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What is Early Decision for College?

a male student looks at college admission data on his laptop

Deciding when to apply for college is another thing to consider in a very long list. However, one option that stands out as an excellent opportunity to boost your chances of getting into your dream school is applying early decision. 

Early Decision (ED) has become more and more popular among students applying to college. A vast majority of students are opting to apply Early Decision to their first-choice colleges to get an answer before Jan. 1 rather than waiting for the regular college application cycle in the spring.

Many of the students I counsel opt to apply for Early Decision for various reasons, but some choose another decision cycle to keep their college options open. If you need significant financial aid and want to compare and leverage financial aid awards, it is wise to choose either Early Action or apply during the regular decision cycle.

My son chose to apply for Early Action, and my daughter decided to apply during the regular decision cycle. Both could choose the college that best fit their needs and leverage their financial aid awards to receive more aid from the college of their choice.

What is Early Decision?

Early Decision (ED) is the most restrictive of the early deadlines. It is a binding agreement between the student and the institution, meaning a student must enroll if offered admission. 

The critical point to remember is that a student may apply to only one college ED. The caveat here is you need to be sure this college is your first-choice option. If you are admitted ED, you will receive your decision early, probably mid-December.  

Not every college, however, offers an ED option. You can check to see if the schools you’re interested in offer ED in our extensive college database. 

Can You Apply Early Decision to Multiple Schools?

If it is discovered that a student applied Early Decision to multiple colleges and broke the agreement, they risk losing their admission offers. While colleges cannot force the student to attend, they expect the student and their family to act ethically and take their commitment to attend seriously. 

Applying ED means you pick one college as your first choice and plan to attend if accepted.

What is Early Decision II?

A few colleges also offer ED II. Students who apply using this option can apply in early January. If you apply for Early Decision II, you should receive word on admittance in February, sooner than regular decision applicants. If offered admission, your Early Decision II is binding, and you must commit upon acceptance.

You can see if the schools you’re interested in offer ED II by looking at our extensive college database. 

When are Early Decision Applications Due?

Early Decision application deadlines are usually before Nov. 1. The deadlines for Early Decision II are in early January, often the same deadline as a regular decision applicant.

Does Early Decision Increase Your Chances of Being Offered Admission?

Students who decide to pursue one dream college should consider applying for Early Decision. If you apply ED, your college application will be at the top of the stack and will precede regular decision applicants, giving you an early advantage.

Early Decision students have a significant admission advantage at many colleges. You can check out how much by visiting the college’s page at the College Data website. For instance, overall, 14 percent of Bates College applicants were admitted. But, when you look at the Early Decision applications, 50 percent of those applicants were admitted. This gives ED applicants a substantial advantage.

Other Advantages to Applying Early Decision

If you apply for ED, you can cross that task off your college prep list. When the holidays arrive, your applications are complete, and you can load up on all the sweets and turkey your heart desires. You can relax during the break and know you are ahead of the game.

In addition, you get your acceptance early. ED decisions usually arrive in December. You don’t have to wait until April when all the other offers of admission arrive. It’s always exciting to hear about those early acceptances from the students I counsel and hear the excitement in their voices. This means you can focus all your energy on scholarships to pay for that education, and there’s nothing better than scholarship money to pay for that huge price tag.

Finally, you can focus on your academics. You’re in—but that doesn’t mean you can skate through senior year. Colleges have been known to pull offers of admission if there is a significant drop in grades. Final transcripts are essential. Use the extra time you have to bump up that GPA.

Can You Get Out of Early Decision?

The simple answer is no. When you apply for Early Decision or Early Decision II, you are communicating that if accepted, you will attend. These applications usually require the signature of the student, parent, and school counselor, verifying they understand the terms of the application.

The agreement, however, is not legally binding, and most likely, the college would not pursue the student for tuition. However, there can be consequences if the student does not accept the offer.

In an interview with US News-Education, Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina, explained it clearly:

"A college obviously can't force a student to enroll, 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. My experience has been that in the end, most of the time, families and financial aid offices work it out."

If there is a reason you can’t accept the offer of admission, speak with admissions and financial aid to come up with a solution that works for both of you. Admissions officers understand there are often extenuating circumstances like a death in the family, loss of employment, financial difficulties, or other life changes that might make it impossible to attend college. If that happens, you should contact the college immediately and discuss your options.

Are There Other Options for Applying Early?

If you are ready and have your college choices locked in but aren’t sure which one you might attend, applying Early Action would be a good choice, especially if you know you need financial aid and would like to compare awards. Colleges that offer this option promise a quick response if you submit a completed application by their early deadline. Students admitted Early Action don’t have to promise to attend the college. You can apply Early Action (EA) to several colleges simultaneously.

The most common EA deadline is November 1; however, some colleges have EA deadlines in October. Decisions on EA applications are usually posted in mid-December. EA decisions are non-binding, meaning that if you are admitted to an institution Early Action, you are not obligated to attend.

Other Factors Affecting Your Application Timing

Now that we covered how application timing can impact your likelihood of getting into a college, so too does your GPA, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, and test scores if you choose to submit them. 

So, choosing when and where to apply can be a complicated decision. You can make it easier by understanding how likely you are to be accepted to a school should you apply.

Calculate your chances of getting into any college by clicking on the button below. We’ll ask you a few quick questions and let you know your chances. 

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