There are many different ways to apply to college – Early Decision, Regular Decision, Early Action, Rolling Admissions – and they each have advantages and disadvantages. But there’s only one way that involves a legally binding agreement, and that is Early Decision.

If you apply Early Decision, you agree, in writing, that you will enroll if you are admitted. And, legally, you must then honor that agreement if you are admitted.

For some students, that is a big plus. They are unwavering in their number-one choice, and they have known this for a while. They’ve researched. They’ve visited campus. They’ve hung out in the student center, eaten at the cafeteria, toured the dorms, read the school newspaper, followed the sports teams. They know some alums and may even have gotten in touch with some current students. Family members may well have attended there; siblings may be attending right now.  Or maybe the school offers a certain trombone player teaching in the music school or a well-published physics professor in the Astronomy department.  Whatever the draw, some students just know this is the right school for them.

Those students know that applying Early Decision can give them an edge in getting in, too. Many universities are concerned with yield: the percentage of applicants admitted who actually attend. It is helpful for colleges to know before January that they have already nailed down a portion of the next year’s freshman class. With some schools, this is quite a large portion, in fact:  the Ivy League schools, for example, have nearly double the acceptance rate for Early Decision than for Regular Decision.

These students often have something else going for them: their families are wealthy enough not to worry about affordability. If you are accepted Early Decision, there’s no real incentive for your college to offer you extra scholarship money to entice you to attend. You’re a done deal. Once you agree to the conditions of Early Decision, and you are accepted, you cannot legally back out of the agreement except in extreme circumstances, such as major illness or financial catastrophe. In other words, you can’t say, “Oh, I changed my mind,” or “Hey, First-Choice College, I thought you were going to give me a big scholarship.” (Not only can you be blacklisted by colleges if you’re known to back out of an ED agreement, but sometimes younger siblings or even classmates from the same high school are unfairly penalized, too.)

That doesn’t mean your chosen college won’t honor the Expected Family Contribution used by the FAFSA to calculate need (although some schools use the CSS Profile or their own calculations to determine need-based aid, which may not match up with the EFC) -- if your family is truly in need. But it may not be nearly as much as you think it will be, and because Early Decision is legally binding, you need to be ready for the possibility that you will not get much or even any financial aid.

So, if you want to apply Early Decision, please have that family conversation about finances. Do your parents have the resources to cover you, should you not get financial aid from the school you are legally bound to attend? This is the big question. Do you need to compare financial aid offers from different schools, or do you have the means to attend this one special school without worrying about what it will cost? To help with these calculations, we urge students to visit the net price calculator on your college’s websites, such as this one from Tulane. 

And then there’s your age to take into consideration. Yes, your age means you might just change your mind about what you want, because you are maturing rapidly. Many 18-year-olds find they have very different goals and desires from their 17-year-old selves, and that alone might be a good reason to apply to a wide variation of colleges and universities, waiting until April or May to make the final decision.

You can never apply Early Decision to more than one school, but most will allow you to apply Early Action to other colleges, as long as you promise to withdraw those applications should you be accepted.  You will usually not find out if you’ve been accepted until mid-December. That means you’ve got to have your Regular Decision applications to other colleges lined up and ready to go in case you’re rejected or deferred. You do want to enjoy the holidays, right?

If you are certain about your first-choice school, if it’s a competitive school, and if affordability is not a big issue, then, yes, applying Early Decision is a good idea. If accepted, you will be done with the college admission process by the winter holidays --- a great feeling. You can breathe a sigh of relief, bring your focus back to a strong finish in high school, and start obnoxiously wearing your college’s jersey, too.  

If you’re deferred to the regular admission process, you’re no longer legally bound to attend should you be accepted in April. Being deferred can be disappointing, and it’s not a positive signal about your chances of admission. Hopefully, your backup college applications have either been sent or are ready to go.

If you are outright rejected, that’s a bummer. But it happens to the best of us, and we know very few kids who weren’t able to work through their disappointment, start focusing on other schools, and eventually end up at a terrific place where they never looked back.

Research and reflect carefully, discuss Early Decision with your family, and then make the right decision for you. Whichever it is, keep moving forward on those college applications!