On one hand, early decision can be a great way to nail down a school early in the process, leaving you free to concentrate on finishing school and preparing for college.
However, the early decision process could also limit your options and tie your hands before you’ve had a chance to really consider the best option for your schooling.
Before you decide to apply for early decision, here’s what you need to know.
Early Decision vs. Early Action
When researching the college application process, you might come across two different terms, early decision and early action. It’s important to understand the difference so you can avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.
Early action applicants apply by an early deadline and receive an admissions decision early in the cycle, and can consider their acceptance offer without the need to commit immediately. In fact, it’s possible to wait until May 1 to answer an early action offer. This gives you time to evaluate admissions offers from other schools, where you might have applied following the regular admissions timeline.
The main difference in the early decision vs. early action choice is the requirement to accept. When you apply for early decision, you essentially commit to attending the school if they offer to enroll you. You can’t wait to see what others offer you in terms of admissions, and you might not even be able to see a financial aid package before you commit.
How Binding are Early Decision College Admissions?
The good news is that, when it comes to a legally binding contract, you don’t have to worry about it with early decision. However, just because the school isn’t going to take you to court to enforce an early decision contract, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences.
When you agree to early decision at most schools, you basically agree to not apply elsewhere. You might have to withdraw applications at other schools if you’re admitted early decision, and you usually can’t apply for early decision at more than one school at a time.
Additionally, with early decision, you agree to attend the school if you’re accepted. So if the admissions offer is made, you’re expected to accept it immediately — sometimes even before you see your financial aid package. You might also be required to send an acceptance deposit early on as well.
Some schools, like RIT, offer “friendly” early decision plans. Schools that offer these plans send financial aid information and packages to students early on, so long as the FAFSA is completed. Additionally, schools with friendly early decision policies don’t reduce your award amount based on your status. Some schools actually reduce your award or take you out of the running for merit-based scholarships if you apply using early decision.
With early action, you don’t have any sort of agreement to attend the school; you just have an early acceptance, so you have peace of mind. You can still wait to accept and compare financial aid packages.
What Happens if You Break an Early Decision Contract?
While you probably won’t face legal consequences, there are definite consequences that come if you break an early decision contract. Some of the likely problems that come with breaking the contract include:
- Your high school may refuse to send transcripts, mid-year and end of year reports with grades to additional schools
- You might not be able to get additional letters of recommendation for other college applications
- Other schools might not admit you for the upcoming school year if they know you broke an early decision contract
- The offer won’t be reinstated later if you change your mind again and want to attend after all
You won’t have to worry about this with early action since there’s no binding expectation that you will attend the school.
If you turn down acceptance when you’ve applied for early decision, you should be prepared to take a gap year, since you might not be able to get into other colleges in time for the fall semester.
The main exception is if you receive your financial aid package at your early decision school and you end up not being able to afford to attend after all.
Can You Back Out of Early Decision for Financial Reasons?
Pretty much the only reason that admissions offices will accept is the financial reason. Perhaps you were expecting more in financial aid, or you want a better package. If you can show that financial issues are causing you to reconsider, you might be able to back out and still apply for and attend other schools.
Who Should Apply for Early Decision?
Not everyone should apply for early decision or early action. However, it can increase your chances of being accepted. In fact, when you apply for early decision vs. early action, you have different rates of acceptance. According to Inside Higher Ed, you actually end up with a better chance by applying for early action.
“Among all colleges with early decision, their regular admit rate was 50.7 percent, but the rate for early decision was 62.3 percent. For colleges with early action, the overall admit rate was 64.1 percent and the rate for early-action applicants was 73.6 percent.”
So, if you want a quick decision, but you’re not sure early decision is the right move, early action can be one course of action.
Reasons to apply for early decision include you:
- Are 100% certain of your first-choice school
- Have done the research and know that you can pay for the school, regardless of the financial aid package (including using student loans)
- Have a strong application and can meet the deadline
- Will take standardized tests early enough to meet the deadline
Additionally, it helps to have a backup plan in place. If you aren’t accepted by your early decision school, you might have a short period of time to apply to other schools. Know your second and third choices, and prepare application materials for those schools so that you aren’t scrambling at the last minute.
Don’t apply for early decision if you aren’t sure this is your first choice school or if your grades or test scores need work. Also, realize that applying for early decision isn’t something to be taken lightly, so don’t do it if you’re hoping to avoid stress and paperwork or if your friends are.
In the end, early decision comes with a lot of restrictions. Many students are just fine applying through the regular process or, if they want an early decision, applying for early action. It reduces the risk, and allows you more time to compare prices and financial aid packages.
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by Miranda Marquit, who has been covering personal finance for more than 10 years, including aspects of college planning and student loans. She is a recognized money expert and has contributed to numerous media outlets, including Forbes, Marketwatch, NPR, USA Today, Investopedia, and U.S. News & World Report. She lives in Idaho with her teenage son — who she’s just starting to guide through the college selection and admissions process.