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The process of applying to colleges is stressful enough, but waiting to hear back about whether or not you were accepted can be even more agonizing. If there were a way to potentially avoid weeks, or even months, worth of anxiety, would you be interested?

When it comes to deciding which college to attend, early decision (ED) and early action (EA) programs can help students solidify their future plans more quickly than applying through the regular admissions process, but there is a lot to consider before doing so.

Right now approximately 450 colleges offer ED (find a full list here) or EA plans (find a full list here), and some have both.

There are some key differences between the two programs, primarily that ED plans are essentially a binding contract between the students and the schools

Early Decision
Early Action
It is a binding agreement It is a nonbinding agreement, and you do not have to commit until the stated standard decision date
Typically receive a decision as early as December Typically receive a decision in January or February
Must accept the offer to attend upon receiving a decision Do not have to accept the offer to attend until May 1
Accept the financial aid package if it meets your needs Can evaluate financial aid packages from different schools
Upon receiving the offer to attend, you must withdraw other admission applications to other schools Do not have to withdraw admission applications to other schools

Your Decision and Acceptance Timeline

Students who apply ED and get accepted generally find out by December and they must attend that college (there is one caveat, but more on that later). Acceptance through ED at a school also means the student must immediately withdraw any college applications they may have sent elsewhere, which eliminates any opportunity to find out what financial aid they would have been awarded at those schools.

Students who are accepted to a school through EA, on the other hand, generally find out between January and February, and they have until the normal reply date of May 1 to accept. It's also important to check with your colleges of choice regarding their application specifics, since some don't allow ED or EA applicants to apply anywhere else for early admissions (i.e., single-choice early action).

Kerry Flynn, 19, a sophomore at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, majoring in sports communication and journalism, says she knew well in advance of applying to colleges that Marist was her number one choice. Still, she decided to apply through the EA plan instead of ED.

"I ultimately went with early action because I wanted to find out from my first choice school as soon as possible without the binding agreement of early decision," she said.

Since an ED acceptance would come well ahead of hearing about any financial offers from other schools she applied to regular admissions, Flynn was also concerned about the potential ramifications of accepting admission at a school before having all the pertinent financial information in hand.

Your Financial Aid Award

Students who apply under ED receive their offers of admission and financial aid simultaneously. While they are able to turn down the offer if financial aid is not adequate, they must do so before they are able to evaluate financial aid offers from any schools they are admitted to through regular admissions. Although it isn't common to do so, if families feel that the amount of financial aid they were awarded was miscalculated or is far off from what they expected, they can follow up with the financial aid office to see if anything else can be done.

Remember that turning down an ED acceptance for financial reasons — or not getting accepted in the first place — leaves students with little time to apply elsewhere if necessary. That's because the deadline for regular college applications is usually between early January and February, so it doesn't hurt to start preparing your applications for other schools in advance. This way you can send them out quickly and still meet deadlines.

In the end, Flynn's decision to apply EA to multiple schools actually did give her some financial leverage. After being accepted at a few different colleges and weighing the different financial incentives, she had a good bargaining chip at her disposal.

"When I was offered scholarships from multiple places, I was able to bargain with my first choice school to raise my scholarship amount because of the money the other schools offered me," she said.

The Admissions Process

For Nicholas McGahan, 25, a 2014 graduate from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, with a major in television-radio, applying EA was less of a financial move than a strategic one.

"I was pretty sure I wanted to go to Ithaca College, but I wanted to have flexibility to see what was out there, which is why I did not go with early decision," he said. "I was also fairly confident in my interest in Ithaca and thought it would give me a leg up on the competition for Ithaca College applicants."

Statistics show that applying EA or ED can have a positive tipping effect on your chances for admission, according to Peterson's, an online college guidance source including tools and personalized resources. The reason? Applying early lets your favorite school know that you are serious about attending. So if they think you're likely to accept their offer of admission, it may in fact make your application more appealing, according to The Princeton Review, a college admission services company. While that thinking seemed to work for McGahan, applying EA or ED certainly can't provide any guarantees.

In the end, applying EA or ED won't hurt your chances of acceptance, as long as you're prepared. If you've done your research, are sure of where you want to go, and have the academic standing to back up your application, ED or EA could help you avoid the added costs and stress that come with applying to many different schools. Just be sure to contact the college's admission office to understand the submission dates and requirements around applying early.

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