The college admissions process can be confusing and intimidating for those who are unfamiliar with it. As a first-generation college student, I had no idea how the application cycle worked or how I would stack up against other applicants. Luckily, I made it through the process and now have the privilege to be able to help veterans in the same position through my roles as the Cornell Campus Representative for Next Step Inbound and as a Veteran Outreach Peer Counselor assisting Cornell Admissions through the VA work-study program.

Whether to apply early decision is one of the most popular questions asked through the Next Step Inbound Thursday Q&A, so I decided to do a deep dive to give a more thorough answer than that platform permits. Early decision is typically only for freshman applicants-at Cornell; this is defined as an applicant with 12 or fewer college credits. However, I think all applicants can gain some value from the article as many of the considerations of early applicants, such as financial aid, are universal. There is nothing stopping you (or a shipmate) from gaining the same admissions advantage as traditional students that typically use early decision programs.

What is Early Decision?

Early decision is a program that allows an applicant to apply to college and receive their admission results early. The early decision application period typically closes in November, with admission decisions released in December. By contrast, the regular application period typically spans from January to March, with decisions announced in April. Unlike a regular decision admission, an early decision admission is considered binding.

Applicants may only apply for early decision to one school but are still allowed to apply for regular decision admission to other schools. If an applicant is accepted by their early decision school, that admission is considered binding and means the applicant is required to withdraw their other applications and attend their early decision school.

However, although the decision is binding, an applicant cannot be forced to attend the school. A student may be released from their early decision obligations if the applicant has experienced an event or hardship that would make attendance untenable or if the financial aid package offered by the institution is inadequate and causes undue financial hardship.

These early decision agreements are based on an honor system. Be advised that if you attempt to apply early decision to multiple schools and they find out, you will be considered a “bad faith applicant,” and this tag will negatively affect your chances of admission. Schools sometimes share lists of early decision applicants, or they may be tipped off by your guidance counselor.

Who Should Consider Early Decision?

If you’ve done your research and are absolutely sure of your first-choice school, early decision application might be the right choice for you. You should only pursue early decision if all of your application materials and essays are squared away, and you can submit your best and strongest application in November. In other words, if your application is just as strong on November 1st as it would be on January 1st, then you may want to consider applying early decision.

Benefits of Early Decision

Being accepted early can save you the expense of multiple application fees and removes the stress of applying to various schools. Furthermore, if admitted, an early decision also provides significant peace of mind and extends an applicant’s planning timetable. Early decision applicants generally benefit from higher acceptance rates but are limited in their ability to compare financial aid packages due to early decision acceptances being considered binding.

Financial Considerations

Applicants are not afforded the opportunity to compare multiple financial aid offers when using early decision. Before applying for early decision, you should do some research. If you intend to use financial aid, most schools have a financial aid calculator that can be used to estimate and compare awards before you apply. If you are accepted via early decision, and your financial aid package or other circumstances make attending a hardship, you should reach out to admissions or financial aid to discuss the issue.

Bear in mind that if you are undergoing a significant life change, such as divorce or transitioning from active duty to full-time student status, you will likely be experiencing a significant loss of income that will not reflect in your award status. Often, both FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and your school will allow you to submit a change of circumstances form, possibly allowing for your level of aid to be adjusted.

If you are using Post-911 GI Bill benefits instead of financial aid, you may have fewer financial aid concerns than a typical student, making an early decision application more attractive. For private schools, you may wish to consider whether the school offers Yellow Ribbon matching and to what extent. Whether an institution requires that you use your GI Bill benefits also varies.

If you intend on attending a public (state) school, Section 3679(c) Title 38 USC provides that to receive payment, public schools must charge in-state tuition rate for three years after you separate, meaning that your benefits will likely cover tuition for any state school. If you’re outside this window and plan on attending an out-of-state public institution that charges out-of-state tuition rates, be sure to check for the Yellow Ribbon match.

Bigger Chance of Acceptance

Early decision applicant pools are typically much smaller than regular decision, and colleges generally set a significant level of their incoming class to be filled by early decision candidates. This means that applicants applying via early decision typically have a significantly higher rate of acceptance than regular decision candidates. The difference between the admission rate for early decision and regular decision admissions programs varies by school, and applicants should research these statistics to judge whether early decision is right for them.

“There are advantages to applying ED. According to U.S. News data, the average ED acceptance rate at the top 20 national liberal arts colleges was 38.8% for the 2016-2017 academic year, versus an 18.8% average general acceptance rate. One of the most competitive colleges in the nation, Duke, admitted 21% of the students that applied ED in 2018, compared to just 6.4% of its regular decision applicants. Students who want to get into highly competitive colleges might find that it is worthwhile to apply early decision” (Moon, 2018).

What if I’m not Accepted?

There are three possible outcomes concerning early decision; an application may be accepted, rejected, or postponed. When an application is postponed, it gets rolled into the regular decision application pool. If your application is rolled into the regular application pool, you may want to consider sending admissions a letter of continued interest. If you are rejected, you may not reapply to that school until the following application cycle. If your application is postponed or rejected, you are free to apply to other schools during the regular admission cycle without penalty.

1. Moon, K. (2018, October 30). Can Students Get Out Of ED? Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristenmoon/2018/12/14/can-students-get-out-of-ed/?sh=2886454a584d

2. Pannoni, A. (2016, October 24). What Happens to Students Who Back Out of Early Decision Offers. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2016-10-24/what-happens-to-students-who-back-out-of-early-decision-offers

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