You thought you’d found your dream school and you decided to apply early decision (ED).

The news of your acceptance initially brought joy and relief, but you suddenly find yourself questioning your choice.

With the promise of higher acceptance rates — early decision acceptance rates are about 17% higher than regular decision rates — and the possibility of cutting short the sometimes excruciating college decision process, it’s no wonder you applied early. But now that you’ve committed to this school, what can you do if you have a change of heart?

“Filing early decision is more morally and ethically binding than legally binding.”

– Jack Wang

How Binding Is Early Decision, Really?

Not to be confused with early action, which doesn’t require the student to commit, ED is an agreement that the student will attend a school if admitted and withdraw any other applications.

“Filing early decision is more morally and ethically binding than legally binding,” explains Jack Wang, CEO and financial aid consultant at Longhorn Financial. “No school has been known to ‘go after’ a family legally.”

Still, schools do not look kindly on students who have a change of heart. “[Students] entered into a contract stating if the school admits them, they will come. They knew the ramifications, and the school accepted them under the premise that they would attend,” says Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling.  

One note: If a student changes their mind before ED admissions decisions are made and opts to change to regular decision, that is allowed, says Kopp Weingarten.

What Happens If You Back Out?

Even without legal ramifications, bowing out of an ED acceptance can hurt your chances of acceptance elsewhere. Andrew Belasco, PhD, CEO of College Transitions, points out that there are groups of colleges that share lists of early decision acceptances. “If a student backs out of an agreement and attempts to apply to a college within this group, it is very unlikely that they will be admitted,” he says. And if you think you can apply ED to more than one school so you have options, don’t risk it. If word gets out, you can end up losing all admission offers.

Belasco notes that pulling out of such an agreement doesn’t just reflect poorly on you, it can also put your high school in a difficult position. Ripples of your decision may be felt for some time as students in subsequent years could have a tough time gaining acceptance to a college once that school feels it has been snubbed. “It’s important to keep in mind that the decision to back out has effects not only on the student but on the high school as well,” explains Belasco. “Many school counselors have worked hard to establish a collaborative and trusting relationship with colleges and having a student who breaks an ED agreement can do significant damage to that relationship.”

Chris Ajemian, founder and CEO of CATES Tutoring, says that one of his students was recently the first from his school in eight years to be admitted to a particular top 10 university. “Why had it been so long? Although we cannot say with complete certainty, we do know that a former student from the school had rescinded on their ED commitment. And from what we could gather, this single student had impacted the chances for both early and regular decision candidates for almost a decade,” says Ajemian. 

He also notes that backpedaling on an ED agreement for undergrad admission will likely blacklist you from that institution in the future, even for graduate school years down the line.

What If Something Unforeseen Happens?

In the 25 years that Nancy Beane, retired associate director of college counseling at the Westminster Schools and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, was a college counselor, she has only encountered a handful of students who have pulled out of an ED agreement. In these rare cases, finances were the driving factor.

Of course, life happens and sometimes your situation changes so drastically that this once-clear decision may no longer be feasible. Issues that might impact your acceptance could include a parent losing a job, sudden health issues for you or an immediate family member, or a natural disaster wreaking havoc on your home. “In my experience, colleges aren’t going to hold that against a family,” says Beane. “They’re reasonable.”

In these situations, Beane recommends immediately sharing your concerns with the college admissions office and your high school counselor who can advise you on next steps and possibly even handle speaking with the college in question. “In my work with countless colleges across the country, I’ve found them to be very fair about things like this,” she says.

When families are faced with unforeseen financial difficulties, colleges will often try their best to help them find more money to put toward school. If, even after talking with the school, you still can’t swing tuition, Myers says that you can “request a release from the institution, and typically the institution will honor that request.” But, as Belasco points out, “there is a difference between not being able and not being willing to pay.” That’s why colleges will likely ask for documentation to support a student’s claim of financial difficulty.

“Some colleges may opt to allow students to break their ED contracts.”

– Robert Farrington

What About COVID-19? 

There are unforeseen circumstances for individual students, and then there is a global pandemic. COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of life, early decision admissions included. 

Wang says that at the start of the pandemic, most schools tried to work with families who committed to ED and then encountered financial or health problems related to COVID-19. The number of these requests, he adds, was overwhelming. “Anecdotally I heard through contacts that schools received 10 to 20 times the normal appeal volume,” shares Wang. In addition, many college employees couldn’t access school files while working from home, which delayed response times. 

As for withdrawing from ED admissions due to COVID-19 in the future, Robert Farrington, creator of The College Investor, notes that might not even be a consideration for some students. He predicts that some schools will stop offering ED for the duration of the pandemic. For those schools maintaining ED admissions, he foresees more flexibility in policies for those directly impacted by the pandemic. “Some colleges may opt to allow students to break their ED contracts. Or, they may allow a deferment of enrollment, or at least a change of deposit deadlines. However, this [remains] to be seen,” Farrington says. 

What’s Next?

If you’ve pulled out of the early decision agreement and were released from your commitment by the institution, then you are free to carry on with the college process, assuming you have other applications in the works.

But if there are no major life events and you’re just having second thoughts, take some time to consider your options. You could attend your ED school and apply to transfer for your sophomore year. 

Alternately, you may opt to take a gap year to work or travel and reassess your ED school with greater perspective. If, even after a gap year, you decide your ED school isn’t for you, you can reapply to colleges the following year. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to explain your course of action on your second round of applications. 

Whatever factors prompt you to reconsider your early decision acceptance, it’s important to approach this situation with caution and open communication. Talk to your family and high school counselor about your concerns and consider all of the factors before making a decision.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2020.