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by Mike Chen | July 31, 2007

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Early Decision

Today, we'll discuss one of the more unique and confusing admissions processes: Early Decision.  In an upcoming blog, we'll discuss its close cousin, Early Action.

Early Decision: Making a committment

Through the Early Decision process, you can make a commitment to one business school - your top choice - and if admitted, you must guarantee your decision to go to that school.  In order to be admitted under this scheme, you have to adhere to deadlines which are earlier than the deadlines for traditional rounds or rolling admissions.  Hence, not surprisingly, applying under Early Decision requires you to make an early decision.

Here is the usual party line from business schools regarding Early Decision in an informal format:

If you are admitted through the Early Decision process, you will be required to post a deposit, typically in the range of several thousand U.S. dollars, in order to secure your spot.  Once you pay this deposit, you can sit back and relax that you will be going to a top business school.  This security will enable you to not have to continue with the application process.

Of course, upon learning about Early Decision, most business school applicants have many questions which most admissions officers are (understandably) uncomfortable answering.  Some of them are:

  • After I am admitted to a business school via Early Decision, am I truly obligated to attend that school?
  • Am I free to apply to other business schools even if I have accepted an Early Decision offer?
  • Will I get in trouble if I get admitted to another business school during the regular application window, accept that school's offer, and then renege on my commitment?

Let's be clear about what Early Decision is and what it isn't.  An Early Decision admissions offer is an understanding between a business school and an applicant: the business school offers early admission and, in turn, receives money and a commitment to attend from the applicant.

Early Decision is not a contract, nor is it legally enforcable.

Given these terse statements, let's go through the above questions:

Q: After I am admitted to a business school via Early Decision, am I truly obligated to attend that school?

A: No, you are legally obligated to attend that school.  From a 'moral' perstpective however, you are obligated to attend, unless extenuating circumstances such as a debilitating illness prevent you from attending school altogether.

Q: Am I free to apply to other business schools even if I have accepted an Early Decision offer?

A: No, you are not supposed to apply to other schools.  You should only apply to a school during the Early Decision round if it is truly your top choice school.  Of course, there is nothing stopping you from applying to other business schools.  In general, business schools do not share information among each other about common applicants.  Thus, you are likely free - at least legally - to apply to any other business schools and, for that matter, non-MBA programs such as a Masters in Financial Engineering, as well.

Q: Will I get in trouble if I get admitted to another business school during the regular application window, accept that school's offer, and then renege on my acceptance of the Early Decision offer?

A: It is not likely that you will not get in trouble with any law enforcement authorities or lawyers.  Your biggest pain will be the smaller size of your wallet given that you will be surrenduring your non-refundable deposit.

Early Decision: What's in it for the schools?

OK, given that applicants can really screw up a business school's admissions by abusing the Early Decision process, why do the schools offer Early  Decision in the first place?

First, business school admissions committees care very much about, and some would even say are obsessed with, yield.  Yield is simply the percentage of students who are given an admissions offer that eventually accept that offer.  Applicants who apply under Early Decision clearly show great interest in a school.  In theory, a school should have a 100% yield for all applicants accepted under Early Decision.

(In practice, the actual yield is not 100% because some applicants who are accepted under Early Decision later renege - exactly the topic we are discussing.)

Second, filling spots via Early Decision (and Early Action as we will discuss later) applicants provides admissions committees with a more accurate count of the number of spaces available earlier during the applications season.  The result is that admissions committees will have a better chance of hitting the targeted number of students accepted for the incoming class. 

Third, a business school applicant who renegs on an Early Decision offer will pay a heavy price, literally.  If you accept an Early Decision offer and pay the not-refundable deposit, you will not get that money back, period.  While the school must deal with the negative consequences of an applicant reneging on an Early Decision admissions offer, at the very least it will be richer by a few thousand dollars.

Preview of Coming Attractions

Next time, we'll talk about Early Action and discuss its similarities and differences to Early Decision.  We'll then go over whether you should be using these two admissions processes, and if so, what to do to maximize your chances of  admission.

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