“I know I want to apply early, I just don’t know where.” Independent Admissions Consultants hate to hear those words. A rush to apply early means that the student understands there is an advantage to applying Early Decision, but may not understand the broader picture.
What is Early Decision (ED) and is it right for your child? Early Decision is a system in which high school seniors apply before traditional deadlines, typically in early November, to one and only one college. The answer arrives from the college in mid December. The decision is binding, and if accepted, the student is required to attend that college and must rescind all applications to other colleges. The student is finished with the application process and has nothing left to worry about except how to decorate the dorm room. Sounds simple and almost painless.
The controversy surrounding ED is anything but simple. Many counselors feel that moving this important decision to the fall of senior year deprives students of the time necessary to research and choose a college. Others feel that ED is a strategy that is used most often by students in the know. Translation: Wealthy students have access to information about early options that many public school students do not, especially at large urban public high schools. Some believe that the real advantage goes to the college and not the student. Colleges can use this opportunity to admit students who are less likely to require need-based financial aid and in general fill their classes with hand picked students who are guaranteed to say yes to their offer of admission.
In The Early Admissions Game, Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks and Richard Zeckhauser state that “Our central finding is that it is tremendously valuable to apply early. In some extreme cases, applying early appears to double or triple the chances of admission.” When students hear statements like this, they feel an enormous pressure to apply early. Somewhere. Anywhere. Picking a college in haste, of course, is not in most students’ best interest. Applying early seems like the right thing to do, and, it can be if the student has really done his homework. If a student has visited many colleges and found a great fit, academically as well as socially and emotionally, and he fits the profile of admitted students, then ED may be right. But this college clearly needs to be his first choice. The college he would attend even if he were accepted to 10 colleges. Not every high school senior is able to make this commitment in early November.
Are there students for whom ED is a bad strategy? Certainly. For students who are applying for financial aid, ED can be a gamble they can’t afford. The only ethical way a student can turn down an acceptance under Early Decision rules is if the college has not met the student’s demonstrated financial need. That sounds easy – they either do or do not offer enough money. If not, you move on to regular decision at another college. The gamble for the students who apply ED is that they are not able to compare financial aid packages from different colleges. Not all colleges will offer the same package; one college may offer more in grants (money not required to be repaid) and less in loans. Others may offer the entire package as loans. The difference here can amount to thousands of dollars over four years of college.
In addition to binding ED, some colleges offer Early Action (EA) and a few (including Yale) offer single choice early action. In EA, the student applies early and gets results early but doesn’t need to make a final decision until spring. Single choice early action is not binding, but like ED, you get one bite at the apple. The rules for applying for these programs differ from college to college. Before you decide that your best strategy is to apply EA to several colleges and ED to your top choice, you need to know the specific rules for those colleges or you might find yourself out of the game entirely.
Early Decision can boost your chances of acceptance to a college, but it is only a good strategy if it’s the right college. The one you would attend no matter where else you were accepted. And, to be that certain, you need to start your search early and be looking at colleges that you know will be the right fit.