: Which is right for you?

interstride logo by Interstride
May 18, 2023

There are several different ways to apply to colleges and universities in the US. Choosing to apply for early decision or early action versus regular decision has its advantages and disadvantages. Before you can determine which is right for you, you must understand each option.

Early action and early decision allow you to apply for a college or university early and therefore receive an admissions decision earlier in the year. The information below is general and may vary by college or university. Check the school’s admissions page for exact details.

Application TypeApplication DeadlineDecisions NotificationResponse DeadlineBinding or Non-BindingCan Apply to 1 or More
Early ActionNovember 1 or November 15Around mid-DecemberMay 1Non-bindingCan apply to many schools
Early DecisionNovember 1 or November 15Usually DecemberUsually FebruaryBindingCan only apply to 1 school
Regular DecisionMid-December to Mid-JanuaryMid to late MarchMay 1Non-bindingCan apply to many schools

Many US colleges and universities offer early action or early decision in addition to regular decision. Some schools such as the University of Chicago and Northeastern University offer both options. If both are offered, prospective students will need to choose one option when applying.

Some popular colleges and universities that offer early action include:

  • Stanford University
  • Yale University
  • Georgetown University
  • Harvard University
  • Cornell College

Schools that offer early decision include:

  • Emory University
  • Boston University
  • Dartmouth College
  • New York University
  • Rice University

Advantages and disadvantages between EA, ED, and RD

When you apply through early decision or early action, you receive admissions decisions sooner than you would with regular admissions. Early admission decisions are usually sent out starting in mid-December. This means you can enroll in the school sooner and start preparing to travel to the US as soon as possible. According to Forbes, many colleges and universities also have higher acceptance rates for early decision and early action than they do for regular decision.

Early decision or early action applications give international students more time to obtain their student visas. They also have more time to ensure they have all the necessary legal documents to enter the US and have housing and transportation set up for their arrival. Some schools may require additional materials or documentation from international applicants so make sure to start early regardless of which application type you choose. Early action and early decision are also beneficial to the college or university. Schools want a good yield rate which is the percentage of accepted students that enroll. Early accepted applicants are more likely to enroll than regular decision applicants who applied to many schools.

Regular decision vs. early admission

There are several advantages to applying for regular decision over early action or early decision. With regular decision, you have more time to research and compare schools, so you are more likely to find the best fit for you. This includes extra time to visit the school’s campus or connect with student ambassadors and admissions officers. Because you can easily apply to multiple schools, you can also compare financial aid packages from the schools that accept you before choosing which one to enroll in.

Early action vs. early decision The biggest differences between early action and early decision are whether you can apply to more than one college or university at the same time and whether the admissions decision is binding. With early decision, you can only apply to one school. Many times, the admissions office will require signatures from you and your parents because early decision is a binding agreement. International students who are admitted via early decision must enroll and withdraw any applications they submitted to other schools. The only way out of a binding early decision acceptance is if the school is unable to provide the necessary amount of financial aid.

On the other hand, early action is non-binding, and you may be able to apply to multiple schools via early action. This is a good option for international students who have two or three top-choice schools.

Early Decision I (EDI) vs. Early Decision II (EDII)

Some colleges and universities offer two early decision deadlines. Here is a typical timeline for each:

Application Type:Application Deadline:Decision Notification:
Early Decision I November 1December 15
Early Decision II January 15February 15

There are pros and cons to applying through EDII. You have more time to complete the application while still benefiting from higher acceptance rates. However, it’s also a risk because the deadline will be after the regular decision application deadline. That means you will need to submit applications to your backup schools before you submit the EDII application. If the early decision application is accepted, you must withdraw all other applications.

How to choose the right application type as an international student

Early decision is a great option for international students who have a clear first-choice school and do not need to shop around for the best financial aid package. Early decision allows you to focus all your energy on one college application. Academically strong candidates who performed consistently at the top of their class with GPA and/or test scores may benefit from early decision.

Check the school’s admissions profile to see if you exceed the average GPA, class rank, and test scores of current accepted first-year students. Usually, you can find this information on the admissions webpage. If you exceed the admissions profile, you may have a strong chance of acceptance with early decision or early action.

Commitment level to a specific college or university

A binding early decision application is not a good idea for students who are still uncertain about where they want to study. Colleges and universities in the US vary greatly by location, size, and other factors. Where you choose to study could have a big impact on your future career opportunities, social experiences, and comfortability in the US. Research the town or city thoroughly before applying to a school via early decision since it’s a binding agreement.

Also, take time to consider what type of US school you want to go to – private or public. Private and highly selective colleges and universities often offer a binding early decision option. Public universities are more likely to offer early action. Visit Interstride’s blog to learn more about the different types of colleges in the US.

Paying for school and other preparations

International students who are open to multiple schools but looking for the best financial aid package may find it more beneficial to do non-binding early action or regular decision. Higher education in the US is not cheap, and applying regular decision ensures you find the best value.

US college and university applications often require a lot of preparation. You will need to:

  • Request your official transcripts and test scores
  • Write an essay
  • Secure multiple letters of recommendation

These things take time. For example, most teachers ask for at least two weeks to write a good recommendation letter. If the early action or early decision deadline is approaching soon, it may be better to wait for regular decision rather than rush through and turn in a subpar essay or incomplete application. Many early admissions decisions are final which means if you are rejected, you cannot reapply through regular admission that same year.

Acceptance rates and admissions standards 

Some but not all schools have higher acceptance rates for early admissions. Check the acceptance rates at the institutions you are interested in to see if it’s worth it to apply early. Acceptance rates vary from year to year. Additionally, some schools may have different admissions standards for early admission especially if the average profile of early admission candidates is higher than regular admissions candidates.

2022-2023 Acceptance rates for top schools

UniversityEarly Round Acceptance RateRegular Round Acceptance Rate
Notre Dame15.2%21.5%

Tips on how to improve your chance of success

  • Start early and plan ahead.
  • Universities in different countries may have different application timelines. Align application timelines when possible, so you can compare your options and financial aid packages.
  • Show interest in your top-choice schools by doing virtual campus visits, online chats or webinars, and reaching out to admissions representatives.
  • Check the previous year’s acceptance rates for each application type.
  • Take your time to write strong essays as they play a significant role in admissions decisions.
  • Request strong letters of recommendation as they also play a major role in admissions decisions.
  • Proofread all parts of your application carefully.
  • Contact the school’s international student office for additional instructions and support for enrolling as an international student.

Final thoughts on early action vs. early decision vs. regular decision

International students can apply to US colleges and universities through early action or early decision. Both allow you to apply for college early and receive an admissions decision earlier in the year. Early decision is a binding agreement, so if you are accepted, you must enroll and pay a deposit within a month or two. So, is early action binding? No, early action is non-binding. You can apply to multiple schools just like regular decision, but the deadlines and notification dates will be earlier.

The main benefits of early action and early decision are higher acceptance rates and more time to prepare after acceptance but before school starts. International students will appreciate this extra time to obtain a visa, secure transportation, and pay international student fees. Regular decision, on the other hand, gives you more time to research schools, complete applications, and compare financial aid packages. Interstride’s blog has more information on how to prepare to study in the US including the best universities for international students and the top-paying fields of study.