The Difference Between Early Decisions 1 & 2, Restrictive Early Action, and Early Action

By: Caroline Koppelman

Early Decision (ED), Early Decision II (ED II), Early Action (EA), Restrictive Early Action (REA). All of these are ways students can apply to a school before Regular Decision. But, it is easy to get lost in a sea of abbreviations, overlapping deadlines, and indecipherable admission statistics. So we’re going to go through and outline the differences between these programs, what they mean, and the various deadlines.

When you apply to a school Early Decision or Early Decision II, it is an essentially binding agreeing that if you are accepted you will attend the school. ED applications are due in early November and most schools will notify of their decision in Mid-December. ED II applications are due in early January and students are notified in February. While applying ED can improve your chances, students should carefully weigh the pros and cons of committing themselves to attend the school if admitted. Students who apply ED simply to increase their odds of getting in or to get the process over with may be disappointed in December or unhappy with the school they’ve locked themselves into. The bottom line is you can only apply to one ED school, and you can apply only to non-restrictive Early Action programs. If you are admitted, you are prohibited from applying to any schools Regular Decision.

There are two types of Early Action: non-restrictive and restrictive. Both Early Action applications are due in November and return decisions in mid-to-late December. Both forms are non-binding, meaning that if you’re admitted, you are under no obligation to attend. You may still apply to other schools regular decision and make your decision by May 1st. The difference lies in where else you can apply simultaneously. Non-restrictive Early Action is just that: non-restrictive. You may apply to other schools Early Decision or Early Action at the same time. Restrictive Early Action prohibits you from applying to any other private, domestic universities Early Decision or Early Action.

Using one of TKG’s students, Joanna, we will examine the way these applications interact with one another. Joanna is an excellent student with a high GPA, strong SATs, and great extracurricular activities. The schools she’s interested applying early to are the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and the University of Virginia. Penn offers Early Decision, MIT and UVA offer Early Action, Harvard offers Restrictive Early Action, and Vanderbilt offers both Early Decision and Early Decision II. We can use the following chart to help Joanna figure out which schools she could apply to simultaneously: 

  Penn (ED) MIT (Priv.)  Harvard Vanderbilt (ED I) Vanderbilt (ED II) UVA (Pub.)
(EA) (REA) (EA)
Penn (ED) -- X X
MIT (Priv.)  -- X
Harvard X X -- X
Vanderbilt  X X -- --
(ED I)
Vanderbilt  X -- --
UVA (Pub.) --

Making a list or table of all the schools you’re interested in and their specific early admission program will help you figure out which schools have conflicting systems and which you can apply to. For example, Joanna can’t apply to both Harvard and Penn or MIT early, because Harvard’s REA conflicts with Penn’s ED and MIT’s (private school) EA. Knowing this can help her narrow down her list and pick the best places to use her early admission preference on.

These conflicting systems can seem understandably daunting and complex, and it can sometimes be impossible to know which schools you’re eligible for. But by familiarizing yourself with the process and keeping the different systems in mind when you’re exploring schools, you can ensure that when the time comes to apply, you’ll be in good shape.

  What it means: When it’s due: When you’ll hear:
Early Decision A binding agreement that if admitted you’ll attend. You may only apply to 1 school ED. Early-Mid November Mid-December
Early Decision II A binding agreement that if admitted you’ll attend. You may only apply to one school ED II. Early-Mid January February
Early Action A non-binding early application. You may apply to multiple schools EA and 1 ED school. Early-Mid November Mid-December
Restrictive Early Action A non-binding early application. You may not apply to any other private university Early Action or Early Decision, but are not obligated to attend if admitted Early-Mid November Mid-December