What Happens if You Back Out of Early Decision?

Early Decision is binding, which means if you applied and were accepted, you are obligated to attend. But can you get out of Early Decision? The short answer is, “Yes, you can get out of Early Decision.” However, it’s not easy to do and there could be penalties for doing so. Understanding the contract you agreed to and the steps available to you can give you the best route for rethinking your college decision.

No U Turn signage with sad face above it.

Flickr user Kevin Dooley

What is Early Decision?

Early Decision is an early application and acceptance cycle at colleges for interested students. Applications are usually due on November 1st or November 15th, with answers being sent from the school by mid-December. However, this application is a contract and is binding. This means if you apply under Early Decision and are accepted to the school, you are required to attend the following fall. You should not apply to multiple schools under Early Decision as this can result in one or both schools revoking your acceptance letters if you are caught.

Some schools also have an Early Decision II (EDII) with applications due on January 1st and responses coming in mid-February.

What Are the Benefits of Applying Under Early Decision?

Applying under Early Decision is a serious action as you are technically agreeing to attend the school if you are accepted, but there are benefits to applying under this type of application cycle. For example, you could:

  • Get your applications out of the way and relax for the rest of the senior year.
  • Get an answer early and potentially relieve the stress of waiting for acceptance letters in the fall.
  • Show the school you’re serious about attending and increase your chances of an acceptance letter.

Can You Get Out of Early Decision?

Yes, you can get out of Early Decision and you technically don’t even need a good excuse. While the contract is binding, it is not a legal one and you are not forced to attend the college or university if you truly don’t want to. However, if you don’t have a good reason for backing out of the Early Decision contract, you could be hit with some serious consequences and penalties.

What is the Penalty for Backing Out of Early Decision?

Since Early Decision is considered a contract, what happens if you discover you can’t or don’t want to attend after you receive your acceptance letter? The answer really depends on your situation. Here are things that might happen if you back out early decision.

1. Nothing, If You Back Out With Good Reason

Yes, early decision is binding. However, if you have a good reason for backing out of an early decision offer from a college, the school will often let you leave without penalty. A common reason for being released from the offer is due to finances. Sometimes a student won’t receive the financial aid package or grants they need and therefore can’t afford to attend the school.

However, it’s important to note that you should try to have your finances figured out ahead of time. Completing your FAFSA as soon as possible can help increase your chances of getting institutional grants or aid from the college in question. Even though these schools will generally allow you to back out of the agreement for financial reasons, that is not the case every time!

Other excuses considered a “good reason” include a sick parent or family member, a serious health issue, an accident, or something similar.

2. There May Be Consequences If You Don’t Have “Good” Reason

Each school is different in how they view the Early Decision, but students should understand that it is binding. Failing to have a “good” reason can result in some consequences. “Bad” reasons can include you simply don’t like the school anymore or you received an acceptance letter to another college you want to attend.

Some colleges understand and let you off the hook if you say, “I’m sorry but, after some reflection, this college is not the one for me.” However, this is not always the norm.

Early Decision is also an honor-bound agreement and not a legal document. You do sign an agreement stating that you will attend the school if you are accepted. So there are some consequences you could face if you don’t have one of the good reasons listed above. Backing out of Early Decision without a solid excuse could result in the loss of any deposits you’ve already paid. Other colleges could also withdraw their letters of acceptance if your original Early Decision school shares information with them.

3. The College Contacts Your High School

Your high school is often part of the Early Decision application process and they have signed off on your application. You backing out could jeopardize future students’ Early Decision chances if they apply to the same college. In some cases, your high school counselor may turn around and tell the other colleges you’re applying to, hurting your acceptance chances at the other schools.

It’s important to note that some high schools won’t even send your transcript or other information to any colleges after you’ve already applied under Early Decision to one school and received an acceptance letter. As a result, you may find it impossible to apply to any other colleges in January.

4. Colleges Rescind Offers If You Applied in Bad Faith or to Two or More Schools

You should only apply to a single school under Early Decision. If you apply for two and are accepted to both, you can run into a problem – you gave both your word you will attend! You’ll have to back out of one. However, if you decline one and the college finds out about your other Early Decision application, you may find your offer is rescinded from both schools.

5. Colleges Share Lists

In the same vein, many colleges share “lists” of the students applying under Early Decision with one another. Did you apply to two schools under early decision that talk to one another? Most likely, neither college will accept you. Guidance counselors, alumni, and even classmates are within their right to tip off college application departments, too.

6. You could lose Your Deposit

Some schools actually require a deposit with your Early Decision application. You probably won’t be getting this returned if you back out of an early decision offer without a reason the school considers a good one. You want to be absolutely sure this is the school for you.

What Should You Do If You Can No Longer Attend Your Early Decision School?

If you find you have to back out of Early Decision, you need to do two things:

1. Contact the School

If you need to back out of your Early Decision school, you should plan to get in contact with the college’s admissions department as soon as possible. The sooner you let them know, the more able they will be to work with you. They will direct you to the next steps. Without a good excuse, it is likely any deposits or payments you’ve made so far will be forfeited, however.

Do not simply back out of Early Decision without notifying the college. If you do this, you could be on the hook for your first semester’s college expenses including tuition, fees, room and board, and more. It’s also not fair to other students who may have hoped to attend as you technically took their spot by failing to notify the college of your intention not to attend.

2. Apply to Other Colleges

Of course, if you’re still planning to attend college in the fall, you’re going to need to apply to other schools.

If it is still early in the application cycle, take this time to apply to additional colleges under the Regular Decision application process. Most colleges and universities have an application deadline of January 1st, so if you made the decision to back out of Early Decision sooner rather than later, you likely still have time.

However, it is important to note that colleges can share the fact you backed out of Early Decision with other schools, and you want to be sure you cast a wide net to give yourself options in the event this information is shared with another school on your list. If you backed out without a solid reason, you could find schools withdraw existing acceptance letters or you could receive a rejection letter as a result.

What If You Are Past the Regular Decision Deadline

If it is past the Regular Decision deadline of January 1st, you still have options. There are many schools that offer rolling admissions which accept applications until the class is full – spots can remain up to and even past the first day of class. Students can also take a gap year or choose to attend community college.

Backing out of an Early Decision offer could have consequences for your future. If you are considering backing out of Early Decision, it helps to do your research so you know what happens at the college you are considering. But remember, this is also an honor-bound agreement. Don’t apply for Early Decision lightheartedly.

Pro Tip: only apply to schools under this application cycle if you’re absolutely sure this is your dream school.

If you’re thinking about applying to a school under Early Decision, it helps to know your admission chances! Our College Match tool helps you identify the best colleges for you while also letting you know what they look for in an applicant and how likely you are to get an acceptance letter.