You thought you’d found your dream school and in turn, you decided to apply early decision.

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

With the promise of higher acceptance rates — averaging 68 percent early decision versus 51 percent regular decision — 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?

“I’ve never seen a college take legal action against a student who changed their mind.”

How Binding Is Early Decision, Really?

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

“Early decision is not legally binding, and I’ve never seen a college take legal action against a student who changed their mind,” says J. Scott Myers, director of undergraduate admission at Moravian College. “However, it is a matter of honor and reputation.”

What Happens If You Back Out?

Even without legal ramifications, bowing out of an early decision acceptance can hurt your chances of acceptance elsewhere. Andrew Belasco, Ph.D., 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 early decision to more than one school so you have options, don’t risk it. If word gets out, then you can end up losing both 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.”

“In my work with countless colleges across the country, I’ve found them to be very fair about things like this.”

What If Something Unforeseen Happens?

In the 25 years that Nancy Beane, associate director of college counseling at the Westminster Schools and former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has been a college counselor, she has only encountered a handful of students who have pulled out of an early decision 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 seem 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 when students make this claim, the college will likely ask for financial documentation to prove it.

What’s Next?

If you’ve pulled out of the early decision agreement and cleared it with 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. “It might be in your best interest to attend for a year and try to transfer somewhere else for your sophomore year,” says Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise. Alternately, you may opt to take a gap year to work or travel and 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. “[Backing out of an early decision agreement] will raise a red flag to other institutions and may prevent them from taking a chance on that student,” Cohen adds.

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 your college counselor about your concerns and consider all of the factors before making a decision.