On Binding Early Decision

We had a student a few years back whose dream was Columbia University. She thus applied Early Decision to Columbia, her first choice school. But just because she applied Early Decision to Columbia doesn’t mean she wasn’t able to also apply to schools under non-restrictive Early Action policies. After all, each private highly selective university, as an example, allows students to apply Early Action to any public university, like the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, the University of California schools, and the University of North Carolina. And most allow students to apply to private schools with non-restrictive Early Action policies, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago. So when our student applied ED to Columbia, she also applied EA to MIT. She got into both. And the day after she learned of her MIT decision, which came in after her Columbia decision, she asked us, “How can I get out of my Columbia ED commitment?” We replied in two words: “You can’t.” Short of extreme extenuating circumstances, an Early Decision commitment is binding. That student matriculated the next fall to Columbia — not to MIT.

Early Decision is binding, as a US News & World Report piece makes clear.

Indeed, in a piece for US News & World Report by Sara Wood entitled “What Happens to Students Who Back Out of Early Decision Offers,” (which looks awfully similar to a piece published by the magazine back in 2016 with another journalist’s by-line), “Early decision applications typically require the signature of the student, parent and counselor verifying the commitment. The agreement is not legally binding, so a college would not go after a student for tuition. But depending on the school, there can be consequences if a student doesn’t accept an offer. For example, if it is discovered that a student applied early decision to two different colleges – breaking the agreement – a student risks losing both acceptances…There are exceptions, however. Some families may receive a financial aid package that’s different than anticipated, making it difficult to afford the cost of attendance.”

Allow us to share one more story for good measure. We had a student a couple of years back whom we believed could get into any college in America — including the likes of Harvard College and Stanford University. Yet the student said she wanted to apply to Pomona College Early Decision. Now, don’t get us wrong. Pomona is a very nice school but, well, we’ve just never come across a student in our three decades in college admissions who prefers Pomona to Harvard or Stanford. So we asked this student, “Why Pomona?” The student replied that she had it on her college list that she shared with her counselor and the counselor pushed it hard. But of course. The school counselor, at this fancy boarding school, wanted to push his student to a college where the school’s other students weren’t applying — so she didn’t prove to be further competition. When the counselor saw Pomona, he had the opening. Naturally, the student got in ED to Pomona. And, of course, the next day, her father emailed us asking if she could breach her ED commitment. You can guess what we told him. “No!” An Early Decision commitment is binding is binding is binding. One’s word is one’s bond.


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  • Sid in nyc says:

    Playing the devil’s advocate, for the girl accepted to both Columbia and MIT, what would Columbia do if she backed out? Would they Contact her high school admissions counselor and demand to know where else she was accepted and contact that school- in this case MIT? And would they also tell the high school counselor they would blackball the school if they did not comply so any future applicants from said school would be blackballed?

    I have seen a lot of people applying to multiple ED schools- totally against the rules- but they seemingly never get caught. Most of the time they are underrepresented applicants but they must know the rules and seemingly don’t care- even posting their apps online. Really incredible.

  • just talkin says:

    What is “likely” based on? Is there any specific case one can point to for the second school withdrawing the offer?

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