Early Decision Colleges: Read the Fine Print

Mother and daughter sitting on a couch excitedly exclaiming over a letter the daughter holds
Here’s what to know before committing to an Early Decision college.

Early Decision Colleges: Read the Fine Print

Published on May 24, 2023

Here’s what to know before committing to an Early Decision college.
Mother and daughter sitting on a couch excitedly exclaiming over a letter the daughter holds

This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. It’s been edited for clarity and flow. 

For those considering an Early Decision (ED) school, I’m sharing my thoughts as a parent who recently went on this journey. 

Learn How the Early Decision Process Works 

When your student tells you they want to apply ED, don’t give them an immediate answer. Explain to them that if you’re accepted for ED, it’s binding. Ask them to tell you why they want to apply ED. If your student can’t explain why the ED school is the perfect fit for them, stop there. 

Parents also need to do their own research. Reach out to the college and ask about merit opportunities for ED, financial aid chances, and what happens if your child doesn’t get merit or aid. Ask what happens if you apply ED but need to back out.

If you still don’t know whether to apply ED, then wait for ED2 (second round of ED) or apply for Regular Decision (RD). You can always change to ED2 if it’s before the deadline. 

Our daughter asked in August to apply early decision. We had her make her list of schools and said we would revisit the topic in early October. We took a month to do our own research. We then met with her high school counselor as a family because that was required before she would sign off on ED. We thought about it for two more weeks and then approved her ED application mid-October.

Talk About Money and Acceptance Rates

Run the net price calculator and talk to financial advisors to make sure you can afford the college ED. Consider that many colleges increase tuition every July. If your child is planning to go to graduate school, is the college worth spending the money for undergraduate? Ask if the college will do a financial pre-read before you consider ED. 

Many people say students don’t get merit if they apply ED, but this isn’t true and depends on the college. We asked about this before my daughter applied and found out that her college gives merit to the top 10- 15% of each applicant pool. 
Research acceptance rates. Then compare ED acceptance rates with RD acceptance rates. This is what pushed us into allowing ED for our daughter. Her college admission rate was 70% ED and less than 25% RD. It was a clear top choice, and she would have been upset if she didn’t get in.

Have a Back-up Plan 

Make sure your child applies to other colleges Early Action (EA) and rolling. Most will allow this with ED, but not always with Restricted Early Action (REA), so make sure to check. Prepare your child if this is a reach-school or a school that has a high rejection rate. My daughter applied to only three schools because the application fees were high. She applied ED, rolling, and EA. She got into her rolling school within two weeks of applying, so we weren’t worried. 

She then got in ED and only had to decline one offer and pull one application. Our back-up plan was, if she didn’t get in ED, she would use winter break to apply ED2 and RD to other colleges. Make sure to check merit deadlines if you have this back-up plan.

Read the ED Contract 

ED is not legally binding, but it is ethically binding. Students do sign a contract. The contract says you can back out if the college does not meet your financial aid needs. Many colleges will ask you to work with their financial aid appeal office before you back out of ED. Backing out of ED due to financial aid restrictions is acceptable. 

Backing out because you were thinking you might get merit and didn’t, or that you got a better merit offer somewhere else, isn’t considered acceptable. If you take a contract lightly, what example does this set for your child about making a commitment and sticking to it?

Be Aware of Housing Issues

Know the college housing policies at the ED school and if housing is guaranteed. Additionally, realize that there are colleges that will accept ED students but not to the main campus. I know many students admitted ED to different schools that had to start freshman year abroad because they didn’t get into the main campus through ED.

The Bottom Line on Early Decision Colleges 

If your student has questions that aren’t on the website or discussed in webinars, then they should reach out to someone. Have your child ask in social circles if they know others who attend or have attended this college. Ask at the high school, as well.

Early decision requires that you do a fair amount of research, but can be an amazing opportunity. It came with great benefits for us, including our top choice of housing and priority freshman course registration. Still, it’s not for everyone.

Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Who Benefits the Most from Early Decision and Why You Need to Know

Follow These Steps to Help Get Your Student Into Engineering School
Majors That Make The Most Money




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