If you’ve been thinking about college applications, you might also be thinking about applying early. You’ve likely heard that early action applications are an option and that there are benefits to applying early. And if you’ve done some checking, you’ll notice that some schools offer early action, some offer early decision, and some offer both.
While early action means you apply early and hear the college’s decision early, some confusion exists around early decision. So let’s clear that up now.
What Is Early Decision? And Is Early Decision Binding?
If you are considering applying early, and there is one school that really stands out to you as your clear, first-choice school, then early decision might be for you.
Early decision is not just an application. It’s a contract stating that if you are accepted, you will attend the school. For this reason, it is binding.
Additionally, you can only apply early decision to one school. This doesn’t mean you can’t apply to as many other schools as you like. You just need to be sure that all of your other applications are either early action or regular application.
Note that sometimes schools offer two options for early decision applications instead of just one. These are known as ED1 and ED2. The applications are identical, and the only difference between ED 1 and ED2 are the due dates. You might choose ED 2 if you need a little more time to finish your application, for example. Both applications are still early decision and both are still binding.
Let’s talk about that word – “binding.” What does “binding” really mean?”
Binding means that you have signed a contract stating you will abide by the policies of early decision. That contract, in short, states that you will attend that school and withdraw all other applications if accepted.
But is early decision legally binding? The answer is no. It is ethically binding, but not legally. John Beckman, a New York University spokesman, was asked about the repercussions of backing out of this promise for schools and students. “We’re not looking for college counselors to act as some kind of enforcer to strong arm students into accepting our offer of admission,” he wrote. “And we’re certainly not out to punish schools, counselors or applicants.”
Schools are not known to take legal action against a student who chooses to go elsewhere. As Beckman said, they’re not in the business of forcing students to attend their school if the student truly doesn’t want to or can’t afford it. However, there are multiple reasons why, if you choose to apply early decision, you should follow the terms of the contract you sign. We’ll go over those reasons later in this article.
First, let’s clarify how early decision differs from early action and how to determine which is best for you.
How Is Early Decision Different From Early Action?
In the simplest terms, early action is not binding – it allows you to apply earlier and receive an answer earlier, but you are not committed to accepting the offer. You might apply early action if you feel comfortable that you already meet all the requirements, you have the time to apply early, and you want to get an earlier answer than you would through regular application.
Early decision is binding. You are giving your word you will attend that school if accepted. You have the benefit of getting your application in sooner and receiving an answer sooner. However, you won’t have the benefit of fielding offers from multiple colleges. This means you must be very sure that this college is where you want to be.
Be aware that not every school offers early action or early decision. For instance, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale do not offer early decision. Instead, these schools offer early action, which, as a reminder, is non-binding. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania all offer early decision (binding), not early action. Your other option for all of these schools is to apply during the regular application process.
So why would you choose to apply early decision? There are a few conditions that would make you a good candidate for early decision.
First, you know that this is your first choice, and regardless of any other offers, you would always choose this school. This is your dream school, and you would jump at the chance to go there.
Second, you’ve done your research, preferably visited the school, and determined this is the best fit for your needs and your personality. The school has what you need to meet your academic and career goals, and also appeals to your personality and social needs.
Third, you meet the minimum requirements of the school and ideally, you exceed them. You should feel like you are a strong candidate who has a good chance of being accepted. You should also feel like you can be successful at this school, that it’s a natural fit.
And fourth, you can afford this school and/or the financial package you expect will cover the cost. You should not apply early decision to a school that you know is out of your price range unless you are very confident that the financial aid you will receive will make it affordable for you.
How Does Early Decision Work?
Applying early decision is the same as applying regular decision – the only difference is the due date. Simply visit the school’s online application and seek out the Early Decision option. Keep in mind that this date may be significantly earlier than the regular application date, usually early November, so you will need to be proactive in securing this information and meeting the deadline.
Once you’ve applied, you can expect to get an answer about 4-6 weeks later, usually in mid-December for an early November application. If accepted, you will withdraw all other applications and formally accept the invitation to attend your top choice school. At this point, you cannot consider other offers.
Many students ask if their chances of acceptance increase when they apply early decision. Data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) shows that schools with early decision options do have higher admission rates for early decision applicants when compared to other applicants (61% vs. 49%, respectively).
This higher percentage is based on two key components: 1. Most students who apply early decision are highly qualified and obviously ready to accept offers, so these candidates are more likely to be accepted. And 2. Schools look better when a large percentage of their offers are accepted, and early decision is a guaranteed acceptance. What does this mean for you? It means that if you have all the qualifications, along with the desire, to apply early decision, the odds of your acceptance are greater than if you apply regular decision. But you won’t be admitted JUST because you applied early decision. You must meet or exceed all the requirements, just like every other applicant.
And consider that applying early decision, even if you’re denied, may not keep you from your second-choice school. Because deadlines are so early, you may hear back from the first school early enough that you still have time to apply early decision to another school. For instance, University of Chicago’s ED2 date is not until January 4. You could feasibly get a rejection from your first-choice early decision school in mid-December and have enough time to apply to UChicago through their early decision program. These opportunities are rare, though, and you will need to be diligent about planning your applications according to deadlines.
When Are Early Decision Deadlines?
While deadlines vary from school to school, there are typically two early decision deadlines: Early Decision 1 (ED1) and Early Decision 2 (ED2). The ED1 deadline is almost always November 1, while the ED2 deadline is typically November 15. However, as you’ll see from some examples below, you will always need to check the deadlines of your top schools before applying.
Our comprehensive list of deadlines for schools who offer early decision will help. Use this list to come up with an application timeline, then doublecheck each school’s website for any further instructions regarding each type of application. If you are applying early decision, take a look at the school’s policy, the contract, and the due dates to make sure you are well-informed.
Here are some examples of how deadlines can vary by school:
Boston College – ED1 deadline is November 1 and ED2 deadline is January 2
Vanderbilt University – ED1 deadline is November 1 and ED2 deadline is January 1
Columbia University – One early decision deadline of November 1
New York University – ED1 deadline is November 1 and ED2 deadline is January 1
University of Chicago – ED1 deadline is November 1 and ED2 deadline is January 4
You can see in these examples that while the ED1 deadline is consistently November 1, the ED2 deadlines vary slightly from school to school. In addition, not all schools have more than one early decision deadline – Columbia has only one. If you miss that deadline, you can’t apply early decision to that school.
Just as application deadlines can be different depending on school, acceptance dates will also be different, depending on submission deadlines and each school’s calendar.
Here are a few examples of acceptance dates for early decision applications:
Boston College – Announces acceptances December 6 for ED1 and February 3 for ED2
Vanderbilt University – Announces acceptances Dec 14
Columbia, Harvard, and New York University – Announce acceptances December 15
University of Chicago – Announces acceptances December 21 for ED1 and February 10 for ED2
How Binding Is Early Decision? What If I Change My Mind?
Every school makes the expectations of early decision clear – if you apply using this option, you are expected to attend if accepted. It really does start with you. This is a binding agreement, so make sure you can afford the school you are pledging to attend.
One way you can do your research on your financial obligations is to use schools’ net price calculators to see what kind of aid they estimate you will receive if accepted. If the resulting number doesn’t cover enough of the tuition and additional costs to make the school affordable for you, you should not apply early decision to that school. Assuming the actual offer you receive matches what you calculated, and your family circumstances haven’t changed since applying, it won’t be ethical to walk away because of the price.
In addition to college costs, the expectation is that you have done your homework on every aspect of your top school’s experience – you should be well-versed in all the expectations of the school and ready to accept.
As a result of this understanding between applicants and schools, there are very few legitimate reasons why you might back out of your agreement. The most common reason for being released from the offer is finances. This only applies if you don’t receive the financial aid package or grants you need and can’t afford to attend the school. The National Association for College Admission Counseling says, “Should a student who applies for financial aid not be offered an award that makes attendance possible, the student may decline the offer of admission and be released from the early decision commitment.”
Another acceptable reason is a health issue, either with yourself or a family member. Experts say that admissions officers understand when unexpected issues arise. They only ask that you contact them as soon as you are aware that your circumstances have changed; that way, they can give your slot to another applicant.
Now, if you know and understand the rules, sign the contract, and apply early decision even though you don’t intend to follow through on your commitment, that is ethically wrong and may result in some difficulties for you moving forward. For instance, if you apply to multiple schools under early decision it can result in one or both schools revoking your acceptance letters if you are caught. Some colleges share lists of the students applying under early decision with one another, so it’s not a stretch that you can ruin your chances of being accepted to either school.
In addition, if you’ve paid a deposit as part of your early decision application, as some schools require, you will likely lose it if you don’t accept the offer. And you are not the only one who might pay the price for this decision. Your high school counselors must sign off on your early decision application, and you are putting them in an awkward position. They may refuse to send your materials out to other colleges once you’ve declined an ED acceptance.
Assuming your intentions are pure and you’ve made a mistake along the way, either in calculating your financial ability or choosing your first-choice school, there are ways to resolve it all. Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, says, "My experience has been that in the end, most of the time, families and financial aid offices work it out. Colleges want to be affordable, and they understand that students and families are making a real commitment by applying early decision."
The bottom line? Don’t apply early decision unless you are sure you have found your top school, you can afford it, and you are willing to forgo all other offers.
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Rebecca has a doctorate in Educational Leadership and taught high school English for over 20 years. Her students consistently earned top scores on the SAT and ACT, AP Language and AP Literature exams. She worked one-on-one with students through her own tutoring and educational coaching business and believes that individualized attention and personal connection are the keys to success. Rebecca is the author of the parenting book Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew About Helping Your Kids Succeed, which provides tips for parents on how to help their kids reach their full potential. As a content writer for Prep Scholar, she hopes to help guide students and parents through high school and make the transition into adulthood as stress-free – and informed – as possible.