Early Decision: Is it the right choice?


“I want to apply early, I just don’t know where.” As an independent admissions consultant, I often hear these words from my students.

What is Early Decision?

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. Sounds simple and almost painless.

However, the controversy that continues to surround Early Decision 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 Early Decision is a strategy that is used most by wealthier students.

In “The Early Admissions Game, Joining the Elite,” Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser state, “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 anyone’s best interest.

Advantages and disadvantages of Early Decision

“The Early Admissions Game, Joining the Elite” includes a large amount of data regarding early applications. According to the authors, “early admits make up slightly more than 20 percent of the entering class at the top universities and colleges that offer Early Decision.” (1999-2000*)

Today, more than a few colleges and universities fill about half of their class using binding Early Decision — a much higher percentage than in 1999-2000. For some very competitive colleges, this is all done with one round of Early Decision and other colleges offer two rounds of Early Decision. This results in lopsided admit rates. With such a large percentage of the class already filled, there are more students competing for fewer spaces during the regular decision round. A student’s chance of being admitted to one of these colleges is increased by applying Early Decision.

The advantages of applying Early Decision are clear: increasing your chance of admission at many colleges, getting the process over with, and if things work in your favor, having peace of mind early in senior year.

Additionally, some athletes are strongly encouraged to apply Early Decision to their top choice college. Coaches are only going to use their influence with admissions on those athletes who are fully committed.

But what do students give up by applying Early Decision? Students give up the luxury of changing their minds in the interim between November and May. Additionally, families give up the opportunity to compare need-based financial aid offers. It is unlikely that a student would get a different need-based financial aid offer later, but the family will have nothing to compare the offer to. A small number of colleges give their financial aid money to the student in the form of grants that do not have to be repaid. Most offer a combination of grants and loans.

My advice for both of these issues is that Early Decision may be a good choice if the student: 1) meets the academic profile of the college’s admitted students, 2) has visited a lot of colleges, and 3) has a clear first choice — the college he would attend if he got into every college on his list. And for families that qualify for need-based financial aid: be well-acquainted with how it works, know what the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be, and decide if you will be comfortable with only one offer. If not, don’t feel pressured to apply to college under a binding plan.

Can students get out of an Early Decision contract after being accepted?

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 full demonstrated financial need. However, it is very important that families understand that “meeting demonstrated need” is not the same as meeting the threshold a family is comfortable paying.

Early Decision is a contract and one that should only be signed with full understanding of the rules and obligations.

Students should keep in mind that the rules surrounding these early applications — Early Decision, Early Action, Restricted Early Action, and Single Choice Early Action — can change from year to year, even at the same college. Make sure you read and follow the rules that are in place for the year you are applying. And do not try and game the system or you may find yourself out of the game entirely.

* “The Early Admissions Game, Joining the Elite,” written by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser, pages 12, 64, and 348.

About the author

Janet Rosier, CEP, has been an independent admissions consultant since 2003. She is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). She also writes a blog, “Next Stop: College,” for the Hearst Newspapers in CT. Follow Janet on her website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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