Applying early action can have a lot of advantages, but it may not be right for every applicant. And while many students believe applying early means being judged against fewer applicants and, therefore, having a better chance of securing that acceptance letter, this isn’t always true.
To further increase your odds of admission at your target schools, you may be wondering: can you apply early action to multiple schools? Generally speaking, students may apply early action to multiple schools. However, there are important instances when this is not the case (e.g. single-choice early action). You’ll also want to consider whether applying early action is truly the best strategy depending on your personal circumstances.
Continue reading our ultimate guide on early action applications and feel free to use the links below to jump to the most relevant section for you:
- Restrictive Early Action
- Pros and Cons of Early Action
- Early Action Deadlines
- Who Should Apply Early Action?
- Tips on How to Prepare for Early Action
And for more help on early action application strategies, consider working with a top college admissions consultant.
Early Action (Non-Restrictive)
Early action is a non-binding application deadline offered by many colleges and universities. It allows you to apply early to as many schools as you want, and you’re under no obligation to attend a school if you’re accepted for their incoming class.
If accepted, you’ll receive an early “Congratulations,” but you don’t have to commit to the school until the normal reply date of May 1, just like regular admission application students. This gives you an opportunity to tour some other schools during the regular admission period before you decide where to enroll. You can even wait to give your final school choice an answer until after you’ve received decisions from all the schools you’ve applied to.
Everything about early action is, well, early. Your applications are normally due two months before the deadline for regular decision applicants. Early action deadlines generally fall on November 1 (and most regular decision deadlines on January 1).
You’ll also receive the notification of your acceptance or rejection early as well. Early action applicants will usually hear back around mid-December, and sometimes in January and February. Applying early action doesn’t mean you’re sending in anything extra. You submit the same materials you would normally send in if you’d applied regular decision, which include your application materials, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Again, everything is just sent in much earlier.
Applying early action means there are three possible outcomes for your application: You either get accepted, you are denied admission, or you’re deferred.
If you are denied an acceptance letter, you can’t apply again until the next academic year. If you’re deferred, your application gets placed in an applicant pool with the regular admission applications for review in the next round.
Single-Choice Early Action aka Restrictive Early Action
Non-binding, early action is the most common early application plan. However, a small number of very competitive colleges and universities (like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of Notre Dame, or Princeton) have something called single-choice early action, also known as restrictive early action.
If you apply early action to one of these top colleges or universities, you can’t apply early action to any of the other top private schools. This means that you can only apply to the one school during their Early Action period. Applying using a single-choice early action deadline demonstrates that you have a strong interest in a particular college, but it’s a process that is more restrictive than an early action deadline. Note that it requires less commitment than an early decision deadline.
In some instances, this doesn’t mean that you couldn’t apply to other schools you would be interested in applying to during other schools’ regular admission periods. However, there are some schools that prohibit applicants from applying for a regular decision until they’ve received their early action decision. But once you’ve received an indication one way or the other, you are free to apply to other schools.
Can You Apply Early Action to Multiple Schools?
So to answer the question, can you apply early action to multiple schools? The short answer is yes. In most instances, prospective students can apply early action to as many schools as they would like, and they are not bound by any agreement to attend a specific school if accepted.
But there can be potential limits to be aware of such as single-choice early action plans, also known as restrictive early action. As mentioned above, you’ll see single-choice early action plans at some of the top universities. This is why it is important to make sure you check to see what each school’s application and deadline policies are before you spend money and time on the application.
Applying Early Action Pros and Cons
The idea of applying early to college can sound intense for some prospective applicants, especially when the college application process is already stressful enough (and at times totally mind-numbing). But applying early is a good idea if you’re mostly certain which schools you’d want to start as a freshman in the fall.
Applying early to schools, particularly highly competitive universities and colleges, can reap enormous benefits. It can even help narrow your chances of acceptance. Before you jump feet first into the application process, it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of applying early action (non-restrictive).
Pros of Early Action (Non-restrictive)
Reduce Application Stress: You can apply early and save yourself the headache and stress by getting the application process out of the way. You’ll also cut down on the time spent waiting for a decision to be made.
Students who are accepted through early action can stop worrying about getting into school well before students who apply regular decision. Who doesn’t want a stress free senior year?
May Improve Your Chances: If you apply early, you may have a better chance of getting into the top college of your choice. Early admission rates tend to be higher than regular admission rates for most schools. The majority of students don’t apply early for many reasons, so you’ll be competing in a smaller applicant pool than regular admission applicants.
Also, you’re letting the school know that this is a top-pick for you. Applying early shows a willingness to complete an application well in advance of your peers, and a level of organization that others may not have.
Cost-saving: If you’re accepted early, it can save you the expense of submitting multiple applications.
Hearing Back Early Gives You More Time to Explore or Re-strategize
Best case scenario: if you’re accepted, it can save you the expense of submitting a large number of applications. This means you can start to check out where you will be living and what you might need for school before the summer rush to Target and Walmart.
It also gives you more time to consider an acceptance offer as opposed to someone applying regular decision. You won’t have the pressure of having to commit once that notification email has been sent, because you’ll have plenty of time to think it over.
But let’s say the worst case scenario happens, and your early action application gets rejected. This is still an advantage over others applying to the same school during the regular decision application process, because you’ll have more time to re-strategize and apply to other colleges under the regular admission process, giving you more lead time to explore other academic or career opportunities.
Compare financial aid packages: If the acceptance letters start to roll in, you can start to compare financial aid packages and scholarship opportunities at other schools you’ve applied early action to. This is something you can’t do by applying early decision.
Cons of Early Action (Non-restrictive)
Applying Early Action isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone. Here are some cons to applying early action:
An additional semester of improved grades? If you know your GPA is going to go up in the spring because of the work you’ve put in during the fall of your senior year, you may want to wait until applying during the regular decision deadline. Having that upswing of good grades on your transcript can be worth the wait. Remember, you always want to be sure you’re applying with your best foot forward. If it means foregoing the early application period for the regular admission period, that is strategically to your advantage.
Students who are accepted through early action can stop worrying about getting into school well before students who apply regular decision. Who doesn’t want a stress free senior year?
Pressure of Early Preparedness: You’ll need to have really thought about what schools might be right for you before you start applying, and have gotten all your application materials together in advance of what is usually expected.
If you have great organizational skills, this isn’t such a big deal. But if you tend to be a procrastinator, it can be hard to prioritize an optional, early application deadline when you have ongoing pop quizzes, assignments and tests during the regular school year (this doesn’t even include if you play a sport, are part of a club, volunteer, or have a job).
Since the deadlines for your early applications will be due in November, that means getting your applications, essays, transcripts, and letters of recommendation done sooner rather than later, i.e. the summer.
If Rejected, Less time to Prepare for Regular Decision Applications
If your early action application is rejected, this can create a real time crunch for you to get your applications for the regular decision deadline in. Regular decision applications are usually due after early action decisions are sent out.
You’ll Be Applying In A Pool of Stronger Applications
People applying early tend to have strong applications to offer prospective schools. For example, if you don’t feel confident that you have written your best essays, have gotten the best recommendation letters, or need that extra semester to reflect an upswing in better grades, it could be better for your chances of getting accepted to wait.
Deadlines for Early Action
- The standard timeline to have your application materials in is typically November 1st
- You should have a decision by mid-December, but sometimes you can receive a decision in January and February depending on the school
- You’ll have until May 1st to make your decision
Please note that individual schools can have slightly different early action deadlines, so be sure to check with each.
What Kinds of Students Should Apply Early Action?
You’re a student that should apply to an early action deadline if you…
…want to get the college application process done early in your senior year.
A lot of students want the stress of applying to college behind them so they can enjoy the rest of their senior year by applying early. Others do it in order to seek a potentially strategic advantage by applying in a smaller pool of applicants during the fall semester via early action. It’s also a good way to compare any financial aid packages you may receive as a part of acceptances.
…have really researched the schools you want to apply to extensively.
If you are very sure about the top school(s) you want to apply to, it makes sense to show your commitment and desire to them by applying early. You’ll have made sure that this college or university is a strong match for you after having not only thoroughly looked at the academic environment, but also things like the school’s geographic location and social opportunities. Ask yourself, would I be happy living and studying here for the next four years?
…have multiple top choice schools you’d be willing to attend.
If you have multiple top-picks for schools you’d be happy to go to, applying early action is a better choice. Early decision is if you have one top-choice school you want to attend.
…are a competitive applicant.
Does your overall admissions profile fit the typical student makeup of your peers applying to this particular prospective school? You’ll need to consider how strong your SAT/ACT scores, GPA, and overall academic record compare to other applicants in the early application pool. Early admissions plans are most conducive to students who have a higher class ranking, show consistency in their academic course load and GPA, have well-written and thought out essays, and submit competitive SAT/ACT scores (if their college requires them).
Not sure if you’d be considered a competitive applicant? You can always check by going online to the particular school’s website and looking at the first-year profile of the school’s freshman class. If your stats are better than their current freshman class, early action would be an advantage to you.
…if you are an International Student.
Colleges want to showcase a diverse population of students by accepting individuals from all over the world, and most schools allow international students to apply for their early action and early decision deadlines. If you’re a qualified international student, it could be beneficial to you to apply early before the regular decision round. Getting accepted early also means you can start planning your move to the US in advance by coordinating your travel plans and obtaining any necessary documents.
What Kinds of Students Should Not Apply Early Action?
You’re a student that should not apply to an early action deadline if you…
…Rushing to Get It Over With or Applying Last-Minute
Are you hurrying to get through the college application process because you don’t want to think about it anymore and just want it to be over? Or are you only applying early because some of your friends are doing it?
Applying just to apply early, and rushing through the entire process to the detriment of your application, isn’t worth applying early. Don’t decide a few days before early action applications are due to start asking your teachers or mentors for recommendation letters (they will not appreciate it and most likely won’t do it). Don’t scramble to get essays written that end up sloppy and thoughtless.
Applying early means you are applying with some of the top, most competitive applicants. Don’t do a hail mary application just to meet an early deadline and get penalized for an incomplete or poorly planned application.
By the way, these admissions officers can tell the difference between an application that has been thoughtfully put together, essays that are well-articulated, and recommendation letters that showcase the best facets of your academic self.
Take your time and put together a strong application for the regular decision round instead.
…Feel Pressure About Where to Attend or are Unsure About Where to Attend
Are you unsure if these are the right schools for you? The decision to apply falls on whether or not the schools have what you want academically, what they can offer you socially, and if they can meet and fulfill opportunities for future employment or job opportunities.
Have you visited or toured them? We highly recommend prospective students tour colleges before they apply. If you don’t feel like you have had enough time to research these schools online, or take a trip to visit, you may want to wait.
Not everyone can afford to travel to take a tour of a school before they apply, but many colleges now have virtual touring options^ so that prospective applicants can get a window into what their campus might feel like in person (one of the small number of plus-sides of the pandemic).
…Don’t Have Your Grades or SAT/ACT Scores Where You Want Them
If you don’t have the necessary test scores and GPA for a particular school, you should wait to apply and give yourself an opportunity to raise your grades and retake SAT or ACT tests. Grades are one of the most important factors that admissions officers look at when evaluating your application.
But be aware, waiting to apply during the regular decision plan is only helpful to you if your grades and test scores actually go up. If there hasn’t been a significant improvement, you may want to consider new schools to apply for, and/or retake the SAT or ACT and apply in the regular decision rounds.
If you apply early action, you only have one opportunity to take the SAT or ACT during your senior year before the early action deadline. You could take the ACT in September or the SAT in October and still be able to submit your scores by the November 1 deadline.
Some people ask, “What about schools that have test-optional admission applications?” If your intention is to include your test scores as part of your application, regardless of the test-optional policy, check that first-year profile on the college’s website to make sure you are within the same range, or at the same level, as the admitted class from the previous year.
Tips on How to Prepare to Apply Early Action
We’ve given you the full download on early action plans. Here’s how we would recommend you prepare to apply early action, and how to put forth your best applications.
Start in the Summer
After making it through your AP exam schedule, start brainstorming and outlining ideas for your application essay questions in the summer. Start thinking about who to ask for recommendation letters, and even inquire with teachers, counselors, employers, or mentors you want to ask, if they’re around and available to start, before the beginning of your senior fall semester. If you know you want to retake the SAT or ACT one last time before the early action deadline, start studying that summer to give yourself the best chance of improving your scores.
Make a List of your Top Schools
Start out by researching different schools, their programs that are of interest to you, and learn more about their social scene and campus culture by going online and touring in person. You’ll want to make sure this is where you will be happy living, learning and working for the next four years.
If you’re applying single-choice early action, confirm with yourself that if you get in, the acceptance from that school is potentially worth not applying early action to other schools.
Know The Exact Deadlines and Rules of Each School
While most early action plans fall on the standard November 1 deadline, make sure you know what their application offerings are. Do they even have early action? Single-choice early action? Early decision? Or just a regular decision deadline?
Know exactly what their application policies are when applying early. You don’t want to confuse one school’s deadline for another and be surprised to find out you were a day late and missed the early action deadline.
Make A Schedule and List What Needs to Be Completed When
You should be planning out a schedule to see when everything is due, and in what order, so that you can keep organized and on top of different pieces of your application.
Determine if You’re Ready to Apply Early Action
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have enough time and energy to try applying early, or would I be better off waiting until the regular decision deadline?
- Have I given my teachers and mentors enough time (we recommend at least 3-4 weeks) to write my recommendation letters?
- Do I have a strong enough GPA and strong enough SAT/ACT scores right now to apply early? Or ask yourself, am I a strong enough candidate that applying early would be strategically beneficial in increasing my chances of acceptance?
Don’t Wait Until After You Hear Back From your Early Action decisions to start preparing your Regular Decision Applications
If there are any schools you want to apply to regular decision, don’t wait too long to start your regular decision applications after turning in your early action applications. There are only a few weeks between the November 1 deadline and the regular decision deadline (typically January 1) to get those applications submitted.
In Summary: Is Early Action Right for Me?
Applying early action is a strategic decision if you’re certain which schools you’d want to start as a freshman in the fall, and if your academic profile is considered a competitive applicant when compared against their previous first-year admissions.
It can reduce the stress usually associated with applying to schools by submitting your materials early and can even narrow down your chances of acceptance by being judged within a smaller (although more competitive) applicant pool.
However, if you feel pressure about deciding where you want to attend, or are even unsure about where to apply at all, applying early may not be right for you. If your grades or SAT/ACT scores aren’t where they should be, and you want the opportunity to boost your GPA or retake tests during the fall semester, it would be better to wait until the regular decision deadline to apply.
Frequently Asked Questions: Early Action
You should have a decision by mid-December (sometimes in January and February, depending on the school).
In general, students may submit as many early action applications as they wish. However, there are certain exceptions such as restrictive or single-choice early action.
Yes, you may apply early action to multiple colleges in most situations. However, if you are applying to schools such as Harvard or Princeton (among others) you may not be able to apply to other leading private schools. Read more about restrive early action.