You’ve just opened your email and found out that you’ve been accepted early decision to college—congratulations! But while early decision offers are a #blessing for a lot of students, they can also be a huge source of stress. Yes, you’re guaranteed admission, but are you tying yourself down to a school you’re not sure about a little too early? It’s not an easy decision, but we’re here to help! Should you accept early decision offers? Take Magoosh’s quiz, then come back to this post to find out more about the pros and cons of saying yes to a school.
What Is Early Decision?
First things first: What is early decision? Early decision applicants apply by November and hear back in December. It’s binding: if you get in, you have to go. Once you receive an acceptance letter, you must withdraw all other applications. Therefore, you may only apply early decision to one school.
What Is Early Action?
If you’re reading this and thinking, Wait a minute…that doesn’t sound like the offer I got, double-check your email. If you’ve been accepted into an early action program, the pressure is off! Early action applicants apply before regular decision applicants and usually hear back in January or February. The main difference between early decision and early action is that early action is not binding. There is no commitment to go if you get in. So if you’re sweating over to whether or not to accept your early action decision, take a deep breath—you have the flexibility to see what other schools you’ve gotten into (though keep a careful eye on reply deadlines!).
Is Early Decision Really Better?
If you’re deciding whether or not to apply early decision in the first place, the big question is: Is early decision really better? And, like a lot of big questions, the answer is: sometimes. There are some major benefits to applying early decision. For example:
- Demonstrated interest: By applying early, you show the college that it is your top choice. This will work in your favor when the admissions committee is making their decisions.
- Higher acceptance rates (sometimes): Some believe it’s easier to get in when you apply early because you are being compared to a much smaller pool of applicants. It’s easier to stand out from the crowd. Many schools will state that their early acceptance rate is substantially higher than their regular acceptance rate. But many argue that this is just because early applicants tend to be more qualified and put more effort into their applications, so take it with a grain of salt.
- Less stress: If you get in early, you basically get to relax until college starts (but try not to let senioritis take over too badly!). While everyone is freaking out when they begin receiving acceptance letters in March, you are stress-free. And in the worst-case scenario? If you don’t get in, at least you have one less thing to worry about. One school is completely done and out of the picture.
Sounds like early decision is better, right? Not so fast—there are other things to take into consideration.
Is Applying Early Decision Worth It?
Applying early decision really isn’t for everyone (otherwise it would just be, well, regular decision). If you’re weighing whether or not to send in your early application, here are a couple of things to think about.
- An earlier deadline is stressful: Because you’re applying early, you won’t don’t have as much time to work on your application, unless you start super early. With homework and other responsibilities piling up, you might feel tempted to wait for the regular deadline. (On the flip side, the early deadline can actually be kind of nice. It forces you to get an application out of the way, so you’ll have less work to do later!)
- Commitment: If you apply early decision, the commitment can be scary. What if you change your mind about the school? How can you be absolutely sure it’s your first choice? On the other hand, although a binding application can seem like a bad thing, it’s actually helpful later on. If you get in, you won’t have to make any hard choices between schools. You’ll get to stop thinking about it. You’ll be done with the whole process and know where you’re going.
- Hard decisions: The whole concept of applying early stresses a lot of students out. They feel like they had to apply early somewhere but they couldn’t decide where. They like many schools, but they can’t pick out their favorite. Making the decision between schools adds another element of stress to the college application process.
- No comparison of financial aid offers: If you apply early decision, you have to go to that school and take the financial aid that they give you. You can’t compare a large group of schools and all of their different offers.
Should You Accept Early Decision?
If you’ve already gotten your acceptance letter, you may be wondering: should you accept early decision? If the answer’s not immediately clear, think about your current situation and what may change.
Sometimes, the problem is just not knowing enough about the school. Many universities have programs that will allow you to visit and even sit in on classes; if you’re nearby, this can be a great way to help you evaluate how you feel about the school. A campus visit can also help you decide how you feel about the city or region where the school is located. How do you feel about the setting? This can make a big difference in terms of your overall college experience.
Talking with current students is another important step in figuring out if you want to attend a school (and it can be done at a distance if that campus visit isn’t possible!). Admissions departments can help you set this up.
Where the college ranks on your list is another factor to consider. Is it your top choice school? Are there any close contenders? If so, what advantages do they have that your early decision school doesn’t? How important are these to you?
The cost of college is another big influence on your early decision acceptance. But if the college truly seems like it’s out of your price range, talk with the admissions department and see if they can help out. It may be possible to adjust your financial aid package—you never know! And if it makes the difference between you accepting or rejecting the offer, the admissions department will definitely be motivated to help.
Finally, don’t discount your feelings (but do be rational about evaluating them). Are you tempted to accept the offer just because it would eliminate stress? Or are you genuinely excited about attending the school? Journaling can help you figure out if you truly want to attend, or if you can stand waiting a few more months to have your choices open up a bit more.
Are Early Decision Agreements Legally Binding?
Early decision agreements operate on an honor system, rather than through the legal system, of enforcement. In other words? You’re not going to get sued for not accepting one…but it’s not cool to do that.
And while there may not be legal consequences, you may face challenges on one of two other fronts: your high school and your finances. After backing out of an early decision agreement, the college will likely let your high school know, and that may carry consequences. Furthermore, you’ll have to put down a deposit to accept early decision, most likely before you hear back about any regular decision applications—and you’ll almost definitely lose it if you rescind your acceptance of the offer.
One major caveat: If you have extenuating circumstances, such as financial changes or a family emergency, let the college that accepted you know that. They’ll almost always be gracious and understanding about it and let you withdraw from the agreement (though that deposit may or may not make its way back to you).
A Final Word
What is early decision? It’s an application deadline that carries some serious benefits but also (potentially) some serious drawbacks. When you’re deciding whether or not to apply early decision, keep in mind that this is a binding agreement: if you’re not 100% thrilled about the possibility of attending the school, see if they have an early action program—it might be a better fit. And when you’re on the other side of the equation, asking if you should accept early decision? Run through all of the factors that are pushing you to that school, as well as all of the factors that are holding you back. In either case, good luck with your own decisions as you move forward in the application process!
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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!
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