6 Things to Consider When Making a Decision to Apply Early for College

Posted September 17, 2013 by
Someone filling out a college application

Someone filling out a college application. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

It is wise for prospective college students to apply early for college.  In the process of doing so, they should consider six things, according to the following post.

Meet Lisa, a rising high school senior. Bright, creative, and poised, Lisa has a good academic record and a full résumé that make her a potentially strong college applicant. Lisa has visited a few colleges and likes them all, but has no strong preference at this point. Still, she knows that these colleges allow students to apply Early Decision (or ED)—in other words, submit an application by November 1 or November 15 in exchange for a binding decision from the college by December 15. Lisa wonders if she should do more research, then send an Early Decision application to the school she thinks might be the best fit. She has heard that applying early might increase her odds of being accepted; plus, it would be a huge relief to have her college plans settled so early in the school year.

Perhaps you, like Lisa, are considering applying Early Decision to a certain college. This daunting decision—which can affect the next four years of your life and beyond—is a major one. Fortunately, you don’t have to make it on your own. Admission Matters is here with valuable insights and information to help you make an informed choice.

“As the director of college counseling at a high school, I confront the Early Decision issue dozens of times a year with my students,” says Jon Reider, coauthor along with Sally Springer and Joyce Vining Morgan of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, 3rd Edition. “Being admitted early to a top-choice college is a dream come true for many students. And while applying Early Decision is becoming increasingly popular, it isn’t right for everyone. That’s why it’s important to do your homework about the process and what it might mean for you.”

Here, Reider and his colleagues share six things you should know about applying to college as an Early Decision candidate:

Applying early can give you an edge… You may have heard rumors that Early Decision candidates have an edge over their regular decision counterparts. In some cases, those rumors are based on fact. If you are applying to a private college (or, in some cases, to a selective public university), applying early may make a great deal of difference in the outcome of your application.

“Why? Very simply, colleges like competitive students (i.e., those with strong academic credentials) who like them and who are willing to commit to being members of the incoming freshman class,” Reider shares. “To a large extent, Early Decision (and to a lesser extent, Early Action) are marketing strategies designed to reward a particular college’s most eager and loyal customers. Colleges want to lock in a certain proportion of the next year’s incoming class before other schools get a chance to snap them up.

“In fact, one college admissions dean I know used to defend his school’s early program as necessary because all his colleagues were ‘pirates,’ ready to swoop down on his hard-earned treasure,” Reider recounts. “Giving early applicants an edge is, in other words, a competitive measure, designed to entice attractive applicants and keep them loyal. From an admissions officer’s perspective, it’s disappointing when a great student you’ve admitted sends his or her deposit somewhere else.”

…but that’s not always the case. While applying Early Decision will give you an edge at some schools, that’s not universally true. Some private schools like Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., rigorously resist giving any noticeable preference to their early applicants. (And some schools, including most state universities and the University of Southern California, one of the most popular private schools in the country, do not use an early plan at all.)

“Furthermore, since it is fairly common knowledge that the percentage of students accepted via Early Decision is usually higher than the percentage accepted during the regular cycle, the number of ED applications has gone up dramatically over the last 15 years,” says Vining Morgan. “At many schools, the number of ED applications has increased at a faster rate than the number of applications overall. Here’s the takeaway: As more and more students apply early, the acceptance ‘differential’ at these institutions is getting smaller.

“Overall, though, applying ED and not experiencing a boost in your acceptance odds is still the exception, not the rule,” she assures. “All schools state that they use the same criteria in evaluating early and regular applicants, and, while that is generally true, they often underplay the differences between their higher early admit rate and their lower regular one. On the other hand, if you need to boost your GPA or scores in the fall, you are probably not ready to apply early no matter what the perceived advantage.”

Early Decision and Early Action are not the same thing. An important part of applying to college is simply learning the lingo that accompanies pamphlets, college visits, and, of course, applications. While they may sound similar, applying Early Decision and Early Action (EA) differ in one very important way: Early Decision is binding (i.e., the applicant agrees to enroll if accepted) whereas Early Action is not.

“Early Action is similar to Early Decision in terms of timing, but it is not binding and doesn’t give an applicant’s odds of being accepted the same degree of ‘boost,’” explains Springer. “If you are highly interested in a particular school but want to keep your options open until May 1, Early Action is a good compromise between Early Decision and regular decision, assuming the college you’re considering offers all three options.

“Also, keep in mind that most Early Action programs allow you to apply EA to other schools while also submitting one Early Decision application,” she adds. “Combining these two types of applications—or even applying Early Action to all of the schools you like most—can enable you to finalize your college plans by mid-December. However, you should be aware that some schools offer only Single-choice Early Action, which does not commit you to attend if accepted, but does restrict you from applying EA and/or ED to other colleges.”

Applying early isn’t a magic bullet. Yes, applying early can give your application a boost as it’s making its way around an admissions committee. But don’t place too much weight on this possibility and overplay your hand. Reider shares that the biggest mistake he sees students making is aspiring too high and applying early to a more selective school than the student’s record warrants, simply in hopes that applying early will make the difference, while neglecting to apply to other, safer options.

“This is especially true with the most selective Early Action schools that employ Single-choice Early Action and that have admit rates of less than 10 percent,” he says. “By applying to a school that uses Single-choice Early Action, a student gives up the chance to apply Early Decision to a binding school where applying early would probably make more of a difference.

“I point to the story of a student we’ll call Brandy to illustrate how you can use a potential ‘early-application edge’ in a calculated, intelligent way,” Reider continues. “Brandy wanted to apply to a highly selective school where she was a legacy. But in my opinion, she had little chance of being admitted—the competition was just too strong. However, I told Brandy if she applied Early Decision to a similar but less selective school, she would have a better chance of getting in. That is exactly what Brandy did. She was accepted at the second school and is very happy there. I’m glad that Brandy was open-minded and rational enough to understand that there are many good schools where she would be happy—and I hope the same is true for you.”

Early Decision and financial aid are not mutually exclusive. In the past, applicants who needed financial aid to attend a particular institution were discouraged from applying Early Decision. If you were accepted but didn’t receive an adequate financial aid package, the thinking went, you’d be up the creek with a too-small paddle. Plus, waiting to hear back from all of the schools you were interested in allowed you to compare all of the financial aid packages you were offered in the spring.

“Fortunately, the need to steer clear of Early Decision because of financial concerns is lessening,” Vining Morgan asserts. “These days, Early Decision colleges will do their level best to offer you a financial aid package aimed at meeting your needs so that it’s possible for you to enroll. True, you will never know what another school might have offered you later, but the Early Decision package you do receive is likely to be a good one. And if the package doesn’t work for you and the college can’t increase it, that becomes grounds for declining the Early Decision offer. Common sense would dictate not withdrawing any other applications you’ve initiated until after you accept the Early Decision financial aid package. If you’re concerned, speak to the school’s financial aid office before applying. While it’s not a guarantee, you’ll often be able to receive a ballpark figure of how much aid you might get if you’re accepted.”

Organization is the name of the game. After learning about how Early Decision and Early Action work, you might initially be more than a little confused. And reading the individual application requirements of the school(s) in which you’re interested can make you feel even more befuddled and overwhelmed.

“That’s why we can’t overstate the importance of staying organized, especially if you’re sending in early applications to multiple schools,” says Springer. “Be sure you understand each school’s requirements, rules, and deadlines and stay on top of them. Don’t assume that because you understand the process for one school, applying to others will be similar. That may not be the case. Keep a running to-do list, and above all, make sure deadlines are clearly marked on your calendar.”

“So, given all of this information, let’s return to the example of Lisa,” says Reider. “Should she try to apply Early Decision or not? If she were my student, here is how I would present her options in our initial meeting:

“First and foremost, Lisa has to think seriously about what is most important to her. Is she willing to risk a lower chance of admission to a college that is very attractive to her because she is uncomfortable making a commitment before she is ready? Again, applying Early Decision certainly does not guarantee that Lisa will be admitted to any given school, but it can increase her chances if she is otherwise qualified. However, it does require Lisa to choose one school and agree to a binding commitment if admitted (the only exception is if the school does not meet her financial need).

“Of course Lisa does not have to apply early,” Reider points out. “Colleges still accept many students in the regular round. There will always be room. She doesn’t have to get caught up in the frenzy of making a premature first choice. And, of course, Lisa can send in Early Action applications to one or more schools, where allowed. By going this route, Lisa can keep her options open until May 1, as long as she realizes that she may be passing up the advantage that might have accompanied a single Early Decision application. But if Lisa is having trouble making up her mind, that would be okay since she wouldn’t be giving up something that she values highly. I would never advise a student to apply Early Decision to a school that wasn’t his or her top choice and/or a suitable place for him or her.

“As you make your own decisions, remember that it’s most important to be comfortable with yourself and your decisions and not feel pressured by someone else’s values,” Reider concludes. “Applying Early Decision (and to a lesser extent, Early Action) can be a valuable tool, both in terms of your chances of being admitted and your peace of mind throughout your senior year of high school—but only if you have a clear idea of where you’d like to spend your four years of college.”

Sally P. Springer is the coauthor of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, 3rd Edition. She is the associate chancellor emerita at the University of California, Davis, and is a psychologist with 30+ years of experience in higher education as a professor and university administrator. She is the coauthor of Left Brain, Right Brain (published by W. H. Freeman, 1998), which was honored by the American Psychological Foundation for contributing to the public’s understanding of psychology. It has been translated into seven languages and appeared in five editions. Her second book, How to Succeed in College (Crisp Publications, 1992), is a guidebook for college freshmen. Dr. Springer received her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Brooklyn College and her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. She has served on the faculty of both SUNY Stony Brook and UC Davis. She has been a volunteer admissions reader for the Davis campus and is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Western Association for College Admission Counseling. For the last five years, she has provided one-on-one college admissions guidance to families as an educational consultant through Springer Educational Consulting. She is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and serves as a member of its Education and Training Committee. She has personally taken the college admissions journey twice with her son and her daughter.

Jon Reider is the coauthor of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, 3rd Edition. He is the director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, an independent 9-12 high school. Before that, he served as an admission officer at Stanford University for 15 years, rising to the post of senior associate director of admission. He has two degrees in history, including a Ph.D. from Stanford, and taught there in a freshman humanities program for 25 years, for which he won a university-wide teaching award. Previously, he was a Marshall Scholar at the University of Sussex in England and taught sociology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has also taught in the College Counseling Certificate Program at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a nationally known speaker and essayist in the admission profession and is widely cited in the media for his candid opinions and willingness to speak hard truths. He is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and has served as the chair of its Committee on Current Trends and Future Issues.

Joyce Vining Morgan is the coauthor of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, 3rd Edition. She is a certified educational planner specializing in college admission with an online individualized practice. She has over 17 years of experience in college admissions, including service as director of college counseling at The Putney School in Vermont and as vice-president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling. Earlier in her career she wrote and translated books and articles on Russian theater history and taught in several disciplines (Russian language and literature, French language, humanities, and English) in a variety of public and private schools and colleges, including Phillips Exeter Academy, the Exeter AREA Junior and Senior High Schools, the American Embassy School of New Delhi, Vassar College, and the University of New Hampshire. She was named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year in 1994. She has coordinated and led student exchanges to Russia, France, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan and was herself an exchange student twice in the USSR. She holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature from Yale University and a B.A. in Russian from Manhattanville College, and is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and the Higher Education Consultants Association, and an associate member of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling. As a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, she has served on its Committee on Current Trends and Future Issues and its Ad Hoc Committee on Standardized Testing.

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