Early action and early decision deadlines are here—this is the crucial difference

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This month, thousands of high school students will submit early action (EA) and early decision (ED) applications to colleges.

The deadlines for these types of applications are typically between November 1st and November 15th. Applying early action or early decision each have their benefits, but they're very different.

"Most people pair early action and early decision because of shared deadlines, but I find that the only similarity between the two is the timeline," says Ian Fisher, director of educational counseling at educational advising firm College Coach.

"EA is actually much more similar to regular decision, both in terms of the competitiveness of the pool and the freedom to choose from among a range of options once they've been admitted."

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Early decision, on the other hand, has an entirely different set of challenges and benefits, says Fisher. "ED is probably the most unusual and most restrictive admissions process available to students, and a student should only apply early decision if they're certain they want to attend a given school."

Here are the key differences between the two:

Early action

Early action applicants send in their applications in November and are notified in December about whether they were accepted, denied or deferred. If a student is accepted, they are able but not required to attend. If a student is denied, they will not be able to attend. If a student is deferred, they will be considered for acceptance during the regular application period.

One benefit of applying early action is that students are able to relax, knowing that they have already gained admission to a college as they apply to other schools during the regular application period.

The non-binding nature of early action is beneficial for two reasons. First, it means that students can compare multiple schools and take a few more months to make their decisions. Second, early action allows for students to make a more informed financial decision.

For instance, if a student is accepted by two schools, they would have the option of attending the school that provided the better financial package. Alternatively, they could use the more generous offer to negotiate with the more expensive college.

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Fisher says that applying early action is always a good choice. "A student should apply EA whenever they have the opportunity to do so," he argues. "It's a great way to hear back from schools two or three months sooner than you normally would, and it comes with no real restriction on your freedom to choose where to enroll."

Early decision

Applying early decision is a good choice for students who already have a good understanding of how they will afford college and are completely sure about where they want to go. Similar to early action, early decision applicants apply in November and can be accepted, denied or deferred.

The biggest difference between early action and early decision is that early decision applications are binding, which means if a student is admitted, they are obligated to attend. Therefore, students often feel forced to accept the financial aid package they have been provided.

Unfortunately, this means that students are unable to compare the cost of going to different schools and are unable to leverage offers from other colleges for more funds.

"I always encourage students to apply ED if and only if the school they've chosen is their unquestioned first choice," says Fisher.

Perhaps the biggest perk of applying to college early decision is that it can often increase a student's chances of getting accepted. "Early decision comes with a pretty big benefit for applicants," explains Fisher. "Places like Duke and Northwestern, for example, admit close to half of their freshman class in the early decision round."

"Of course, students shouldn't be so blinded by the advantage of early decision admission that they ignore that important stipulation," warns Fisher. "You're bound to attend."

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