The difference between early decision, early action and other college admission options

A set deadline is not the only thing to consider when it comes to submitting a college application. In fact, there are several deadline options that schools offer. Some require firm commitments upon acceptance, and others welcome all qualified students with open arms during the application process.

To better understand what these processes look like, we’ve broken down some of the most common admissions options.

Early Decision

If you plan to apply and attend your first-choice college, this might be the application process for you. Students who choose to enter into Early Decision (ED) enter into a legal agreement with the school they will attend if they are accepted and withdraw from other school applications.

You will also have to accept the financial aid package that is offered to you and cannot appeal or negotiate for additional aid. The applications are generally due by mid-November with a decision made by December. Colleges try to either accept or decline early decision students as quickly as possible.  

Early Action

This is an early application process that, if selected, students enter a nonbinding contract with no requirement for school attendance if accepted. This generally means that students can apply to more than one school. Students will usually be given until the spring to decide, which allows for more time to review other acceptance offers and financial aid awards.

Some schools also have an early action option called “single-choice.” This means that you cannot apply early decision or early action to multiple schools, but there is no requirement that you have to attend if you are accepted. Students are given until around May 1st to make their decision, which allows time to review other admissions and financial aid offers.

Open Admission

Most two-year colleges use this application process. Sometimes referred to as “open enrollment,” students are accepted until the class is filled. There are no test scores or GPA requirements; the only requirement is a high school diploma or GED.

While the schools may not have a very competitive application process, they are great options if you are interested in eventually transferring into a 4-year college. Don’t procrastinate, even though it’s open to everyone, you can still miss the deadline to apply or enroll, so make sure you keep an eye on the calendar.

Rolling Admission

The rolling admissions process gives students a much longer timeline for submitting their application. In fact, some schools that have adopted this process offer more than six months to submit an application. Colleges generally respond quickly, sometimes in a matter of weeks, as they continue to receive applications.

If you apply early enough, you might not have as much competition, so apply as soon as possible. Waiting until the last minute could set you up for failure as openings may have filled up, or their available financial aid may be allotted to other students.


Unless you are 100% sure that the school you are applying for is where you want to go, if you are accepted, it might be a good idea to explore other admissions processes to not limit your options. With so many great schools to choose from, it’s good to know the school you are applying for or how competitive their admissions process is, so you don’t end up putting all of your eggs in one basket.