Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Admission: What’s the Difference?

There are so many important steps that are part of the college application process. Scheduling campus tours, narrowing down your final choices, getting your transcripts ready for submission and applying for financial aid are likely just some of the key things at the top of your to-do list. As you tackle each task, make sure you’re staying well ahead of the deadlines to apply.

But there’s more to consider than just the regular application deadline. Some colleges also offer early action and early decision, and there will be separate deadlines for each. Knowing the differences between these can make it easier to decide when to apply. And when it comes to early action, early decision, and regular admission, there are also some financial considerations to keep in mind.

Early Decision

If you’re certain of the college you want to attend and you’d like to secure your spot as soon as possible, early decision may be the best choice for you. Because early decisions are typically made several months before regular admission, you’ll want to ensure you make note of the earlier deadline and give yourself enough time to gather the required materials and apply. Decisions can be returned by the college in as little as one month after applying. With early decision, the main advantage is that you get the application process out of the way, and you could possibly lock in your top pick sooner.

One very important thing to keep in mind with early decision: you’re expected to attend if you are accepted. In fact, by submitting an early decision application, you’re entering into a binding contract. You can only apply for early decision with one school; although you can apply for regular admission to other colleges, you are expected to withdraw those applications if you’re accepted to the college you applied to for early decision.

The financial side:

Keep in mind that when you’re accepted through early decision, you’ll know you’ve gotten into the school, but you won’t typically get your award letter until several months later. You’ll want to be confident that you and your family can afford the school (even if you don’t ultimately qualify for financial aid) before you commit.

Early Action

Early action is similar to early decision with one critical difference: you are not required to attend a particular school if you’re selected through early action. That means you can apply to multiple colleges for early action, and if you’re accepted to more than one, you’ll still have a chance to wait and compare the different award letters before you make a final decision. Early action can be a good option for those who want to get the application process over with as soon as possible but don’t want to commit to a specific school right away. For example, if you’re thinking about attending an out-of-state college and you’re accepted early, it can give you extra time to start researching moving costs, housing options, possibly find a job, and so on. In the end, it can be a good compromise between early decision and regular admission.

The financial side:

Unlike early decision, you aren’t tied to one specific college, and you can apply to multiple schools early. You’ll still have the flexibility to make your final decision based on various factors, including the financial aid packages that you’re offered. While you may find out earlier that you’ve been accepted, keep in mind that some schools don’t prepare their financial aid packages any sooner for early applicants; they may wait and prepare them all at once with the general applicant pool.

Regular Admission

Many students prefer to apply for regular admission. If you need the time to decide which schools are right for you, gather your application materials, or you’re simply not in a rush to receive a decision, regular admission can be a good option. Regular admission also makes sense if you’re applying to a college that will grant you automatic acceptance – for example, if you’re applying to a local community college after graduating from high school or earning your GED, or if you’re transferring to a local state university from your current community college through a pre-arranged transfer agreement.

The financial side:

When it comes to financial aid and scholarships, the process is fairly straightforward when you apply for regular admission. You’ll just want to be sure to note any deadlines, as they can vary by school, and to complete the FAFSA as early as possible (even before you submit your school applications).

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