Can You Back Out of an Early Decision Offer?
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- Early decision lets students apply early to college and hear from their top-choice school first.
- Colleges and universities consider an early decision offer a binding contract.
- Admitted students can back out for certain reasons but may face penalties.
Students who apply to college early decision submit their applications sooner, typically in November. Colleges then announce their early admission decisions around the middle or end of December, giving students ample time to apply to other schools should they get rejected.
Early decision is a binding contract. This means if you get accepted, you must enroll at that school. However, admitted students can back out of an early decision offer for certain reasons.
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Before applying to a college early decision, make sure you understand the commitment you're making as well as the most common reasons students back out of an early decision offer.
How Does Early Decision Work?
Colleges and universities with early decision admissions accept applications before the typical college application deadlines, which normally take place in January. Those who apply early decision are agreeing to attend that school if they receive an acceptance letter, even if they got into or are waiting to hear back from other schools.
Another early admission option is called early action. Unlike with early decision, students who apply early action are not bound to that particular school and may choose to attend another institution without issue.
Many Ivy League schools offer early decision policies, as do many other private colleges and a small number of public institutions. Popular colleges that offer early decision include the following:
- Bowdoin College
- Johns Hopkins University
- New York University
- Northwestern University
- Pomona College
- University of Chicago
- William & Mary
Is Early Decision Binding?
Yes, early decision is binding. Colleges consider early decision admission a contract that must be adhered to. Students who receive an offer of admission after applying early decision are required to enroll at that school.
In contrast, early action is nonbinding. That means admitted students can decline the offer and attend a different school. It also means you can apply to multiple schools under an early action plan but only one under an early decision plan.
But what if you change your mind and no longer want to attend the school to which you applied early decision? Can you back out of an early decision offer?
Under certain circumstances, students may break their agreement to attend the college. But in other circumstances, backing out of the contract comes with penalties.
3 Reasons Students Back Out of Early Decision Offers
Early decision applicants agree to attend that college or university if admitted. But admitted students do sometimes back out of early decision offers. Here are three of the most common reasons why applicants may back out.
1. Your Financial Aid Package Is Insufficient
Many early decision colleges promise to meet the demonstrated financial need for admitted students. Nevertheless, the financial aid package you receive might not cover enough costs.
Admitted students who can't afford the cost of attendance can often back out of their early decision contracts without penalty. Alternatively, you may be able to negotiate for more aid by contacting the school's financial aid office and informing them of your situation.
2. You Decide to Attend Another School
What if you decide to attend a different school? In this situation, admitted students may find themselves with more than one withdrawn admission offer. Early decision colleges may reach out to other schools to let them know you broke your agreement, which can reflect poorly on your applications. You'll also lose any deposit money you put down.
3. You Must Deal With a Family Emergency or Other Urgent Matter
Colleges generally try to work with students facing an emergency, such as a sick family member or financial or medical crisis. In these cases, the school might let an early decision student push back their start date and take a gap year.
Students experiencing an emergency should reach out to their college as soon as possible to discuss enrollment options.
Should You Apply to College Early Decision?
Applying early decision makes sense for some students. Those with a top-choice school often choose early decision.
Still, early decision comes with drawbacks. You'll be unable to compare financial aid packages or weigh multiple admission offers.
Since early decision is binding, applicants should only apply under this admission plan after careful consideration. Breaking an early decision offer can come with major penalties — some high schools may even withhold transcripts from other colleges.
Read the fine print, especially the college's policies on breaking the contract, before you apply.
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