Does the Early Bird Get the Worm? Pros and Cons of Early Action/Early Decision

I typically spend most early summer mornings on my back patio as the sun creeps over the horizon. I’m always amazed by how—despite the dim light and dewy morning grass—the birds still seem to find worms, giving credence to the old adage.

As rising seniors anticipate the release of college applications, many are weighing Early Decision (ED) against Early Action (EA) and Regular Decision (RD). Naturally, there’s some confusion as to the implications of each, as well as ambiguity in the fact that not all schools offer all three options.

A (Cautionary) Word About Early Decision

Early Decision is binding. This means you can submit only one Early Decision application at the school of your dreams. Applications are typically submitted by November 1 and students get an answer in December. It’s the night crawler of all night crawlers for the early bird. If accepted, you promptly withdraw all other submitted applications and enroll in your Early Decision school. There is no opportunity to consider financial aid packages before committing. Are you feeling the pressure yet?

With this pressure comes the advantage that the acceptance rate for students is higher during Early Decision. According to the National Association of College Admission Counselors, it is 15 percent higher overall. Don’t let that sway you, though: Only a student who is 100 percent sold on their school of choice, and who also doesn’t need to compare aid packages, should really consider ED.

The Other Worm: Early Action

If Early Decision doesn’t pan out, there’s still an opportunity for the early bird. Early Action is a favorite choice of mine since deadlines are usually around December 1 and students get an answer in January. For many students, it eliminates the pressure of not knowing. The question, “Where are you going to go?” has an answer and they can move on to “What’s your major going to be?” Unlike Early Decision, EA is non-binding, leaving plenty of opportunity to compare aid packages before making a final choice by May 1.

There’s Always the “Regular” Way

Finally, for the student who got a slower start to high school and wants to continue his upward trend in grades to prove his worthiness before leaving the nest, Regular Decision may be the way to go. Deadlines are later, allowing an opportunity to submit updated transcripts, and maybe even test scores, from the first term of senior year. Like Early Action, there is ample time to compare aid packages as well as fit in another visit or two to find the best personal fit before paying the deposit.

So while the early bird often does get that worm, it’s best to proceed with caution. Keep in mind that overall college acceptance rates are at 67 percent, and there is ample opportunity to get into the best-fit college for you.


This article was written by Lisa Mader

Lisa Mader relies on extensive teaching experience, a master's-level education, and affiliation with some of the industry's most important accreditation boards to help college-bound students maximize their performance and find their best-fit college. Through her company LEAP, Lisa has helped countless families in the areas of test preparation, college selection/application, choosing a major and future career, and much more.


  1. leonard

    Hey. I wasn’t very clear about the financial aid part of ED.By “There is no opportunity to consider financial aid packages before committing.”, do you mean that all school that you applied for wouldn’t even give you any financial aid, or they still will, and you just cannot compare with others because it’s binding?

  2. LR

    @leonard–Because it’s binding. You commit yourself to withdraw your applications to other schools before the others even make decisions about admissions or aid.

  3. responding to leonard

    Hey leonard,
    She meant the latter – you are bound to the school you were admitted to ED and have to withdraw your other apps. So, if you do it ‘by the book’ you will never even be able to see what other schools would have offered you.

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