Updated: May 24, 2020
For applicants, the undergraduate admissions process is about identifying and selecting prospective schools that match their desired criteria (e.g., location, selectivity, cost, majors available, etc.). A fact easily forgotten is that university admissions committees are also selecting individual students and to constructing an overall cohort in a manner corresponding to specific criteria.
For both applicants and admissions committees, achieving these goals is challenging—especially when parties have only one chance to reach their targets. Historically, colleges have implemented a "one-shot" model for reviewing applications, which we now know as the “Regular Decision” application deadline. Fortunately, however, colleges are more frequently using some combination of multiple admissions deadlines. Having multiple admissions deadlines—particularly the Early Decision variants—is advantageous for universities because it increases their “yield,”—the percent who actually enroll among those offered admission. For students, there are also numerous benefits provided by these different types of admissions, which are subsequently discussed in this piece. Here are the 6 most common "types" or "systems" of admission:
Early Decision I (ED-I)
Early Decision II (ED-II)
Early Action (EA)
Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA)
Regular Decision (RD)
Here are the typical dates for the application submission deadlines and for the admissions decision:
Admissions Advantages & Disadvantages
Starting with the more straight-forward types, Regular Decision (RD) and Rolling Admissions are exactly what like sound like. With RD, you submit all your applications around the same time (January 1st – 15th) without officially designating any as preferred. Rolling Admissions (RA) refers to an admissions window that’s much larger (~5-7) months than is typical, where the university admits students on a class size need-basis. The main advantages offered by RA are (a) an opportunity to still be accepted to a university when most others’ admissions deadlines have passed and (b) you’ll likely receive an admissions decision much sooner than is typical for other admissions types. Regarding disadvantages, waiting until other admissions deadlines have passed means a more limited pool of potential universities.
For Early Decision, you can rest easy knowing you are maximizing your chances of being accepted to your dream school. In fact, our analysis shows your chances for an Early Decision admissions offer often double your chances in Regular Decision. Here’s a link to our blog post on the topic. Also, if you get good news—accepted!—you’ll be relieved from the ongoing stress of waiting for the results from your regular decision applications. You may also save money if you haven't yet submitted Regular Decision-applications for other schools. If you aren’t accepted, applying via Early Decision arguably still carries benefits in that you can then apply to your second-ranked school via Early Action or Early Decision II. Basically, if you are accepted to your top-choice, that’s awesome, and if not, you’ve gained new information that can still be useful during your “Admissions Season.” However, the primary downside is that Early Decision is binding–meaning that if you receive an offer of admission you are required to accept it and enroll at that university. As such, you are required to withdraw all other applications (e.g., for Regular Decision admission, etc.) Thus, if you are not certain about which college you truly prefer, then I would advise you to do additional research and consideration prior to choosing this admissions option. A good rule-of-thumb for determining whether Early Decision is appropriate for you is to imagine—after being accepted at your ED school—how you’d feel to later receive an offer from another of your top choices? While not necessarily a disadvantage, the earlier deadlines will require you to begin planning, take SAT/ACT, gathering letters of recommendation, etc. earlier than for Regular Decision applications.
Early Decision II’s (ED-II) advantage/disadvantage profile is similar, but not identical to that of Early Decision I (ED-I). Regarding acceptance rates, ED-II’s are almost always higher than for Regular Decision (RD), but typically a bit lower than for ED-1. As such, if compared to ED-I, ED-II acceptance rates may be a small disadvantage, but compared to RD, ED-II still provides a considerable advantage. Overall, this is still a considerable advantage worth considering. Also, like with ED-I, you avoid the stress of RD if you are accepted and can start planning for your higher education goals a bit earlier. For students with strong Fall semester grades, ED-II—because of their later deadline—enables them to include this information in their application. Regarding fees, however, ED-II is disadvantageous compared to ED-I, as you won’t receive a decision on your application until you’ve already submitted and paid for your RD applications.
The characteristics of Early Action (EA) admissions fall somewhere between those of Early Decision (ED) and Regular Decision (RD). One advantage of EA and SCEA is that, like RD, these applications are not binding. As such, applicants have the prerogative of holding an EA offer while waiting to see if they are accepted at other universities. Also, like ED-I and ED-II, EA applicants find out whether they’ve been accepted earlier than on RD applications. EA acceptance rates are often higher than RD, but tend to still be lower than for ED. The gaps between RD & EA, and EA & ED vary across institutions. As such, it’s advisable to take a look at those specific acceptance rates at schools you are highly interested in. Outside of requiring earlier planning and preparation, there is no considerable disadvantage of EA when compared to RD.
A variant of EA, Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA) admissions share qualities of EA and ED. Like ED admissions, SCEA admission refers to an agreement stating you are only applying Early Action to only that one university. Unlike ED—and like general EA—however, SCEA admissions offers are not binding. SCEA is not as commonly available as EA. SCEA’s advantage over EA is that they tend to have slightly higher acceptance rates. By contrast, the disadvantage is losing the opportunity to apply to multiple schools at the EA deadline.
For many, the most pressing question is “How much better are my chances of being accepted via Early Action or Early Decision compared to Regular Decision?” In the following table, we’ve compiled data from a few schools for which EA, ED, and RD acceptance rate data are publicly available:
Note. ED refers to ED-I acceptance rates, not ED-II; EA refers to regular, not Single-Choice EA (SCEA).
These numbers appear to be representative of acceptance rate ratios more broadly. Using a bigger group (~100) of universities with only ED and RD data publicly available, we calculated a M acceptance rate of 45.99% for ED and 23.97% for RD. This indicates that applying ED-I nearly doubles one’s chances of acceptance over RD. For those who feel very strongly about a particular school, but don’t want to commit to a binding agreement, EA is also a great option. Its non-binding nature and considerable acceptance rate advantage over RD arguably makes EA the most valuable application deadline. Important to mention however, is that the specific patterns of admissions rates (e.g., EA vs. RD vs. ED, etc.) will vary considerably among universities.