Early Decision: Multiple Applications and FinAid Considerations

Question: Is there a limit to how many schools you can apply to via Early Decision? If I get accepted to Columbia ED, but Yale gives me better financial aid in regular decision, can I take Yale's offer?

Certainly, this can be confounding stuff, so bear with us: The whole idea behind Early Decision (ED) is that a student applies to one college and signs a letter of commitment stating that he or she will attend if admitted. An ED application ups your chances of acceptance because colleges--to a great degree--are operating on the "bird in hand" theory. That is, they're accepting students who they know are sure-things, even though they may be tempted to see if someone better comes along in the spring. Therefore, your end of this bargain is to go if you get in.

Some colleges, as you probably know, have Early Action programs instead, and those are different. Under the terms of Early Action, you typically have until May 1 to decide where to enroll. However, different institutions have varying "rules" when it comes to EA. That is, some allow you to apply to other EA colleges; others insist that you file only one application with them. Likewise, some ED schools allow you to sent out other applications concurrent to your ED application, but you still have to enroll if accepted there ED. Thus, you cannot apply to more than one college under an ED plan.

If you apply to Columbia via Early Decision you must matriculate if admitted. There is, however, one loophole. A student who is asking for financial aid and is admitted to a college or university via ED but does not receive sufficient financial aid to attend may have to defer a decision until spring and possibly enroll at another institution. In such cases, if you do not accept an ED offer for financial reasons, your application is put back into the regular-decision pool, and there is no guarantee that you will be admitted in April. Similarly, you may not receive the same aid offer that you got as part of your ED acceptance.

While for some candidates, turning down an ED offer for financial reasons is a necessity, it is unethical to do it simply because you changed your mind or you want to accept a spot at another school.

Columbia's binding Early Decision program does not currently prevent applicants from submitting EA applications to other colleges, but you are nonetheless expected to attend Columbia if you are admitted both there and to an EA school. Yale's EA new policy, on the other hand, forbids Early Action applicants from applying elsewhere before receiving their EA verdict, even though an affirmative decision is not binding, and Yale EA aspirants can then try for other schools, if admitted EA to Yale. (Confusing, eh?)

Thus, you cannot apply early to both Columbia and Yale and compare aid offers, and you cannot get into Columbia ED and then still take a shot at Yale down the road, with the hope of garnering more dough.

You can, however, apply EA to Yale and, if accepted, apply to Columbia under a regular decision option and then wait until May 1 to make your final choice, if you're good enough (and lucky enough) to get into both places.