Applying for the college of your choice can be somewhat tricky. Each college has their own set of rules, regulations, and guidelines concerning the application process. It is vitally important to know what you're getting into before you begin applying. Submitting an application that is incomplete, or incorrect, is a waste of everyone's time. Colleges want to see that you can do the research and complete the task properly. In effect, they are testing you before you even get accepted. One of the most confusing aspects of a college application is the early admissions option that many colleges offer. An estimated 2/3 of the top universities and colleges offer early admission, and each has its own specific guidelines.
Early decision (ED) programs offered by colleges are legally binding. This means that, if you submit a ED application for school "X", and that school accepts your application, you are legally required to attend that school. This severely limits your options, so it is only recommended if you truly have your sights set on a specific school. There is one way that you can get out of an accepted ED application, and that is to claim financial hardship. If you apply to a school expecting financial aid, and the aid is denied (or not enough is supplied), but the application is accepted, you can claim that you are financially unable to pay for your schooling. The burden of proving this information is completely on you. Applying for a college using the early decision procedure should not be taken lightly. Make sure you do your research and know what you're getting into before you submit your application.
Early action (EA) applications, in general, are a bit more lenient than ED applications. In most cases, any application dubbed "early action" is not legally binding, meaning you do not HAVE to attend the school you applied for just because you were accepted. This option is much better for people who are considering a few different colleges, and would like to keep their options open. In most cases, EA applications are better for the student than ED applications, as they provide the same benefits with fewer drawbacks.
Both of these options (ED and EA) provide many benefits to future students. Statistically, students who submit early admissions applications are more likely to be accepted than students following the normal admissions guidelines. Also, anyone who gets accepted under early admission will have significantly more time to choose housing, compare financial aid options, and prepare for college, than people who submit standard applications.