Can an Early Decision Application Affect Merit Scholarships?

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Is it true that my daughter is less likely to get merit scholarships if she applies Early Decision (ED)? I know schools use merit money as a way to entice students to attend, and if we apply ED, we are bound to attend if we get in, so they would have no need to entice us. So should we avoid applying ED in the hopes that we get merit offers?

Many college officials insist that sure-thing Early Decision candidates are not jeopardized in the merit-money allocation process, but — given the lack of transparency in the admissions world — there's no way to know for sure. So if your daughter were my daughter, here's what I'd suggest:

IF she has her heart set on attending her Early Decision school and IF you feel that she may need the ED admissions-odd boost to get in, then I recommend forging ahead with the ED application.

BUT ... if you feel that she's a strong contender at this college (which she may be since you're talking merit bucks, which don't typically go to borderline candidates) or if she has several frontrunner colleges where her acceptance chances are solid, then you can hold off on ED and hope that a juicy merit scholarship will indeed serve as an enticement for her to enroll.

However, do heed this warning: If your daughter applies via Regular Decision, make sure that she sends loud-and-clear signals that this college is her first choice. Sometimes admission folks will wait-list candidates, even top ones, when their tea leaves tell them that the student won't matriculate.

Another warning: Your daughter should NOT apply via Early Decision if you are counting on a specific amount of merit aid to make the school affordable. When a student applies ED and also applies for need-based aid, it's permissible to bail out of the ED commitment if the aid package isn't adequate. But this is not the case with merit money. It isn't ethical to forego the ED commitment due to the expectation of a merit grant that doesn't come through.

So the waters may be muddy for you here, but hopefully you and your daughter can navigate them together and decide on a plan that works for all of you. Good luck!

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at

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