Hooray! You’ve been accepted into college! You applied a month and a half ago, and now you’re being forced to go to the school you were accepted into! Wait, what? I’m being forced to go? Maybe this wasn’t such a good decision after all…
Early Decision can seem like a great idea at the time. Among the uncertainty of applications, it can be attractive to increase your own chances at schools by committing to going if you’re accepted. But what happens if, in the month and a half since you sent in the application, you’ve found schools that are better for you? What if you’ve realized you don’t want to go at all?
Unfortunately one of the only real reasons you can back out of Early Decision binding acceptances is for financial aid reasons. If your family is faced with a significant financial barrier to attending college, most schools will let you assess their financial aid offers before committing to the binding acceptances. There are other extenuating circumstances that admissions officers are sure to respond to — major family deaths or something else that would fully change your situation. (You having applied Early Decision to be with a significant other who has since become an ex-significant other is not one of those situations.)
In other words, if you’re not someone who can claim this financial barrier, or the school’s providing you with adequate aid, you don’t have a good enough reason to back out in the eyes of colleges.
But what does it mean to back out?
There’s no legally binding agreement (in most cases). It’s more of a “gentleman’s agreement,” as an admissions officer from Ursinus College told U.S. News and World Report. Nobody will force you to go to college—so if it’s not the specific ED school that doesn’t appeal to you, but the idea of college in general, you may be in the clear.
However, if you still want to go to college, just not the college you committed to, you may be in trouble. That ‘gentleman’s agreement’ does prevent you from attending other colleges. Colleges share lists, and backing out of one or trying to two-time them might end up with both of your admissions offers rescinded. Because colleges tend to have a monopoly on this whole ‘higher education’ thing, it behooves them to cooperate in this regard: That way, if they have a student who tries to back out down the line, they can count on other colleges to return the favor.
Ultimately, they’re not going to send in the College S.W.A.T. Team to drag you to your freshman dorm, but neither will they be pleased. If you’re having any doubts about your ability to attend, you should reach out and talk to the school directly. If you’re unsure about whether you want to go, don’t apply Early Decision in the first place.
College is stressful enough without having to worry about strict and binding agreements. If you’re sure, Early Decision can be a great way to demonstrate that certainty to colleges and have a (hopefully) better chance of being admitted. But if you’re not, don’t put yourself in a position like that — keep it simple, do your research, and everything will be okay.