For some people, deciding where to apply to college is a no-brainer. They may have had their heart set on one college for years due to a personal connection, or become attached after a campus visit.
While it’s important for applicants to include other colleges on their list, those with a top-choice school may want to consider applying early decision, which can give them a leg up in admissions but comes with a so-called “binding” commitment.
“If a student is going to apply early decision, it’s worth doing their homework about a college,” says Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina. “It does not have to be their dream school and it does not have to be the only school that they would match well with. But they just want to make sure that it’s a good match for them.”
How Does Early Decision Compare to Other Admissions Deadlines?
Unlike other admissions deadlines – including early action, regular decision and rolling admissions – early decision is binding. This means that, if accepted, an early decision applicant is required to attend the college.
Most early decision deadlines are in November, with some as early as mid-October. Other applications are typically due between December and February, while the rolling admissions deadline window is open as late as the spring or even up to the first week of classes.
Students can apply early decision to only one school, but can usually submit applications concurrently to other colleges under less-restrictive early action and regular decision deadlines. Compared to other admissions deadlines, which give students until May 1 to claim their spot at a college, early decision requires accepted applicants to confirm their intention to enroll within a few weeks of acceptance and to reject any offers received from other schools.
“It takes some of that stress off and it allows the student to be able to spend the time continuing to learn in their senior year,” she says. “You also get to experience being a senior in your last semester of high school and are able to enjoy that time without the worry of the college choice.”
Why Apply Early Decision?
Applying early decision is a way for students to show their interest in and commitment to a college, which is often beneficial in the admissions process.
“The university or college knows that the students they admit early decision are going to enroll,” Guttentag says. “That knowledge, that security, that stability and knowing that there is a cohort of students for whom that institution is a clear, unambiguous first, all of those attributes have value to the institution.”
If you compare acceptances at many colleges, there’s a measurable difference between early decision admission rates and regular decision admission rates.
“In many cases, many of the most competitive institutions fill up most of their seats based on students applying early decision and early action,” says Anthony K. Wutoh, provost and chief academic officer at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “By the time the regular decisions are made, a lot of the class has already been filled. So you are actually competing for fewer seats against, in some instances, a larger pool of students.”
But early decision is not for every applicant, especially for those who want more choices in the college decision process. Students who are unsure if the college meets their academic or personal needs should not apply early decision, experts say.
Cost can be a major roadblock for students to attend college, so applicants must also be sure that their financial need can be met. Merit aid scholarships, for instance, may not be given out until well after the early decision deadline.
“Occasionally, I will hear students say, ‘Well, I can honor my early decision commitment if I get a scholarship,'” Turner says. “And then we have to explain that our scholarship selection process is very different and is on a very different timeline. And if you are counting on a scholarship to be able to make our institution affordable and the timing doesn’t coincide, then you should not apply early decision.”
Is Early Decision Really Binding or Can You Back Out?
Early decision applications typically require the signature of the student, parent and counselor verifying the commitment. The agreement is not legally binding, so a college would not go after a student for tuition. But depending on the school, there can be consequences if a student doesn’t accept an offer.
For example, if it is discovered that a student applied early decision to two different colleges – breaking the agreement – a student risks losing both acceptances.
“A college obviously can’t force a student to enroll,” Guttentag says. “But at the same time, we expect students and families to act ethically and to take seriously the commitment that they have made in writing to the college.”
There are exceptions, however. Some families may receive a financial aid package that’s different than anticipated, making it difficult to afford the cost of attendance.
“My experience has been that in the end, most of the time, families and financial aid offices work it out,” Guttentag says. “Colleges want to be affordable and they understand that students and families are making a real commitment by applying early decision.”
At Duke, Guttentag adds, fewer than 1% of early decision applicants admitted aren’t able to enroll for financial reasons.
Admissions officers understand if extenuating circumstances prevent a student from honoring their commitment, including an illness or death in the family that leads a student to defer enrolling for a semester or year, experts say. If that’s the case, they advise students to reach out to the institution as soon as possible.
“Have some conversations with the admissions officers to talk through your issues and concerns to see if there’s something that the institution can do to help,” Turner says. “Students shouldn’t be afraid to talk with the admissions officers. That’s what we’re here for.”
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